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Is technology good for my studies, part 1: Smartphones

It may seem rather strange to be asking this question in a blog, because the very fact that I am blogging at all suggests that I may be a convert to the cult of technology.  Mind you, if you are reading this blog then you probably are too, so perhaps it all evens out in the end.

The problem is that there are so many conflicting messages about using technology for study. Depending on what you read you may be either paranoid that you are not taking full advantage of the range of sophisticated tools for research which are available, or paranoid that by using them you are pretty much ensuring that you will fail your degree because of either weak sources or plagiary - possibly both.

So, I thought it might be useful to take some time to explore the potential, and the potential pitfalls, of relying on technology to help you through your studies. 

To begin with, I am going to look at an aspect of technology in studies which appears to be sneaking in by the backdoor, and significantly impacting how we study almost without noticing.  I am talking about...

The smartphone

Smartphones have gone from being a fringe gadget dedicated to the sophisticated entrepreneur (or the filthy rich) to almost the norm of mobile phone use.  Have you tried to get a mobile phone contract for a handset which is not a smartphone recently?  Good luck.  Non-smartphone handsets are still there, but you pay pretty much the same price for them as you would for a smartphone, so it is hard to avoid feeling a little like a mug if you fork out for one.

Unless you are either an extreme technophobe or a luddite there would seem little point losing out on all the additional functionality of a smartphone if it cost little or no extra.

Of course, entering the world of the smartphone is rather treacherous territory.  What one do I get?  What is the different between a handset, a network and an OS?

Well, here are some basics:

What is a smartphone?

They do exist.  They are out there, somewhere.  I am talking about people who either refuse to own a mobile phone at all, or those who will only stretch to the most basic of handsets (which they flaunt with a kind of defiant superiority as though it makes them less materialistic than the rest of us - which, of course, it does).

If you are not one of those people, then by now you are almost certainly familiar with some of the extended functionality of modern mobile phones.  You will probably know that a mobile phone can be used to send text-messages, take photos, play games, send emails and check the cricket scores on the BBC website.

A smartphone will offer all of this functionality as well.  The difference between a standard handset and a smartphone is not really what they can do (although smartphones can do a lot more) - it is the way they do them.  When you buy mobile phones, you may be used to checking the reviews, finding out which one is good, checking you can afford it, then simply buying the thing.  Job done.  The phone and all its functions, its interface (i.e. how it looks on its screen when using it) and its casing (i.e. how it looks as a physical object) are an all-in-one package.

Of course, when you buy a computer it is slightly different.  To begin with, you may already be able to define yourself according to your operating system loyalty.  You might describe yourself as a Windows person, or an Apple person, or a Linux person.  These three operating systems determine how your screen looks when you are using your computer - where the icons are, what the icons look like, and so on.

Of course, you can get Windows to work on lots of different computers - ones made by Dell, or HP, or Acer, Sony, etc.. The Windows operating system does not determine the machine which it runs on.

Smartphones are the same.  There are lots of different types of smartphones - those made by Apple, or Blackberry, Samsung and Nokia and HTC.  Whatever the make of phone though, it will be using an operating system - and as with computers, there are far fewer operating systems than there are handsets.

Of the many different brands of smartphones available today, the biggest names of the moment are the Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy range (or the Wave if you want a cheaper model), HTC and Sony Ericsson.

The Blackberry has been a dominant force in the smartphone market for some time, but right now the Canadian company does seem to be struggling to innovate its way level with these other developers, and is slipping down the pecking order.

Nokia, too, has slipped a little.  It's Symbian system has been again somewhat outstripped by its competitors, and the feeling is that it is waiting for its new line of phones, which will be powered by Windows.
Other manufacturers like LG and Motorola provide some good alternatives, but this pretty much covers the main names.  Whether you prefer Apple or Samsung or HTC though is really a secondary issue to which of their operating systems you prefer.  A single Samsung handset, for example, might come with one of three different operating systems, each of which look and feel very different.

There are four main contenders when it comes to smartphone operating systems.  These are:
Apple iOS: Available only on Apple's prestigious (but pricey) iPhone, this is still perhaps regarded as the Rolls Royce of smartphone operating systems.

Android: This is Google's own system, and it by far the most dominant force in the market.  If you were to buy a smartphone at random, there is a strong likelihood it will be running Android.  Android is the usual operating system for the Samsung Galaxy, HTC models, and Sony Ericsson's Experia range.

