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Northwestern University

Do Our Smartphones Make Us Smarter?

Diane (Dee) Hanlon ’64

President, The Alumnae of Northwestern University

I started teaching in 1964 and retired in 2005. What I’ve noticed is that kids today don’t take as much time to reflect on what they see and hear. They’re texting, and talking, and they expect answers almost instantly. They have an extraordinary access to information, but are they able to think about how much of that is authentic and can be trusted? I don’t know that they are developing the discipline to process and reflect on the questions they are being asked.

Hailey Karcher ’14

American Studies and Legal Studies; Co-Coordinator, Peer Health Exchange

I’m the head of a very large student organization, and I’m required to manage more than 100 people. My iPhone has made me smarter in the sense that I can be a better leader: I can stay organized, respond to people more quickly and be more on top of things. But it’s also a constant distraction. You know that phrase, “giving it your undivided attention”? It’s almost as if that skill doesn’t exist anymore. There are very few times when I am giving anything my undivided attention. Multitasking is a great skill to have, but there are also times when I wish I could turn off my phone and not be expected to be responding to things constantly. That would improve my ability to focus in class, out of class, and in other areas of my life.

Sanford Goldberg

Professor of Philosophy

One of the things that we love about the life of the mind is that we love to think about interesting things. But what is interesting and worth thinking about? You used to address that question by thinking hard for yourself, talking to your friends, and then determining whether what they were thinking about is interesting. Nowadays, what I find is that if you know how to read your Facebook wall well, your friends and their friends can introduce you to interesting new things to think about every day — things you never would have otherwise encountered. People that I don’t talk to regularly are sharing interesting items from Slate, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. Every morning, I now have an inbox of interesting things to think about. That’s a solution to the question of “what to think about” that is much more efficient and wide-ranging than the way we did it before. That’s not a bad thing intellectually.

I don’t want to overstate this, though. I think the worries that many people express about the impact of technology on memory and attention are real worries. But technology is here to stay whether we like it or not, so we should learn to make good use of it. We could, if we want, be Luddites, but I don’t think that’s the best strategy to have with regard to education.

Learn more about Sanford Goldberg

Matt Taylor

IT Director of Weinberg College’s Multimedia Learning Center

I think a lot of the criticism of the smartphone and its effect on intelligence might really be about complacency: Do they make us too trusting? This is one place where the College, having always had a critical eye on such issues, is well positioned to critically analyze the use of the smartphone so that our students are not so complacent.

In the Multimedia Learning Center, we are very focused on how technology affects teaching and learning outcomes. How can we use it best? There are now students in our language classes who are using their smartphones to produce soap operas in Italian and news-style programs in German. There are even English majors doing very beautiful video essays, now that video narrative is a means of expression. Before, they were using video cameras, and we supported that need. Now that they have smartphones, they need services and technology that foster collaboration. But what never goes away is the need for advising, consultation and training, which we try to integrate with the classes that are using technology.

And there are other technologies in the works, like Google Glass. What we’re really talking about is the increasing pervasiveness and integration of the computer with the person. We’re working to understand the potential of these technologies and the ethics behind them, so that we can develop the critical lens that not everyone
else has.

Charles Perry ’08

Account Executive, MentorMob

The snarky answer is, it doesn’t matter. The smartphone is here to stay, so we’d better figure out a way for it to make us smarter, because if it doesn’t, we’re doomed.

My less-snarky answer is, it depends on how we use it. Our smartphones radically increase the amount of media we can consume, the number of games we play, the groups of people we connect with. But it’s still up to us to use all these experiences in a way that’s intelligent and productive.

Paul Reber

Professor of Psychology

From the perspective of a teacher, much of what students do in class is learn facts. I’ve asked my colleagues: What does having a smartphone — “Google in your pocket”— change about the way we should be teaching?

You still need to memorize some things. You have to learn the vocabulary to have a conversation in your field. But maybe some of the things we teach are now things we can count on students simply to look up. As long as they learn how to find the information, do we need to make them store it in their own memory? Or can we trust that they can get that information on their own? Should we be more focused on things that you can’t look up on Google or the Internet?

So writing skills, presentation skills, critical thinking skills — things that you have to practice and essentially hone — might make even more sense from an educational perspective than memorizing fact-based information. Our ability to access information now is unprecedented in human history, and I think that puts a lot more focus on what we can do with it, and perhaps less on acquiring it.

Learn more about Paul Reber

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