Why students shouldn’t write on a smartphone

Photo Illustration: Boston Globe

If you believe the Boston Globe or the Wall Street Journal, students are increasingly writing papers on their phones. While there are some benefits, teachers ought to discourage it, since it interferes with reflection and promotes a pernicious first-draft writing habit.

The articles on this topic are anecdotal

Like most trend pieces, both of these articles are unconvincing. Here’s a representative passage from the Wall Street Journal article “Look, Mom, I’m Writing a Term Paper on My Smartphone,” by Charlie Wells (and also see the video at the end of this post):

A junior at North Carolina’s Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and a self-described procrastinator, Daniel says his phone is his saving grace, academically speaking. He has used his phone to research and compose a slideshow about Donald Trump, a presentation on the architecture of sheds and a creative writing assignment tied to “Fahrenheit 451.” And because it is with him wherever he goes, he can do work on the bus, in the car, at lunch or at home.

Using a smartphone, he finds he completes assignments more easily than on what he calls his “bulky” laptop. “I’m a faster texter than typer,” he recently wrote in an email sent from his LG smartphone.

The Boston Globe featured the story on its front page today, titled “Teens’ newest use for smartphones? Writing school papers on them.” And typically, the reporter, Dugan Arnett, dug up a few students who were doing what he identified as a trend:

Michael McCarthy, an English teacher at Chelsea High School, [says] “Even my AP students will sometimes do [a paper] practically all on their phone.” He has become accustomed to hearing students say, “I wasn’t able to print it out, but here it is on my phone.”

These articles prove that the phenomenon exists, but so far there’s no way to know how extensive it is. But is it a good idea?

The phone, always at hand, seems like an ideal tool

As a coauthor of The Mobile Mind Shift, I’m no luddite when it comes to phones. Here are a few arguments on why students should write papers on phones.

  • The tools are in the cloud. Students using tools like Google Chrome, Evernote, Microsoft Office 360, and Google Docs have access to the same tools they can use on a desktop. This means they can use any device they want and collaborate easily.
  • Smartphones are great research tools. Research tools from search to Facebook (for discovery) to email (for setting up interviews) are effective on phones. If your job is to find material to support a thesis, a phone is just as effective as a computer or tablet.
  • Phones are always close by. In many of these stories, the teachers want to encourage students to engage with material during any time they have. The ubiquitous phone makes that possible.
  • Students are adept with smartphones. Many can type quickly with their thumbs and are adept with phone features. Why shouldn’t they use the device they know best to do their schoolwork?

But phone affordances don’t make for good writing

normanThe author and thinker Don Norman writes eloquently about affordances — the qualities that devices have and the activities that they encourage.

The affordances of a smartphone are based on its power, size, and connectedness. Its main qualities are that it can do just about anything you’d like do with a computer, is always at hand, and connects not just to the world of information but to your personal content. The lack of a keyboard slows down older writers, but students have become adept at typing on the on-screen keyboard.

But there are two things that phones are bad at:

  1. They don’t allow you to see large chunks of text. This makes it difficult to see and understand the whole of any piece you’re working on and to relate the beginning, middle, and end.
  2. They make editing difficult. To the extent that you’re writing on a phone, you are creating a first draft. Revising that draft on a phone is painful. It’s also more difficult to access the functions that go beyond simple text, like indented quotes, bulleted lists, and creating diagrams or charts.

Writing on phones encourages first-draft thinking

All students should learn about research, writing in flow, and revision. A teacher who is delighted that students write with phones should think twice about what they’re teaching — that writing is a spur of the moment process that you can squeeze in during a ride on the bus or between Facebook sessions. This attitude deprives the student of the benefits of reflection and revision.

I’ve already bemoaned the poor preparation that students have for the working world. Workers who write on smartphones will create crap, because they’ll be embracing first-draft thinking.

It’s pretty simple: smartphones and other screens make concentration more difficult for readers. Any writer who wants to succeed in this world must work harder to write without bullshit — and that takes serious thought and applied effort. That effort won’t hit its target if you’re writing on a phone.

Here’s the WSJ video:


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  1. As a former college educator, I found that students only provided ‘first drafts’ even when working on a computer. The phone only reinforces this type of approach. Do students relay on their phones because they were not taught typing as a class? I took one year of typing in high school and it was the best class I ever took – extremely practical.

  2. Love this thoughtful post, but do you have anything I could read about the architecture of sheds? 😉

    On another note, is the problem here writing a *final draft* on a phone? Notes to inform your writing are great on a phone, last minute “oh shit” edits can be made on a phone, research can be bookmarked on a phone, etc. And tweets!