Windows: Windows 7 is a little newer into the market than Android and Apple, and is a vast improvement on the flawed Windows Mobile platform. Windows is currently a platform available on Motorola and LG phones, and Nokia will be bringing out a new range of Windows smartphones soon. Windows brings with it a sense of familiarity which may appeal to some, and given Windows' track record this will certainly be a major force in the near future.

Bada: Not really a contender with the other systems, but I mention it because it is designed as a kind of cheap and accessible option for those not willing to go the whole hog into an expensive smartphone.  A neat little system which can suit those who want the functionality of a smartphone but are generally a little less bothered.

The App Factor

Aside from all the technical details about different systems, all these operating systems largely do the same thing.  They all provide a menu page from which you can access the various functions of the phone.  If you want to get a better idea of the differences between them, you can't do better than to look at the excellent guide from ZDNet UK.

However, the truth is that for many of you such subtle distinctions are simply of no interest.  Because ultimately the thing that really makes the difference between a smartphone and any other kind of phone, is the applications.  Just like a computer, there is the option to install any one of thousands upon thousands of different applications.  Your old phone might have a game of Tetris pre-installed, but with your smartphone you can add and remove countless different games to your hearts content.  Your old phone might have a dogged button for accessing the internet, but your smartphone will offer you a range of different browsers, each more efficient than the last, together with dedicated applications for managing your email, your Twitter account, your shopping lists, your maps, your podcasts, multimedia, and news.

Many of these applications are free, while even those which are not rarely set you back more than a fiver - and considering some of these applications replicate the functions of the expensive Microsoft Office suite (allowing you to create and edit Word documents, Excel and PowerPoint files), the even more expensive Photoshop (allowing you to edit photos), and powerful WYSIWYG ('What You See is What You Get') web development tools, then this is a bargain.

Do I need a smartphone?

This is a vitally important question.  Back in 1995 the BBC broadcast a radio programme entitled 'Kane Over America: The Metallic Necessity'.  In it, Neil Postman was interviewed and asked about his views on the emerging phenomenon of the 'information super-highway' (the internet).  Gordon Graham of the University of Aberdeen provides this transcript of his response:

I recently went to buy a car, a Honda Accord, I don't know if you know this, it's a very good Japanese car, and the salesman told me that it had cruise control and I asked the salesman this question, which took him by surprise. I said "What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?" Well, apparently no one had ever asked him this question before, so he pondered it for a bit, and then he said, as his face brightened, "Well, it's the problem of keeping your foot on the gas." And I said, "Well, I've been driving for 35 years, and I've never really found that a problem." So then he said, "Well, you know, this car also has electric windows." So, you know what I asked him - "What is the problem to which electric windows are the solution?" and he was ready for me this time. He said, "Well, its the problem of having to wind the windows up and down with your arm", so I said "Well, I never really found that a problem. As a matter of fact, as an academic, I live a rather sedate life and I like the exercise of moving my arms occasionally." Well, the point is I bought the Honda, and with cruise control and with electric windows, because you cannot buy a Honda Accord without cruise control and electric windows, whether you wish to or not. Now that first raises an interesting question, which is that technology, while obviously increases options in many instances, also frequently limits options. People who are very enthusiastic about technology are always telling us what it will do for us. They almost never address the question of what it will undo, or what limitations it will place on you, so I think its always important to realise that technology is a Faustian bargain - it giveth and it taketh away. And when we consider a super-information highway, for example, we have to address both questions, what will it give and what will it take away? So, the first question I think one has to ask is "What is the problem to which this super-information highway, that especially Vice-President Gore is so enthusiastic about, will solve?" (Graham, G. (1996). Implications of the Internet: a preliminary survey [Internet]. Ends and Means [Internet] 1 (1))

Postman's point is as valid today as it was then.  Smartphones are big business, and the marketing of them is designed to convince us that we need one - whether we do or not.  Students are generally constrained financially during their studies - more so in the wake of the recent tuition fee rises.  So before you commit to spending a big fat pile of cash on a monthy contract you can't afford, you should really explore the question of why you need it and whether you will make full use of its capabilities.

Because if you don't need it, and you won't use it fully, then it is simply a waste of money.

So here are 5 ideas about a few smartphone functions which could make a difference to your studies:

1) Task Management

I love lists.  I love ticking things off on them.  What I don't like is having them lying around un-ticked.  Even when I cannot see them, I know that they are there glaring malevolently at me as I dither around on the internet or sneak off to the kitchen for my fourth cup of coffee.

