Cell Saturation

When a phone is more than a phone.

by Betty Lynne Leary


Online students on campus for summer classes may not be texting each other often, but they come equipped to do so.

It can happen anywhere. A darkened theater. The doctor's office. Even in church. The stillness suddenly broken by Beyonce's latest hit, loud and persistent. Then the hushed whisper, "I can't talk right now," or worse, the start of a conversation you have no desire to hear.

It can happen in a classroom, too. While cellular phones rank as the hottest technology trend of the 21st century, they create a host of protocol issues on campus, especially around students texting in class. At Saint Joseph's and other college campuses, the device of choice for near-perpetual connectivity among students is the newest generation of cell phones called smartphones, which have advanced features and function like a miniature computer.

student in classroom

Smartphones have been called the new paper and pencil because of their capacity for mobile learning and instruction.

"You can't really call them cell phones," says communications professor John Hufstader. "They should be called mobile communications devices. They're a phone, computer, camera, web device and text-creating machine. It's a whole shift in the paradigm away from a phone. They create telepresence."

As with any new technology, people experience growing pains as they adjust to its place in their lives. Hufstader describes a cell phone as a double-edged sword, in that many people demand constant contact with others, but are unwilling to take the responsibility that comes with it.

"To be able to bring a whole other world into your reality right now is a very powerful thing," he says. "It's very addictive ... and the implications are huge."

Student in dorm room

Cell phone use has gone from “zero to pervasive” in the last eight years, according to the Information Technology office. Students with smartphones, such as Blackberries, iPhones and Trios, are able to connect to the college’s wireless network to check e-mail or browse the web.

"Texting is an issue," Hufstader admits. "I'll be talking or demonstrating something, and someone will be texting or networking on Facebook. I'll pause, give a glaring glance, and that usually works."

"If you see a (text) message, it will haunt you all day until you know what it says."
Meloney Simpson '09

He has learned that given a choice, students will choose technology over a human being every time.

"Technology is always cool, and tech-nology will always win," he says. The downside is an onslaught of information and a dramatic increase in "noise level." "It's hard to be still and just be with yourself," Hufstader states. "There is no balance."


In the past, business professor Edward Hellenbeck gave his students one "free" cell phone ring in class, then confiscated the phone if it happened again. Now he gives them one ring, but the professional portion of their grade suffers (the part based on respect, class participation and paying attention). If the phone rings again, he deducts five points from the student's final grade. The same rule applies to texting.

"I haven't had to deduct the five points from anyone yet," Hellenbeck says. Hellenbeck tells his students that in their professional lives, using the phone in meetings or presentations won't be tolerated. "It's all about respect," Hellenbeck says. "They must learn to respect other people's time, their effort and their work."

student texting in class

Are smartphones replacing laptops? Not yet, but nano projectors and projected virtual keyboards could satisfy the need for larger screens and larger keyboard on smartphones.

While this new level of connectivity seems uncomfortable to some, Hellenbeck acknowledges there are positive aspects to it.

"My son is 31 and still has contact with friends he knew in kindergarten," Hellenbeck says. But while younger people strive to stay connected, he questions the quality of that communication.

"I kid my students when they whip out their phones at the end of class and start talking nonsense," he says, laughing. "I tell them their conversations are so lame ...." Hellenbeck refuses to text and won't accept e-mails from students with questions about class material. He insists on face-to-face meetings for tutoring.

"Part of the value of this institution is the close, personal education you receive," he says. "E-mail depersonalizes that relationship and the knowledge transfer process."

Dr. Greg Teegarden, a marine science professor, says students regularly text in class, some of them almost all class long, and rush out to make calls immediately after class or during breaks. "Kids are addicted," he says. "The students most addicted to cell phone use tend to be the ones with poor performance," he adds.

Danielle Johnson, a rising senior in elementary education, admits to texting during class, although she says most professors don't want to see the phones. "It's kind of a habit because you're used to answering texts right away. It only takes a few seconds," she says. Johnson also notes that some students use their smartphones to access Google when they can't answer a question in class. On the rare occasion when a phone does ring, she notes that a few people have actually answered.

"I thought that was pretty crazy," she says.

Ashley Brown '10 says some students are so good at texting in class that they can text in their laps and still look up at the teacher, especially now that texting keyboards have improved. In general, Brown says being in contact with her friends allows her to focus on what she's doing because social things are taken care of.

She says that if she texts someone, she expects her friend to text back right away. And if they don't? "It's like we're having a conversation and you just stopped talking," she says.

But Brown does admit that when she lost her phone for a week, it was freeing. "I wasn't tied down to contacting people."

