Get smart or fall behind

By: Bree Rody-Mantha, Features Editor

That iPhone you own may be more than just a cool, grown-up toy that you use to confirm your party plans via Facebook and text messaging. iPhones, Blackberries, Android phones and the various other cell phones with multi-tasking platform technology are rapidly becoming standards in the social and professional world.

As the prices of smartphones and data plans lower and retailers shift their focus more towards multi-tasking mobile devices, it is apparent that a phase-out has begun for regular talk-and-text cellular phones. Mobile users may soon be forced to adapt to smartphones or face falling behind.

With so much new technology readily available, especially for students, mobile devices have become a great convenience as well as a great distraction. Though university professors have been attempting to ban cell phone use in class, according to a September 2010 online poll conducted by The Cord, the majority of Laurier students continue to use phones in class.

Additionally, recent technological developments indicate that attempts to bar cell phone use in lectures may not only be fruitless, but counter-productive.

“The students that we are increasingly attracting […] are used to learning in a different way,” said Ginny Dybenko, Laurier’s head of strategic initiatives. “It’s really important that the university allows for this and really takes advantage of it.”

Connecting students and teachers

Though some teachers still prohibit the use of cellular phones and even laptops in the classroom, developers have come up with ways that those devices can be used to enhance learning rather than take away from it.

Top Hat Monocle is one company that is attempting to achieve that. The Waterloo-based company markets a system to professors which allows students to answer quiz questions, participate in polls and provide feedback via phones and computers — rendering devices such as the iClicker obsolete.

Mohsen Sahini, co-founder of Top Hat Monocle, conceived the idea while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Waterloo.

Sahini said he noticed a lack of engagement and organization among lower-year students, who seemed reluctant to participate. Sahini and his then-roommate Mike Silagadze (co-founder and CEO of Top Hat Monocle) came up with the idea of a system that would incorporate the media students used — laptops, cellular phones and smartphones.

“If you incorporate the technology students are using with what you are hoping to achieve, you can increase student engagement,” he said.

In 2010, Laurier’s Masters’ of Business Administration (MBA) program launched a project where full-time MBA students were given Blackberries.

The intent was for students to take advantage of the devices’ tools such as Blackberry messenger, voice notes and video for the purposes of collaboration and communication with classmates, professors, and employers.

The project was viewed as successful and Laurier hopes to expand on the project in years to come.

Beyond schoolwork, the devices are also becoming essential communication tools for social interactions.

“A lot of schools have their own mobile applications that are interactive space,” said Kory Jeffrey, coordinator for Laurier’s Digital Media Hub.

Indeed, the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU) has released an application in an attempt to catch up with what is apparently becoming a standard. The application, however, has gone through several technical mishaps which delayed its production. It is currently available for the iPhone.

Reaching outside the classroom

“I can foresee the day when we deploy technology to allow not only for that technology in and of itself to be used within the classroom but really to bust open the walls of the classroom,” said Dybenko. “Allow in experts from different geographic locations, [and] opinions from various places that you could find on the Internet.”

Jeffrey also feels that the mindset of education is shifting, and that knowledge is no longer closed off and exclusive. “If you look at Laurier,” he explained, “It’s kind of closed off. It’s separated by all these walls… but go to Google, and you can Google almost anything.”

Jeffrey gave examples of schools who have embraced the openness of information rather than combated it.

“Big institutions such as [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have taken all their coursework and made it public,” he explained. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re part of the institution or not — you can see their coursework. You can go online right now and look it up.”

Dybenko feels that increasing technology will help to unite rather than alienate.

“All technology does is allow access to content — and content is absolutely everywhere.”

“It’s only going to get more exciting”

As is the way of technology, new developments are constantly arising.

“[Technology] is everywhere,” said Dybenko, “And it’s only going to get more exciting.” Many agree that the next developments to watch for are those of tablets.

Tablet computers such as the Apple iPad and Research In Motion (RIM)’s Playbook have risen into the market. Though many questioned the practicality of the iPad upon its initial release in April 2010, it was met with mostly favourable reviews and moderately successful sales.

With The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg praising the iPad as a “pretty close” laptop killer, 2011 has seen an increase in production of competing tablets.

RIM released the Playbook in last month, and several tablets operating Android platforms have entered the market.

“I think tablets are definitely going to take off,” Jeffrey predicted. “It’s not a substitute for a laptop yet, but it’s a convenient addition.”

Jeffrey explained that thanks to cloud computing, anyone with a broadband connection can sync their tablet with a home computer. “You can access all of your data sets at home or wherever, without having an actual hard drive,” he said. “With all that together, eventually, you’re only going to need a tablet.”