Forms, Methods and Tools Friday, June 8th, 2018

Leveraging the Smartphone as a Teaching Tool

Heather Snyder-Quinn, Graphic Design Faculty, DePaul University

Leveraging the smartphone as a creative teaching tool: Educating students to think beyond present limitations, while also understanding the societal impact of their designs

Educators are often frustrated with students’ attachment to their smartphones. But why do we assume the smartphone isn’t a creative tool akin to a pencil or brush—a simple way of seeing and interpreting the world around us?


As the world of design moves from the industrial age into the knowledge economy, it’s imperative that students understand an ever-expanding array of principles. In the words of Seymour Papert: “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” As classroom content grows, the best thing we can teach students is how to be adaptive and curious thinkers.


Students can best embrace uncertainty and find comfort in discovery by pushing the boundaries of the familiar, and this is why the phone excels as a teaching tool. Analogous to the way a drawing teacher encourages mark-making with a branch or one’s foot, we can use a smartphone’s features in unintended ways that harness its power for creation. Additionally, by exploring the capabilities of, and ever-present reliance upon our smartphones, we can open the classroom conversation to discuss ethical implications in design, including accessibility, privacy and addiction.


Although we must be vigilantly aware of our own assumptions from privilege, the democratization of the smartphone poses the opportunity to develop pedagogical methods and tools that translate effectively to areas of the world where there are limited resources, and where socio-economic circumstances vary widely.


The smartphone is a portable tool that is an extension of most students’ hands. Once students learn to use the smartphone in unintended and novel ways, they can apply this method to past technologies and those yet to be imagined. By having students hack, and create in this manner, we are teaching them to think beyond present limitations, while also understanding the societal impact of their designs.