Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tether or not?

Is mobile technology really an agent of 'academic freedom'?

That was the question which crossed my mind on reading Steve Wheeler's recent article entitled: 'At the end of our tether.'

Before continuing, I have to admit that I was an early adopter of smartphone usage in the classroom and have spent a long time discovering the diversity of potential affordances of these tools for language learning. They have become an integral part of how we work in our part of the world.

I don't envisage that changing...

However, there were certain things in Steve's article which made me think.

"We are living at a time in our history where the small device in the hand of the student is able to provide opportunities for any time, any place learning" S.Wheeler

since when, I thought to myself, has there not been opportunities for 'any time, any place learning'?

It is clearly not the presence of the 'small device' itself which necessarily leads to learning. Indeed, I spend a long time enabling students to discover the potential for learning which these devices offer.  

They do offer a number of useful applications for capturing and sharing sound, image, video, text, which can then be usefully shared with our communities via social networks...

We are indeed obliged in our societies to understand the possibilities that these devices offer and to become skilled in their uses.


I still feel, (I must admit) more moved by a student-created scrap-book (admittedly with photos taken with a smartphone).

I still feel more moved by my scribbled drawings on paper than my filtered photos on Instagram.

I still feel that notebooks which are unlimited by the manipulation of bits are somehow precious.

What price Leonardo's scribbles anyone?

I still have scribbled relics of my 'Grand Tour'  interrail trip of Europe.

Wasn't that learning 'any time, any place'?

"Increasingly, people are learning informally through their mobile devices." S.Wheeler

Yes, this is undoubtedly true but don't their mobile devices restrict how and what they learn? 

What is 'informal learning'? Isn't it just learning?

A smartphone interface, its tactile surface (like a shop window is tactile) does that not limit learning?

A web tale...

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”
“O no, no,” said the little fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

Mary Howitt

A web full of information does that paradoxically not limit learning? 

Even if one develops advanced 'crap detection' one is still interacting with a select type of potential documents. 

What of aborigene people or others who will never interact via this 'World Wide Web'?  

Are they not learning 'any time, any place'? 

Actually, not, their learning is centred on their particular ecology of which they are a part.  

Are we not at risk of losing their learning?

Can we really be 'any place'? 

Might the 'World Wide Web' of information not actually take us away from learning what is most essential for our interaction with our local ecology?

Aren't we tethered via these 'mobile devices' to a particular world view?

Aren't we tethered via these 'mobile devices' to a particularly dominant cultural norm?

Aren't we tethered via these 'mobile devices' to commercial data mining of our existence?

Aren't we tethered via these 'mobile devices' to security service tracking of our movements?

To be or not to be?

Don't these mobile devices actually stop people learning?  

Those people who interrupt  Hamlet to take photos of Sherlock or Dr Who are they learning?

Haves and haves not?

Does our 'academic freedom' come at the cost of the slavery of others?  

What do we know of the ecological price of smartphone manufacture?  

Well to be frank, I didn't know much about the ecological price of a smartphone...

I went and looked for information (on the internet - to which we are 'all' tethered now) and found cases of worker exploitation and death in mines, factories, environmental devastation.  150 people die every year in Indonesia mining for raw materials:  http://fridaymagazine.ae/features/reportage/smart-phone-manufacturing-the-social-and-environmental-implications-1.1218884  , so not much academic freedom for them!

What do we know of the cultural impact of the mobile devices on the education of young people in developing countries?

Clearly, the impact is enormous for better and for worse, depending on how one looks at it. 

A Pew Report from March 2015 illustrates this cultural impact in 'developing countries' (I never understood that term). http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/03/19/internet-seen-as-positive-influence-on-education-but-negative-influence-on-morality-in-emerging-and-developing-nations/.  


Whether we are tethered or not, whether we are learning or not, whether we like it or not, we are obliged to ask ourselves and our students questions about what sort of 'academic freedom' is desirable.  

S.Wheeler is absolutely right to emphasise that we have no choice but to reflect on these tools:

"The significance of the mobile device cannot be underestimated. In the last decade personal, mobile technology has gained a dramatic purchase on western society. It has driven many social, economic, political and, yes - psychological changes. The relative benefits and limitations of these changes can be debated elsewhere, but fundamentally, educators need to recognise something significant." S.Wheeler

As we become ever more 'hyperconnected', I am far from certain that we are or we will be 'freer'...

Image credits

Tethered Horse by piddix

Leonardo da Vinci 'Foetus in the Womb' 


  1. Thanks Simon! Very good questions

  2. Agree with Maha - so many good questions. I'm glad you're not expecting quick, simple answers. We write out what's going through our head and before we've thought of answers, we're asking more questions.

  3. Your observations are indeed valid in my opinion. I have always held the belief that great learning can happen without electricity (apart from that of neurons firing). It is so important to acknowledge the power of people and the physical rather than get carried away by the shiny tech.(I would in no way consider myself to be a tech evangalist). I believe that, as a tech advocate I need to ensure understanding of the true cost of technical tools - in terms of human and other resources. I am sure that Steve would agree. The scope of such tools to extend our reach and experience has to be explored - that is human nature but we should be transparent about the true costs and sustainability of what we do.

    1. Thanks Teresa. I am forever sceptical of what is shiny :-)

  4. Even at this young stage of tech implementation in schools, we are already seeing some of the opposing pendulum swing. We already have students weary of technology and teachers who have been asked to use fewer computer-based activities in class because the students have been staring at screens too much. I think that your post does a fantastic job of asking about these issues in subtle and intriguing ways. These devices allow us to know what is going on more quickly and more vastly than we could no otherwise, which is good - fewer chances for hidden crevices of evil. But as you said, they take us away from our personal ecology and local concerns. They allow us valuable distractions which are neverthless distractions. For those of who are always curious and seeking new knowledge, the devices can be demons of dstraction. I love notebooks. Our students love board games and absolutely crave the social attention and intereaction they get with hands-on games rather than computer games, which they hover around like moths. The screen is a babysitter who never hugs them but always feeds them Skittles in the form of clicks and sweeps.