Students and their phones_ sometimes appearances can deceive _ Capitol Technology University

Students and their phones: sometimes appearances can deceive

By Sandy Antunes

Look — our students are busy staring at their phones again. We’re at NASA about to launch a rocket and they’re fiddling with those devices. Typical Post-Millennials, am I right?  Oh, wait, it’s not what I thought — they’re actually using their smartphones to connect to their NASA sounding rocket payload that’s currently halfway through its 12 minute flight to get live data about the ionosphere!

Perhaps they are the exception, though. Let’s see what other students are doing.  Aha!  Here’s a group in a class about drones, and they’re supposed to be working as a team to figure out how to drive an R/C car around a corner remotely, without being able to see it.  Look at the diligent Team A, making a map and doing practice runs to get their timing right, then look at Team B — hardly putting in any effort at all. Instead, they’re just playing with their phones.

But wait a minute. Actually, Team B figured out they could duct-tape one phone to the R/C car, log it into Google Hangouts and enable video, then use a different phone (also logged in) to get a remote view of what the car sees.  With a cheap smartphone and a $5 R/C car, they just made a quick remote operated video surveillance drone.  In fact, the phone can transmit video over a longer range the car’s actual control unit.

As a teacher, I see students on their phones in class all the time.  Some have pre-loaded the lecture slides so they can flip ahead or back as I’m lecturing, absorbing the material at their own pace.  One or two like to fact-check details I mention, double-checking my numbers or looking up who I mean when I say “that bongo player who also does physics, whose name escapes me at the moment” (answer: Richard Feynman).  Because students have these portable information-seeking devices on them, in classes I can respond to their “what about” side topics with “look it up– then let us know!”

Used properly, smartphones in the classroom can improve learning.  I admit, some students are just texting or watching videos when they should be learning.  However, to see all phone use as ‘bad’ neglects the very cool experimental and positively disruptive ways our plugged-in students have discovered for using their phones in educationally viable ways.

Besides launching phones into space, sending them on remote R/C drones, and fact-checking the professors, here’s some other ways smart students are using phones.  The obvious one is to take photos of the notes on the chalkboard for review later.  Snapshotting assignments so they don’t have to hunt them up later (bonus: then texting the image to themselves so they don’t have to remember to check their gallery).  Creating a Discord channel on the fly for just-formed group projects.  Turning their phone camera into an infrared camera by adding a chopped-up floppy disk as a filter.

About the one thing I rarely see students do with their phones is use to make telephone calls.  Why would they, when there’s all these other clever uses they can put it to, when they put their minds to it?

Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes is professor of astronautical engineering at Capitol Technology University.

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