When you are starting out on your degree, two of the things which seems to frequently cause problems are time management, and task management.  I cannot count how many times I have talked to students who have failed, or simply not submitted any work, and who tell me that they just became overwhelmed by their work at the last minute, or that they had not actually started work on any of their assignments until the week before the deadline.

This is perfectly understandable to some extent.  Writing an essay for a degree is a complex process, and if you are writing essays for a number of different modules, then those complexities may each take on a subtle flavour of their own, requiring specific adjustments and tasks.  It is very easy to become overwhelmed by it all - and starting work on assignments too late is often the consequence of not quite knowing where to start.

Task management apps on a smartphone could be a solution to such problems.  These applications help you to create lists of things that you need to do, breaking them down into manageable chunks.  It will help you to organise them, and set them in terms of priority.  It will help you to focus on one task at a time, and not to be overwhelmed by the sum of them all.

For example, we know that writing an essay requires distinctive components.  It requires us to:

  • do some initial reading which enables us to...
  • ...determine which essay title we will be answering
  • analyse the question and structure a response to it
  • do some more reading, which is focused on the essay question
  • develop an essay plan
  • accumulate sources which can be used for each point in the plan
  • write a first draft
  • polish the draft and check for errors
  • add bibliography and check citations
  • check through the final draft for errors
  • submit

A task manager would enable you to separate out these tasks, and set specific deadlines for them.  Keeping up with these deadlines should mean that by the time you get to the submission deadline, you are pretty much ready.  It is such a simple thing to do, but the difference it can make to your studies can be huge.

Of course, you could just do all of this (as I used to) by using a notepad and a pen.  Certainly cheaper.  However, like me you may encounter problems when you leave your notepad at the gym, or when a mbottlof water leaks in your bag and makes all the ink run.  Most smartphones these days have the option to sync task lists with your computer, so that you can keep your lists backed up and available to you.  At the same time, my notepad cannot start buzzing or playing a tune to remind me when a task is due.

Small benefits, certainly, but benefits nonetheless.

2) The Internet
In the past, using the internet on a mobile phone was rather like trying to watch the television through a window in the neighbours house: a frustrating experience of squinting and information loss.  The tiny mobile screen was frequently indecipherable.  Many websites simply failed to load, and those that did took an age to do so.  This is no longer the case.  Smartphones offer sophisticated browsers that display websites clearly, and quickly.  Most can be connceted to WiFi, so that you can enjoy broadband speed connections wherever a WiFi spot is available.  Even when there isn't, 3G support ensures a pretty speedy loading of websites without it.  The screens on smartphones tend to be relatively large, and the new AMOLED technology on many screens makes the picture astonishingly sharp and bright.

This means that smartphones can be thought of as a genuine tool for internet access on the move.

How does this help your studies?

Well, as with everything else there is an astonishing array of academic resources which are available on the internet now.  The Pinakes Gateway, for example, provides an easy way into some of the best academic websites around, and such sites can be easily added to your smartphones favourites list, and articles can be read from the bus, train or even ove the breakfast table.  Recently I have been enjoying reading entries from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy from my phone during my commute - when I would normally either be lugging heavy textbooks about or simply staring blankly out of the train window.

There are a number of useful features which you can access through the internet as well.  Programmes like Mendeley for example, which is a superb resource for managing your bibliographies and sources, now has an App for the iphone.  CiteuLike does pretty much the same as Mendeley, and enables you to manage or share relevant articles with other students around the world, but it can be accessed through the browser of any smartphone.

3) Social Networking
Really?  A benefit for study or a distraction?  Actually, this is certainly one which needs to be treated with some caution.  It hasn't escaped my notice that more and more students on the back row of the lecture theatre are spending their time surrepticiously updating their Facebook status.  Many times I have wished that students would spend a fraction of the time they waste on Facebook actually working on their essays...  Having said all this, it is possible to turn the phenomenon of social networking into a positive force in your studies.

The topic of social networking and academic study is really one which requires an article all on its own, but it is mentioed here because one of the major selling points of most smartphones has been their ability to keep you connected with your online networks seamlessly and intuitively.  Most smartphones will offer dedicated Apps designed to manage Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, while others will integrate all three into a single application.

Here are 2 simple ideas about how you could use this to your advantage:

a) Create study groups in Facebook: Joining a study group is always a fantastic way of getting support from fellow students, and Facebook makes this process easy.  You can search for people who have listed themselves as being at your College or University, or simply look up students you have met or who you have already talked to about meeting online.

