The Smartphone: Contrasting Outcomes for Learners and Consumers

For the individual seeking  passive entertainment, smartphones are gateways to a new world of content. The same applies to the learner engaging that content toward a specific learning goal. But whereas a simplified and “black-boxed” virtual environment enables the consumer, it may be a limiting factor for the learner.  

Noted design expert Donald Norman frames the relationship between user and devices such as smartphones as tools by labeling the latter as a “cognitive artifact”:

It is clear that we are entering a new era of technology, one dominated by access to computation, communication, and knowledge, access that moreover can be readily available, inexpensive, powerful and portable. Much of what will transpire can be called the development of cognitive artifacts, artificial devices that enhance human cognitive capabilities.

He goes on to describe how this augmentation in capability is more a reflection of how the task has changed in capacity, rather than the individual, but still leading to enhanced cognitive capabilities overall (“Norman-Cognitive-Artifacts.pdf,” n.d.). Potential engagement with ideas, media, and interaction increases by virtue of that shift. Ostensibly, this implies a positive relationship between user and goal attainment for both personas, however, when contrasted how might increased capacity for consuming content differ from learning from it? The discerning factor may be whether that smartphone limits metacognition and self-awareness within a “black-boxed” virtual learning environment.

Metacognition was first defined in 1976 as “thinking about your own thinking” (McGuire & McGuire, 2015), implying the capacity to self-direct one’s own learning process with attention to what they know, and what they don’t know. This brand of self-aware, contextual learning is what differentiates the learner from the consumer, and their approach to the content accessible through smartphones. A virtual learning environment that limits this awareness as a precondition to accessing deluges of content is nevertheless limiting the learning process by definition.

Economist and complexity theorist W. Brian Arthur coined the term “black-boxed technologies ” in his book, “The Nature of Technology” equating them to an attempt to understand evolved differences in animal species without being able to compare inside anatomies – they have no obvious relation. To truly understand the fundamental questions behind technology, it’s necessary to open them up, saying “If we want to know how [technologies] relate to each other, and how they originate and subsequently evolve, we need to open them up and look inside their anatomies.” (Arthur, n.d.).  

Apple’s ecosystem of smartphones exemplifies a “black-boxed” environment for both software and hardware. Utilization of apple-branded artifacts both enable the user with streamlined design; users flock to these products due to their simplicity and usability. But these benefits come while decreasing flexibility within and interoperability outside of the software and hardware ecosystem. It follows, then, that when diving into content with the intent to go beyond consuming with their smartphone and into wielding it as a learning implement – it’s necessary to reframe that learning tool as not existing within a vacuum. For the metacognitive learner, the choice to ignore awareness of the technology underlying their learning process is a choice to learn with limits.


Arthur, B. (n.d.). The Nature of Technology: What it is and How It Evolves. Free Press A Division of Simon & Schuster.

McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2015). Metacognition: What it is and How it Helps Students. In Teaching Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course To Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills and Motivation. Stylus Publishing.

Norman-Cognitive-Artifacts.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2017, from