For years, America’s teens have been putting their smartphones to use in a number of ways, tweeting and Facebooking. Instagramming and Snapchatting. YouTube-ing, Tumblr-ing, WhatsApp-ing.
But writing academic papers on their smartphones? That’s new.
“Oh yeah,” says Samantha DeWitt, a sophomore at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham. “Everyone I know now talks about how they’re doing papers wherever.”
Adds Michael McCarthy, an English teacher at Chelsea High School, “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.”
Like many teachers, McCarthy views the trend with a combination of wariness and curiosity. But whether this latest digital evolution is an admirable sign of adolescent ingenuity or the latest evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it was probably inevitable.
Today’s smartphones, after all, are bona fide supercomputers capable of everything from capturing high-def video to securing dinner reservations. A near lifetime of cellphone use, meanwhile, has left countless teens more proficient at typing on a roughly 2-inch-by-3-inch smartphone screen than a computer keyboard.
And with extracurricular activities gobbling up after-school hours, many students fit in homework where they can, making the cellphone — that portable hunk of super-charged wonder — the instrument upon which many an essay ends up composed.
For students, the appeal is obvious: Why chain yourself to a desk — or laptop, for that matter — when you don’t have to?
Inspiration strikes? Bored on the bus? Got a little time to kill in a doctor’s waiting room?
“You can just whip out your phone . . . and do a few quick edits,” says Marshfield High School junior Daniel Heine.
Not long ago, DeWitt was competing in an out-of-town swim meet when she realized she’d forgotten to complete an English assignment due the following day.
No problem. She simply did what she often does when a writing assignment comes due: pulled out her smartphone, fired up Google Docs, and, between races, hammered out a paper on Julius Caesar.
“I got it done pretty quickly,” she says.
It’s not just emergencies, though. Some students prefer their phones to computers outright, using them to compose multi-page research papers on in-depth topics ranging from “Hamlet” to ISIS to the thematic implications of “The Great Gatsby” in its relation to nonfiction works.
In addition to her pool-deck work on Caesar, DeWitt and a class partner recently wrote the majority of an eight- or nine-page chemistry paper via cellphone, working in a document that both could access at their leisure. At Walpole High School, sophomore Christine Murray has written, by her estimation, 20 papers on her cellphone — even if her mother is still adjusting to it.
“Sometimes my mom will come into my room, and she’ll be like, ‘Christine, I just told you to get off your phone a few minutes ago — you have to start doing your homework,’ ” says Murray. “And I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m doing my homework.’ ”
With the technology easily accessible — a number of applications, including iPhone’s Notes, Google Docs, and Microsoft Word, are available via smartphone — some districts have helped pave the way, advertently or inadvertently, for this latest homework trend.
In the Foxborough school district, students are granted access to Microsoft’s Office 365, a cloud-based program that allows them access to the Office suite — including Word — from their smartphones. And at Walpole High, says Murray, some teachers issue assignments via Google Classroom, which can send notifications directly to students’ phones.
Technology in education has long been a source of debate, and the use of cellphones in classrooms has been particularly polarizing.
Admittedly, cellphone compositions can pose the occasional problem for teachers. There are the auto-correct and formatting issues. The process of transferring a cellphone file to hard-copy form creates an extra hurdle not all students manage to clear.
And while there’s some research surrounding handwritten vs. computer notetaking — a 2014 study suggested that scribbling notes by hand aids in retention — how cellphones might fit into that equation remains something of a mystery.
Still, Nicholas Provenzano, who runs the popular education blog “The Nerdy Teacher” and serves as a technology-in-education consultant, considers himself all-in on the idea.
“The extreme just assumes that if kids are using their phones to write papers that everything is going to be returned in text-speak and emojis,” he says. But “their smart device is for more than just listening to music and texting friends and calling each other — it’s a computer.
“If they can type [a paper] up on the bus on the way back from their late volleyball game, that’s a good thing.”
Indeed, the occasional technological headache notwithstanding, teachers seem to be coming around. Compared to some of the ways in which teens have been known to use their phones, a class paper seems a rather tame alternative.
And if nothing else, instructors can take solace in the fact that these days, as their students peck away at their phones during class, there’s at least some chance they’re learning something.
As Shannon Wasilewski, head of the English department at Foxborough High School, puts it, “You know that sometimes they’re texting. But, hey, sometimes they’re doing their work.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.