Forty Four Years Ago

using a mobile phone and a laptop

The first handheld mobile phone call was made forty four years ago, on the 3rd of April 1973. There had been mobile phone before, in cars and lorries, but forty years ago saw the first phone call from a handheld cellular mobile phone. Well you also needed to carry a bag too (for the battery).

I suspect most (it not all) the people reading this blog post have a mobile phone, or if they don’t they did at one time.

It’s interesting that a technology, which has reached such a milestone, is still seen by many teachers and practitioners as disruptive, and should be banned in classrooms.

Six years after this first experiment, we saw on Tomorrow’s World how they were being introduced to the UK, with some barriers and problems coming from the Post Office (of which the telephony was eventually spun off and sold off as British Telecom).

Even then, you could see the usefulness of the device as a way of making phone calls on the move, and whilst mobile. What was less apparent was the potential of the device as a mobile portable computer, even in 1979, personal computing was very much in its infancy. Even the first few pocket and portable computers didn’t have connectivity.

It is the smartphone’s connection to the internet and the web, which makes it a very different device to those early handheld mobile phones. The mobile phone today is a transformative and enabling device and in many ways a different concept to the one we saw back in 1973. The mobile phone today is much more than just a voice communication device, it can do so much more. I have done this exercise at many mobile learning workshops, I ask the participants to list all the different things they do on their phones. Interestingly, making phone calls is either not mentioned or very low on the list. The sorts of things that people today do on their phone includes (and is certainly not limited to) texting, social networking, photography, film making, audio recording, playing games, reading books, looking at magazines, listening to music and other recordings, watching video, streaming video, doing quizzes, creating content, and so much more…

It is this functionality that makes the mobile phone so much more than what was first seen back in 1973, and it is this functionality that teachers see as disruptive and challenging to manage.

using a mobile phone

The reality is that learners don’t use mobile phones in classrooms in the way they were envisaged, for making actual phone calls! The problem many practitioners have with mobile phones is not with the phones themselves, neither with learners making phone calls in lessons, the problem is a very different issue.

Banning mobile phones or asking students to turn them off, is not a real solution, at most conferences and events when delegates are asked to turn off their phones, most will turn them to silent mode. So much so that conference organisers seem to ask people now to turn them to silent mode rather than turn them off. I am sure many learners in a classroom situation will do something similar.

The question you have to ask is why are learners switching off in lessons and using their mobile phones? Yes there will be the odd learner who is addicted to their phones and can’t help themselves using it. However these learners are in a very small minority. Think about if this was the case for all learners, then in all lessons, all learners would be disengaged and using their mobile phones; now that doesn’t happen.

Rather than blame the learners, the key is to think about why they are disengaging in your lessons. Why are they switching off from learning and switching on their phones?

Another possible solution is to embrace the use of the mobile phone and make it part of the learning process, as well as making the learning engaging and interesting. The very functionality that can be so disruptive or attractive to learners, can also be effective in supporting learning and assessment.

Engaging doesn’t always mean interactive and doesn’t mean that it can’t be hard or difficult. Thinking about challenging problems is an effective learning process.

using a mobile phone

The mobile phone is forty four years old, in many ways the disruptive nature of mobile phones is new, but only because the mobile phone has evolved into something very different from a device used to make mobile phone calls.

version of this article was first published in 2013 when the handheld mobile phone call was forty years old.

One thought on “Forty Four Years Ago”

  1. Your post, James, has got me to reflect on two rather different meaning of the word ‘disruptive’ – one positive and one negative. When we talk of ‘disruptive technology’ we are referring to inventions that profoundly change the way things are done, the way we live our lives. And the technology of the smartphone – portable and ubiquitous access to the Internet – is arguably the most disruptive technological innovation for everyday life since the development of the railways in the mid-19th century. But when we use the word ‘disruptive’ in an educational context we are usually referring to the troublesome/troubling behaviour of learners who see neither value nor interest in what they are being required to do. And the mobile phone is implicated in this type of ‘disruption’ as well, as you have pointed out.

    Actually I believe we have to accept that there is indeed some incompatibility (or at the very least some tension) between our expectations regarding mobile phones and our expectations regarding teacher-focused classroom lessons. Why would a student want to give 100% attention to ‘the sage on the stage’ when they have access to thousands of sages and stages, as well as other sources of information, in their pocket? Surely this question is the answer to your question: “Why are they switching off from learning and switching on their phones?” In fact we have to develop and agree new social norms for how and when it is acceptable to use mobile phones in all sorts of situations, not just the classroom. Should we, for example feel free to interact with our mobile during a consultation with a doctor, a music rehearsal, a job interview?

    But some teachers and institutions have, as we know, responded to the tension between teacher-focused learning and mobile phones by imposing a blanket ban on phone use. Now this may be understandable, but surely it is misguided. I suggest that rather than restricting the use of phones in educational contexts we should instead think about restricting the use of teacher-focused classrooms! A decade or so ago I did the OU’s MA in online and distance education. Not a single moment of the programme was spent in a classroom (virtual or otherwise); not a single moment of it required that I pay synchronous attention to a teacher – yet this course was one of the great educational experiences of my life. And in the 12 years since I was awarded the MA the educational possibilities of mobile technology have advanced enormously, making the teacher-focused classroom even less of a necessity. So surely 44 years after the introduction of the mobile phone, students, teachers, schools and colleges now need to embrace the positive meaning of “disruptive technology” not the negative one.

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