Long the bane of teachers, smartphones are being reimagined by educators as a positive presence in the classroom. What's more, a survey released Thursday shows more than half of Canadians - 56 per cent - agree that the mobile devices are an "invaluable tool" for students, while fully two-thirds see smartphones as a way for students to conduct online research anytime, anywhere.
Media professor Sidneyeve Matrix, whose Queen's University class has its own app, says smartphones have become so ubiquitous that it makes less sense for teachers to fight them than to dial up their potential as a modernday school supply.
"What drives most teachers mad is that they're competing with these phones for attention," Matrix says. "But with 1,400 students in the class, what am I supposed to do? Say, 'Now, put away your phones, kids?' It's a losing battle.
"So I decided to work with it."
Matrix's Class Caddy app gives her students instant access to lecture notes, classroom slides, videos used in presentations, textbook reading guides, class schedules and webinars. The Kingston, Ont.-based professor says the benefits have been enormous.
"Having mobile-optimized educational resources might seem far-fetched or a luxury, but it actually makes a lot of sense when you look at what they're bringing in their knapsacks," Matrix says.
"In higher ed, you see more phones than laptops in the average classroom."
In a new survey of 1,001 Canadian adults, conducted by Angus Reid for mobile carrier Mobilicity, 41 per cent of people recognized smartphones' value for recording lectures and tutorial sessions; 46 per cent saw mobile apps as a way of keeping students organized; and 42 per cent identified the devices' capacity as a co-ordination tool for school activities.
Mark Federman, former chief strategist of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, refers to the resulting phenomenon as "the hyperlinked classroom," with students using mobile devices to become more immersed in the learning process - even if that means fact-checking their instructors on the spot.
"In the old model, the professor was the sage on the stage. And in those classrooms, we saw students distracted, doodling, and - outside of a few keeners in the front, taking copious notes - dozing off," Federman says.
"But when the learning environment becomes more active and engaging - and that takes a lot of work on the professor's part - we find students transform from passive learners into active learners."
Along with college settings, Federman would like to see mobile technologies introduced to Grade 11 and 12 classrooms, where students are already using smartphones on their own.
But the trend isn't without its doubters. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, notes that "every single new technology has been greeted as the answer to our educational woes," from radio to motion pictures, educational TV to the introduction of the PC.
"Given the evidence that we don't read as well on screens, and that screens promote multi-tasking - and when we multi-task, we don't do as well on any single task - I have to say I'm pretty