Is Hand-Held Literacy Enough?

One of the hot topics in higher education today is having students BYOD (what some call "bring your own device") into the classroom, and integrating that personal technology with learning. As you would expect, such a topic inspires controversy--and emotion.

The battle lines are drawn. College students are already wedded to their smartphones, iPads, and other personal technology, goes one argument. Therefore, why not allow them to use such devices to enrich their knowledge of subject matter? Learning can be more interactive in the bargain, hand-held proponents say.

"No!" resounds the counter argument. Texting, emailing, surfing the Web, Googling should never be allowed in conventional college classrooms, critics say. They're distracting and rude to the instructor and students, and they encourage cheating and violate the sacred principles of professors as authority figures and students as willing receptors of knowledge and wisdom.

It's fertile ground for research on learning outcomes. Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff and Scott Titsworth in "The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning" (Communication Education, February 12, 2013), found in studying student response to a lecture that those "who were not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones."

Other educators see value in some, but not all, applications of personal technology to the academic experience. I know professors who have no problem with students using these personal tools of research during class time--as long as skills of analysis and synthesis are enriched. The profs usually add, however, that texting in the seats is akin to passing notes a generation ago, and still qualifies as a classroom crime.

Others look beyond the debate to opportunities. A February 2, 2015, piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on new incentives for students to stay off their phones in class. At California State University at Chico, they can earn coupons for discounts at local businesses by using--what else?--an app that tracks cellphone down time.

The real context for these realities is what I alluded to earlier--the "principles of professors as authority figures, students as willing receptors," that paradigm having long since been undercut not simply by technology but by myriad trends in pedagogy and assessment, as well as societal and cultural attitudes and values.

Professors still lecture, and some college students still listen. In my experience, though, more often than not, today's students are inclined to listen less because they place a lower value on absorbing (learning) information. As one of our professors at Bethany College noted in an interview for our alumni magazine, "there is so much information out there that students don't learn it. They think they can just look it up."

"To some extent," she added, "that's true, but you have to understand the field to make sense of the information."

That would seem to be a valid point, and it would follow, therefore, that we need to take the long view of what students do with the body of knowledge available to them, whether it is dispensed through lecture or distributed via the Internet. Students who still seek the residential, liberal arts model of higher education, in which real interaction with the professor is possible, may opt for the convenience of hand-held intelligence, but their underlying purpose for enrolling in person as opposed to online is professional functionality. They expect in their careers to interact mostly with people, not machines. They already want to fit in on campus and know that they will need to be culturally and intellectually literate enough to be a good fit with their employers later on.

In the meantime, we educators seek consensus on how our students can most benefit from the wealth of technological resources available to them. As Carl Hooker, Director of Instructional Technology for Eanes ISD in Texas and founder of iPadpalooza, points out ("How Technology Trends Have Influenced the Classroom," MindShift, March 5, 2014), "the greatest impact still lies within the teacher and the content that they are trying to get their students to learn. Until the pedagogy and purpose align with this new world, we are all left fighting a battle rather than embracing it."

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (, a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.