The Mobile Paradox

Mobiles form “the center for peer interaction and communication, identity work, and media consumption”, at least for the high school students at Freeway, the object of study in The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality (New York UP). The term “mobile” is used here to cover all forms of hand-held digital devices; these ranged from flip phones over iPods to tablets, but smartphones were the ultimate goal.
“For a number of youth in our study, the consumption of media takes place early in the morning and late in the evening, in school and out of school — in other words, anytime and anywhere.” When we talked about this in our seminar, it would appear that students at CAU Kiel are as bonded to their phones as the Freeway students. Almost everyone admitted to using WhatsApp, Instagram, googling, listening to music, mainly out of classes, but sometimes within. Anytime, anywhere: when they go to bed, when they travel, when they’re at uni.

The American students in the study emphasized how important their devices were for them, personally, and that they often had them with them in class, even turned on. Although the school district authorities had ruled against the use of mobiles in school, several instructors encouraged their classes to use them during lessons, and not only in such classes as one could suppose would be directly connected with digital devices. Nothing would become between them and the Internet in their hand. Isn’t that the perfect premise to embark on online learning adventures? Isn’t this the stuff the dreams of education policy makers and digital learning companies are made of?

However, and that is the central argument of the study, the widespread attachment to and enthusiasm for smartphones does not necessarily translate into (equal) opportunities when it comes to online learning. Rather, the study sees a “mobile paradox: “On the one hand, the adoption of mobile phones and the mobile Internet among African Americans and Latinos suggests that they are early adopters and mobile trendsetters in the United States. On the other hand, the conditions that shape black and Latino teens’ mobile practices suggest that they continue to grapple with the social and economic challenges associated with life in the digital edge.” Due to financial straits, for example, many families found it difficult to ensure that their children had continuous access to the web, and to adequate technology. Thus, many students often had to be inventive as to how they achieved access to the Internet and also gain access to more than just a phone. This could take the form of sharing access on a friend’s gadget, for example. The paradox is that although the Afro-American and Latino teenagers in the survey were usually equipped with a mobile gadget and were very competent in the use of them they were not always able to make full use of them in terms of learning.

In Kiel, students constantly use their smartphones, too, in and out of class. However, only a minority seemed to use their phones for creative, let alone “academic-related purposes” purposes. Indeed, academic-related issues appear as the exact opposite of what the students are looking for in their smartphones: socializing, gaming, communicating, entertainment. Interestingly, all students in our course had at least one other device at their hands which they preferred for said “academic-related purposes”: a laptop, a tablet, a PC. The problem that the computer (once called a marriage between a typewriter and a TV) offers opportunities for work and leisure in equal amounts was solved by the students in Kiel through allocating work and play to different devices. Quite clearly, those who can afford to have a variety of devices at their disposal are in an advantageous position.

Studying wholly at home, as in the current situation, means an enormous amount of self-control to actually sit down and do the lesson whereas classes on Campus force one out of the home – and into an intercommunicative position with similar minded. To focus on learning, it seems, is even more difficult, if work and play do not only take place in the same space, but on one single device.

Separating work and play through the use of different devices, however, might also obstruct the path to new forms of learning, rather than trying to replicate traditional teaching methods online. The researchers of The Digital Edge are fully convinced that smartphones will significantly transform the current situation at schools: “Learning is largely constructed as an experience that is bound to the four walls of a classroom and composed of worksheets and the consumption of facts. The transformational potential of mobile—real-time data collection, locative storytelling, place-based learning, augmented reality, multimedia production, citizen journalism, and, of course, anytime and anywhere engagement—will revolutionize how and where students learn.” Come the revolution, it will be the task of students, teachers and curriculum designers to make sure that these new forms will be put to emancipatory purposes.