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Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today?

On Twitter over the weekend, arguing against Sara Goldrick-Rab, somebody posted that “Maybe today’s college students should NOT be buying $1200 phones. That would be a start.” The predictable kerfuffle ensued.

It’s a variation on “I walked to school uphill. Both ways.” It’s a “kids today…” argument deployed to slough off any sense of responsibility for the challenges that today’s students face.

The students at my college, an open-admissions commuter school, have certain things that I didn’t have. Cars, for one. Smartphones, for another. I didn’t need a car, since I lived on campus, attended full-time, and had a work-study job that was an easy walk from the dorm. And smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. I wrote papers in the campus computer center. That was usually okay, except at the end of the semester when everyone else did, too. 

Here, now, many students have cars, and from what I see, nearly all have smartphones. (For the record, they don’t come anywhere close to $1200. The ones I see are usually a couple of years old, and often with cracked screens that look like spiderwebs.) Does that make today’s students a bunch of entitled loafers?

No. Not even close.

The expectations they’re held to are much more demanding than the ones I was. At a basic level, the complete lack of dorms means that students need either to live very close to one of the few bus routes, or to have access to a car. My ability to go without a car wasn’t premised on my hardiness; it was premised on a dorm. A cheap used car costs a lot less than even a single year in a dorm room. And even if they live near a bus line, the part-time job(s) they hold effectively require cars. That’s before considering other family responsibilities many of them have, that I didn’t.

Smartphones have, in fact, become necessities. We have some computer labs in which students can write papers, if they choose, and they’re popular at crunch times. But most students work significant hours for pay, and don’t have the option of devoting extended blocs of time to a computer lab. (If they all did, we wouldn’t have the capacity to handle it.) They need to be able to compose on the fly.  In some cases, they also need to be able to do internet research on the fly, which was unthinkable in my student days. (Back then, how portable a phone was depended on how long its cord was.) You can’t access the LMS from a pad of paper; you need something with internet access. When assignments are posted online, and required to be submitted online, it’s churlish at best to regard internet access as extravagant. And of course, emergency alerts go out by text message.

I’ve seen students use smartphones to take pictures of PowerPoint slides in class, an option that would have helped me tremendously. Some professors actually use them as high-tech clickers to take polls in class -- if I were teaching poli sci again, I’d be all over that.  Some course readings are only available online. In fact, some professors -- and I hope to see more -- have gone entirely to Open Educational Resources; the money saved from one or two free online textbooks would more than offset a low-cost phone. 

I have old enough eyes that I wince at the idea that many students write papers on their phones, but they do.  I’d much rather see us develop some sort of chromebook or laptop rental program, so students would have access to a full-size keyboard and the ability to jump between screens.  I didn’t have that option as an undergrad, but I didn’t need it; students today do.

The first computer I owned cost about $1200 in 1990 money, equating to about $2300 now.  And that’s without the cost of the printer, which tractor-fed paper in glorious dot-matrix.  Combine a $200 phone and a $200 chromebook, and you’re coming in much cheaper than I did. This is not extravagance.  It’s adaptation to a new environment.

If we want students to focus more on their studies -- which I absolutely do -- shaming them for having smartphones isn’t the way to go.  Instead, reducing the non-academic demands on them is likelier to work. That means making political decisions about entry-level wages, tuition levels, operating support for colleges, and mass transit, among other things.  Locally, it means adopting OER at scale and taking food insecurity seriously. Over time, it means recovering the understanding that middle classes don’t occur in nature, and that they’re created through deliberate public policy choices. That would help.

If the sight of a student typing a paper on his phone upsets you, get him a laptop.  If you can’t manage that, at least stop bashing him for doing what he can in a setting that’s much tougher than it used to be. I remember, because I was there.

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