Valedictorian Meloney Simpson '09 also used her phone during her college classes, but found that most of her teachers simply looked the other way.

"In college, your grade is your grade," she explains. "you suffer the consequences of not paying attention." That being said, Simpson admits being addicted to her phone. "It's nice to know what everyone is doing all the time. If you see a (text) message, it will haunt you all day until you know what it says."

Smart things to do on your smart phone besides texting

  • Download course content/syllabi from MIT, Stanford or many other colleges
  • Access digital books from Google
  • Record lectures
  • Use calendar, task list and memo pad to stay on top of assignments, exams and events
  • Conduct quick research online with web browser
  • Stay connected to your class with social networking sites
  • Search for and access journal articles while at a conference
  • Update student records as you grade papers at a café
  • Send a mass e-mail to an entire class without heading back to your office
  • Enter new appointments on the spot, so you're never double-booked
  • Check out educational content on iTunesU
  • Create your own "apps"
  • Create your own podcasts


Professor Tony Girlando

A lover of the newest iPhone, business professor Antony Girlando insists technology has to connect to outcomes for students. “It can’t be technology for technology’s sake,” he says. He likes the phone’s better camera and ability to take, compress and send video. But he looks forward to the next wave: being able to video conference with international business contacts on the smartphone.

Some tech-savvy faculty members admit to their own technological addictions. History professor Michelle Laughran loves the capabilities of her iPhone. She rarely uses it for calls or for texting but instead uses applications to get the latest news, read e-books, listen to music, post to Twitter and Facebook, check the thesaurus, and play games.

"It's fantastic," Dr. Laughran says. "I adore having information nearly always at my fingertips!" Even so, in her classroom, Laughran expects phones to be off and out of sight. Like other professors, Laughran finds texting the worst offense. After noticing one young man in the dead-giveaway position for texting - head down and hands in the lap - she asked him what he was doing.

"He very sheepishly stuffed the phone in his backpack," she notes.

As a fan of information technology, Laughran is researching ways to incorporate some of the smart phone functions into her teaching. She describes an application that allows a user to search for points of interest near a particular geographic location.

"I'm considering having the history majors' methods class do research and write articles regarding the historical significance of places near Saint Joseph's," she relates.

Business professor Beth Richardson uses her iPhone to text her students or quickly check a fact on the Web. "It's invaluable," she says, noting that she has even used it to track students down when they are late for class.

Dr. Antony Girlando, who teaches international business, unabashedly loves his iPhone and wants to continue exploring its academic potential. He frequently texts students via instant messaging, which he claims saves time over e-mailing them if they have a question or an issue needs to be resolved. In essence, he's chatting with them over the phone keyboard.

"Texting is so much more immediate and they get right back to you," he says. "The interruption is so brief, that you can fit it in."

By texting through instant messaging, his students know when he's online and accessible. "It's like having virtual office hours at any time," he says.

Girlando has also discovered a way to grade papers using his phone, a method he says improves the way he can give feedback to a student. By leaving them a voice memo that gets e-mailed and opened as a sound file, he says he gives them a fuller appreciation of what they have accomplished (or not accomplished) because they can hear it. "There is a richness and depth to your reaction. They get the tone coming through ... I'm happier giving a richer response." Girlando also says that for students who wouldn't normally pick up their final exams with written comments, they'll now have the sound file for reference.

Even with the positive aspects of cell phone technology, Joshua Schoenfeld warns that students may still be missing out. Schoenfeld, a psychology professor, asked one student how many text messages she receives in a typical day. He was stunned when she said 400 to 500.

"It's a nonstop conversation with a handful of people, and I think that's bad for a bunch of reasons," Dr. Schoenfeld states. "One of the most important growth processes is being out on your own, confronting new situations, and seeing things through from start to finish. They're never thinking on their own, which leads to less independence." Schoenfeld acknowledges, however, that society must always learn to adapt to new technology.

"People were upset when the printing press was created, because they were afraid their kids would stay inside and read all day," he says. "Now we beg our children to read."

Fr. Paul Dumais

Campus chaplain Fr. Paul Dumais says his iPhone is the best way to stay in touch and get in touch with students. When trying to reach students, he says, “E-mail is useless, Facebook is intermittent and texting is like whispering in their ear.”

For teachers trying to create a relationship with students to allow the process of learning to take place, Schoenfeld feels the final responsibility of learning should fall to the student.

"If I become the enforcer of learning, students become the resistors of learning," he explains. "You can lead a horse to water, and you can make that water really good, but the student is the one who has to step up and drink. I try to make classes engaging and show students that something worthwhile is out there waiting for them. It's worth it to turn off that phone and pay attention."