Once connected, you can create a group for fellow students to meet and share information.  There are even apps within Facebook which allow you to create Study Groups.  You can find more ideas about using Facebook for study, together with a fantastic guide, from Penn State University.

b) Follow academic Tweets.  If you use Twitter already it may not have occured to you, but many authors of academic books, many lecturers, students and publishers related to your studies, may also be using Twitter and posting using ideas and links daily.  The trick is finding the right ones, and deciding to 'follow' them.  A simple way of doing this is simply by conducting a search for a relevant topic: say, for example, 'Shakespeare' or 'psychology'.

As you search through the people who come up in the results, you might find publishers, journals, lectures or authors that seem useful.  Click on 'follow' and you will be continually updated with any Tweets which they post.  You can even look at each of these people and see who they are following - working on the basis that, for example, the British Psychological Society Journal may well be following other useful Twitter accounds related to psychology.
4) Podcasting
Walking along the road, sitting on the train or the bus, lounging in the bath, blearily rocking a wakeful baby at 4am or even (if you have the right connector in your car stereo) driving down the road.  The opportunities for listening to something on speakers of through headphones are often far more abundant than the opportunities for reading a book or attending a lecture.  It is therefore a great benefit of smartphones that they all sport applications that mean you can download and listen to podcasts - because many Universities around the world (including Yale, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge) make avaiable podcasts by some of the leading specialists in their fields. 

The OpenCulture website has a great list of online University podcasts available, and listening to a lecture from Professor Paul Bloom is certainly going to be a great deal more useful to your studies than listening to the latest Craig David album or even (my own weakness) Talk Sport radio...

5)  Word Editing
Rather like social networking, this one comes with a health warning.  In many respects it is perhaps one of the most obviously useful functions of a smartphone that it enables you to write your essays in word, or create your presentations while on the move or in a coffee shop.  The majority of smartphones, even Blackberry's now, are reliant on touchscreen technology, and this technology has reached a stage where typing consistently for long periods is surprisingly easy.  Gone are the furies generated by cramped fingers and a 'predictive text' function which could cause sometimes quite embarassing errors.  Now, the keyboards are neat 'qwerty' displays which can be expanded easily, and which your fingers quickly get used to dancing around.  The iPhone remains the gold standard in terms of its keyboard, as it is the most responsive and intuitive - but the differences are small.

It is certainly a terrific tool, and a useful one as well.  Here, though, is the health warning.  I have noticed over the last couple of years an increase in essays which have failed because they have included no evidence of wider reading, or of carefuly structuring.  When I later sit down and talk to these students, I realise that we are facing a new phenomenon in studies - the essay which has been written on a smartphone!  You can usually tell one of these essays, because it sounds like a string of random thoughts.  They can still be fluent and interesting, but the point is that when you are using your smartphone for writing on the train, then you are unlikely to have all of your books on the seat next to you.  Neither are you going to find it easy to check every detail carefully, or switch between applications to locate your sources.

The result will not be good.

Although the ability to write lengthy documents on your smartphone can be a great bonus, you should never fall into the mistake of thinking that a smartphone is an appropriate tool for whole process.  It may be great for taking notes, or polishing, but you still need a desk, a pile of books and a screen capable of revealing the bigger picture if you want to produce something of the right standard.


So, there are definately things which a smartphone can do, and which will benefit your studies.  The question remains whether those things warrant the expense of getting one.

An iPhone, for example, will likely set you back at least £35 per month for 2 years, and you can end up paying as much as £300 pounds more for the handset if you want a shorter contract.  You will pay more, as well, if you want more inclusive minutes and texts - which is the same for any handset.

The Android Samsung Galaxy comes in a little cheaper, and can be got for £25 per month for 2 years, with payments of around £200 if you want a shorter contract.

HTC's flagship Android Desire is cheapter still, and can be got for less than £20 per month over 2 years, while Samsung's budget Wave II, using Bada, can be gained for as little as £10 per month over 2 years or £15 for 18 months.

Ultimately it is all about what you can afford.  If you have the money you might consider the iPhone.  If you don't, then it is a mistake to commit yourself to the expense of one.  This is not just because it makes no financial sense to do so, but because all of the benefits listed above are as easily accessible on the much cheaper Wave II as they are on the iPhone.

If you do decide to invest in a smartphone, my advice would be the same as Neil Postman's: Just make sure you know why you are getting it, and don't pay more for something you don't need, and won't use.

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