Smart phones for college students

Take-over by the tech companies

Look at all of these hard-working students. Not a Facebook page in sight!

The editorial “Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?” by Michael Hiltzik (Feb 2012, Los Angeles Times) was a pull-no-punches examination of the push for educational technology by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. This quote should give you a flavor of his beliefs:

There’s certainly an important role for technology in the classroom. And the U.S. won’t benefit if students in poor neighborhoods fall further behind their middle-class or affluent peers in access to broadband Internet connectivity or computers. But mindless servility to technology for its own sake, which is what Duncan and Genachowski are promoting on behalf of self-interested companies like Apple, will make things worse, not better.

That’s because it distracts from and sucks money away from the most important goal, which is maintaining good teaching practices and employing good teachers in the classroom. What’s scary about the recent presentation by Duncan and Genachowski is that it shows that for all their supposed experience and expertise, they’ve bought snake oil. They’re simply trying to rebottle it for us as the elixir of the gods.

And here’s another one:

Many would-be educational innovators treat technology as an end-all and be-all, making no effort to figure out how to integrate it into the classroom. “Computers, in and of themselves, do very little to aid learning,” Gavriel Salomon of the University of Haifa and David Perkins of Harvard observed in 1996. Placing them in the classroom “does not automatically inspire teachers to rethink their teaching or students to adopt new modes of learning.”

So he clearly thinks that this whole move towards educational technologies is primarily driven by the underlying goal of profits for the technology companies themselves, as opposed to the improvement of education.

The Seton Hall smartphone story

Seton Hall University

I recently read his article (which I highly suggest you do) and then came across another piece of news in the article “Smartphones at school: Seton Hall to give freshman class free phones in new program” by Kelly Hayboer (June 2012, The Star-Ledger). She reports that, in addition to the laptop that Seton Hall is continuing to give to its incoming freshmen, the university is now going to give away Nokia Lumia 900 (a Windows smartphone). David Pogue recently wrote a positive review of the Nokia Lumia 900 (April 2012, NYTimes), so the problem certainly isn’t with the phone itself.

The usual suspects


Things smell a little fishy once you begin to look at the companies involved. For example, after reading “Nokia plans 10,000 layoffs, cuts second-quarter outlook” by Don Reisinger (June 2012, C|Net), it becomes clear (if it wasn’t already) that Nokia is in serious financial trouble. Also, “Nokia is now the world’s second-largest cell phone company, ending a 14-year run at the top.” Nokia is clearly desperate for marketshare at essentially any cost.


As for Microsoft, their Windows mobile operating system (now called Windows Phone), is perennially underachieving and failing to capture marketshare. This hasn’t kept analysts from showing them the love year after year. For example (as reported in this article, but it’s everywhere on the Web), just recently IDC predicted that, although they currently have only 5.2% of the market and Apple has 20.5%, Windows Phone will surpass iOS’s market share by 2016. This doesn’t change the fact that they are still at 5.2% after over a decade of effort.

So what are the specifics of the Seton Hall give-away? According to the article:

The phones…come with a free AT&T calling plan with 300 voice minutes a month and unlimited data and domestic text messaging through December.

After December, students will be offered discounted AT&T calling plans if they want to continue using the phones to make calls and text, campus officials said. If not, they will still keep the phones and use them in class for projects, video conferencing and to connect to the campus wifi network. They must return the phones if they drop out of college.”

This doesn’t surprise me at all. The phone only retails for $99 right now, so giving the phone away (even if Seton Hall isn’t footing the bill) for the prospect of getting a certain percentage of the 1400 students to pick up the approximately $30/month data plan beginning in January seems like a reasonable plan from a business perspective.

Seton Hall’s motivation

But what about the college’s perspective? This was the most intriguing quote that I came across:

Seton Hall officials said they realize most students already have cell phones for personal use. But giving everyone equal access to the same smartphone means every student, no matter their income, can learn on the same device.

What a strange perspective! “[E]very student…can learn on the same device.” And this is good or interesting or useful…how? It would be one thing if the device in question was ubiquitous, but we’re talking about a Nokia/Windows phone device, so that’s certainly not the case.

It is a new standards-based, open, & interoperable world that we live in — the Web, Facebook app API, twitter messages, email, PDF, HTML5, PNG, MPEG4. We expect to be able to send messages and files between any devices, and to work with them on the same way on different devices. If some application isn’t available on multiple devices, then in some way it isn’t that important yet. This isn’t the old world of Microsoft Windows hegemony. As important as Apple’s iOS is, it only has 20% of the market while Android (in all its various shapes and colors and flavors) has over 60%. No one should be specializing any curriculum for any mobile device.

Maybe, somehow, SHU officials (and the supportive and encouraging Microsoft and Nokia executives behind all this) believe that faculty, knowing that every student will now (finally!) have smart phones available to them, will make sweeping changes to their classes that take advantage of the specific advantages that this phone provides.

There are so many things wrong with this line of thinking. I will try to keep my thoughts limited to a few:

  • Faculty only rarely update their classes, and certainly not for some particular technology. If they do, it will take years and, by then, the technology will have changed.
  • Faculty have spent the last 5-10 years fighting the onslaught of cell phones into their classes. Why would they somehow get excited to know that they all have school-supplied cell phones in their backpacks? (Or, more likely, hidden under their desks.)
  • Are they having a “If you build it, [they] will come” moment? Do they think that it’s a good idea to invest in a technology and then figure out what to do with it? Are you kidding me? This is what happens when people who have no understanding of faculty or technology are running the show — or when administrators let technology companies take over leadership, as Hiltzik believes.


Universities should support a BYOD (or BYOT) policy. As Forrester recently stated, BYOD is coming with or without IT: “IT managers concerned over the challenges BYOD presents may actually face greater concerns by ignoring BYOD than by implementing solutions to support the trend.” Some school districts are already supporting such a policy. This is in the context of a recent survey of college students that found that “40% cannot go more than 10 minutes without using some sort of digital technology and 67% cannot go more than an hour.”

Faculty should, for their own employability, begin to figure out how to live in such a world. If students have cell phones (smart or not, even though that distinction is beginning to lose its meaning), then professors should learn to figure out how to use them if they help students achieve the learning outcomes for the class. I am sure that these learning outcomes won’t rely in any way on the availability of a specific phone.

Also, think about the device in the context of the student’t life! Would they want another device to carry around just for school? I think not. Let them use their own smart phone. The classroom application of the cell phone that a faculty member would be interested in coming up with would be generally available across multiple cell phone platforms (via HTML5, MPEG4, or similar technologies). A student should be able to access the content on whatever device they have with them, whether it be a Windows Phone, an iPad, or a Samsung laptop. If some student doesn’t have a cell phone, then get an agreement with some providers (not all, but some) to provide the phones at a discount. If some phone would be helpful in a class, then the student could consider buying the discounted phone or some other phone if he/she thinks it would serve his/her purposes better.

Think about your students. Think about the faculty. Be able to describe what you want from the technology, no matter who is providing it. And then go to the technology companies with a proposal. If they can’t help you, then wait — at some point some company will be in some situation in which they’re in a weaker bargaining position and will come to some agreement that is acceptable to both parties. But, the key idea is have a plan before you go looking for a partner. Or you might end up in a situation that benefits them but not you.

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