On Education and Smartphones

On Education and Smartphones June 22, 2012

Smartphones have irreversibly changed the way of computing. In a space of less than 30 years, computers of ever-increasing procesing capabilities have shifted from being stuck on top of a desk to one’s jeanspocket. Moreover, exposure to computing is starting at younger and younger ages, to the point where it seems that the integration between humans and computers is either treated as a fait accompli or even an imperative.

As a sign of this, edudemic.com wrote a piece on the benefits of increasing pressures to allow the use of smartphones as educational aids in schools. Where once the use of a mobile phone would have warranted expulsion from the class, there is now the possibility of teachers allowing or encouraging their use in the class context.
While edudemic.com speaks glowingly about the potential that can be unleashed with the linking of the classroom with the smartphone, the trajectory of this line of thought alone is significant for several reasons. What will concern this post however, is the extension of the blurring of the line between education and entertainment, further entrenching the entertainment society mentioned in a previous post.
The use of mobile phones for gaming purposes is a long tradition that began with “snakes”. But the gaming in and of itself has actually paled into insignificance as the key concern. According to James KA Smith in his recent New College lectures, what is the key concern is the field of dispositions that is instilled through the mere physical interaction with the touchscreen device.
Drawing on the french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Smith put forward a compelling twofold case. First, the smallest physical motions, however minute, when done repeatedly can train a culture to generate a particular kind of lifeworld. This lifeworld can then be spontaneously recreated in the imagination of that culture whenever these physical motions are undertaken, immersing the culture in that lifeworld and in turn instilling a particular cultural disposition. Furthermore, the touchscreen and the interaction through the motion of one’s fingers has surreptitiously become part of the cultural idiom, signifying entertainment, instant access and self-gratification.
At one level, one can see how the instilling of a disposition towards instant entertainment for the individual runs counter to the process of education as a drawn out, communal and unentertaining period of training and development. At another level, it is also possible to see how in something as seemingly benign as a smartphone, one form of education is being intercepted by another.
The question to be asked is whether the proper reaction is a knee-jerk rejection of integrating technology, or finding ways to assimilate the technology into the life of the embodied community and not subordinating the latter to the former (a prospect forecasted long ago by Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, and earlier still by Friedrich Nietzsche).
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