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Marty Heidigger Might Well Have Used a Smartphone for Learning

What is the best computer for students to use for school (K-12)? In the not so distant past, the only viable option would have been laptops, so that question had a simple answer. But today, we have ebook readers, smartphones, phablets (smartphones with 5 inch and greater screens), superphones[1], 7 inch tablets, 10 inch tablets, ultrabooks, and old-fashioned laptops. (Just in case you missed the announcement[2]: Netbooks are dead.) So, no longer does that that question have a simple answer.

Now, in a recent blog[3], we argued that those who are developing tests in support of the Common Core should not be in charge of answering the above question! OK, then... let us take a crack at providing an answer!

First, we need to define the word "school." "School" is a building (real or virtual) that students attend for about 7-8 hours per day, Monday through Friday. **HONK** Not exactly! Yes, school may be a building, but learning--an activity that ostensibly is a major reason for being in the building--is not confined to that building. Indeed, learning is ALL the time, EVERYwhere--on the walk home from school, in the mall, at the dinner table, etc. (It's not just a semantic quibble: "Anytime, anywhere learning" simply does not capture the ubiquity of learning!)

Based on the above argument, then, let's reformulate the driving question: what is the best computer for students to use for learning?

So, consider this situation: Say a 3rd grader has had a lesson about trees that afternoon in school. When the youngster is walking home she notices a really cool, gnarly, root system of an old, old tree. Naturally, the abstract ideas about trees from today's lesson pop into the 3rd grader's head. Making connections, after all, is a key, learning activity. Now, remembering her teacher's admonition that sharing that cool picture (or story, or sound, or ...) with her classmates is an appropriate learning activity, she slides her hand out of her coat pocket, points the smartphone's camera that came out of her pocket when she retracted her hand, snaps a picture--by clicking one button--of the really cool, gnarly root system, and slides her hand with the smartphone back into her pocket--all the while studying and reflecting on the really cool, gnarly root system of the old, old tree.

Now, consider an alternative scenario: instead of a smartphone with camera sliding out of her pocket, the 3rd grader needs to take her backpack off her back, set it on the ground, root around for her 10 inch tablet, drag it out carefully, hold a 1.5 pound tablet in both hands, find the camera app, hold a 10 inch glass and steel device steady, focus on the really cool, gnarly root system and not the car parked next to the really cool, gnarly root system, all the while in mortal fear of dropping the 10 inch tablet.

While the first scenario is easily imaginable, the latter scenario is more like ... bloody unlikely! Why?

Martin Heidigger, a World War II era German philosopher would say that the smartphone was "ready-to-hand" (zuhanden in German) while the tablet was "present-at-hand" (vorhanden). The 3rd grader didn't think about the smartphone per se, but rather, she simply used it as part of her learning--linking the abstract ideas discussed in the classroom with the concrete instantiations that happened to be present in her world. In contrast, since the 3rd grader needed to focus on the 10 inch tablet itself, and interrupt her learning about plants, Marty would say that the tablet was "present-at-hand."

Having a computer ready-to-hand facilitates--nay, encourages--24/7 learning, encourages linking the abstract with the concrete, encourages collaborating with peers and teachers. The 3rd grader with one more tap, could have sent the picture to her BFF's in the class and chatted with them about the really cool, gnarly root system as she continued her walk home. A ready-to-hand computer affords opportunities for learners that simply were not available before!

Is the smartphone, then, the best computer for learning? Well, it will take more than one 700 word blog to make that case! But, this one 700 word blog is a good start; stay tuned!


About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at