My uncle sends out a weekly digest of cartoons he’s seen on the Internet. While most of them are been-there-seen-that for a Twitter fiend like me, there was one that’s always stood out. It depicted a line of people walking with their eyes glued to their phones. The caption: “The zombie apocalypse is already here.”
I could recreate that image every morning when I arrive at the train station, where everyone is messing with their phones, as well as on the walk to work, where I find myself weaving through text-and-tread commuters like I’m Rick Grimes from “The Walking Dead” running through a field of lumbering undead.
Complaints aside, I can see mobile’s merits for learning and productivity. I’m writing this blog on my tablet as I sit on a train speeding toward home while a current events podcast loads on my phone, so thank goodness for mobile tools that let me be productive en route. But have the advent of these tools really helped us be more agile in our learning? Or are they just life-endangering, knowledge-dulling distractions?
I did a little neuro-research and found countless articles on what smartphones do to the brain, including a GMA News piece from late 2014 about how extended smartphone usage is changing how our brains receive signals sent to it by the nerves in our thumbs. Or this February video from Business Insider that described how checking a phone before bed tells the brain not to go to sleep.
As much as learning leaders have unlimited power, clout and resources — feel free to chuckle — even they might not be able to change employees’ mobile habits. Time to use it to an advantage, then.
Phil Kortum, an assistant professor at Rice University’s department of psychology conducted a study on whether smartphones help college students succeed in class. From surveys taken before and after the students received a phone, Kortum found that phones didn’t help them with their studies unless they were directly tied to in-class activities.
“These were college students at a top-20 school who had a good idea of what the Internet is. By providing them with a tool that would give ubiquitous access, we figured they would probably use that in a manner that would be beneficial,” Kortum said. “In their minds, the phone did not do that, even if at the beginning they said it would.”
Because the study looked at college students, Kortum warned against applying the findings to more mature populations, such as employees. But does maturity warrant self-control?
From my daily commute-based observations, I’d say no.
Employees are going to bring their phones into the classroom, even if you request that they don’t. They’re going to check email and maybe send a surreptitious text or three from their laps. But if you require them to bring in the phone and use it for learning purposes, they lose the ability to do anything with it other than what they’ve been instructed to do.
Just as the saying goes: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” If chief learning officers teach employees how to use their smartphones for development purposes, they’ll have a learning tool for the rest of their career — or at least until the next big tech development comes along.
“Think of it this way: I give you a dictionary in an English class and don’t say anything about its use, and then I expect you to use it,” Kortum said. “But if I bring the dictionary and show you how to use it as an ongoing tool, then it has value in terms of the educational process. The tool becomes a necessary part of the learning experience.”