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Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans

Harry E. Pence, SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta, NY, 13820

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          The death of Steve Jobs caused me to stop and reflect on how much computing has changed since he returned to Apple in 1997.  At that time, Microsoft ruled the world of desktop computers; MySpace was the predominant social network site and Facebook had just been registered as an online domain; Nokia was the big name in cell phones having released the first mobile phone to enable wireless email and internet connection in 1996;  Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Ph.D. students at Stanford, had just announced a new search engine, called Google; several companies had introduced tablet computers but none had achieved much popularity; and Amazon was beginning to establish itself as a leader in online book sales, having served 1.5 million customers that year.  There was intense competition within various types of computer applications, but that competition was still fragmented among several different companies.

At about this time, I began writing a series of articles for this Newsletter with the title, "What is the best search engine for Chemists?"  When I began writing, there was a plethora of different search engines available, and this seemed like a topic that might be helpful to my colleagues.  With passing time, however, Google became so dominant that my focus narrowed to the competition between Google and Microsoft.  Despite Microsoft having spent over six billion dollars on Bing, their latest attempt to dominate search, Google has continued to dominate, and this competition never became the Clash of the Titans that I expected [1].  The articles I wrote were predicated on the assumption that the main way Chemists would access online information was by using search software on desktop or laptop computers.  This assumption is no longer viable; mobile devices are becoming the new standard for many tasks, including search, that were traditionally done on desktop and laptop computer.

The real clash of the Titans may already be underway, but contrary to my expectations, the battle to determine which company will control the future of personal computing is being fought over mobile devices, like phones and tablets, rather than search.  Apple and Google have pushed aside the early leaders in cell phone technology, including Motorola and Nokia, to become the innovation leaders.  Recently Nokia, the Finnish mobile company, has agreed to replace its mobile operating system with that provided by Microsoft.  It remains to be seen if the Nokia/Microsoft combination can overcome the technological lead of Apple and Google.  The companies competing with the iPhone, mainly use the Android operating system, created by Google.  Google is in the process of buying Motorola Mobility, presumably to secure the treasure trove of mobile patents held by Motorola. Recently, both Nokia and Microsoft have released new phones, but this news was largely lost in the blizzard of publicity for the iPhone 4s.  The dark horse in the race is Amazon, which already dominates ereaders with the Kindle, and has now released a low-priced tablet, the Fire.  The important message from these developments is that some very innovative companies with large amounts of cash are going to be focused on the development of mobile computing in the next few years.

In addition, more and more young people have smartphones and use them to access the World Wide Web (WWW).    Globally, there are about three cell phones for every computer, and in the year 2008, for the first time sales of smartphones were greater than the sales of laptop computers [2].  A recent study by the Pew Trust reported that "87% of smartphone owners access the internet or email on their handheld, including two-thirds (68%) who do so on a typical day. When asked what device they normally use to access the internet, 25% of smartphone owners say that they mostly go online using their phone, rather than with a computer. [3]" The report notes that these percentages are higher for some groups, including those younger than 45.  A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that 40% of college students use the Internet on mobile devices every day, and students increasingly expect that all their college services will be available from their phone [4].  

Taken together these developments suggest that mobile computing use is continuing to expand rapidly and that increasing numbers of the students in our Chemistry classrooms will be carrying mobile devices that are connected to the World Wide Web.  Currently, the use of mobile devices is at about the same point that electronic calculators were a couple of decades ago.  There are still many teachers who may remember the efforts to ban electronic calculators from the classroom.  It is clear that these efforts were un successful, and it is likely that similar attempts to ignore or ban classroom use of mobile devices will fail.  It is time to begin thinking about how the mobile ecosystem can be integrated into Chemistry teaching

It is possible that some of the antipathy towards these devices arises from a misunderstanding based on the word phone.   A modern cell phone is no more like a conventional telephone than a modern automobile is a horseless carriage.  Both the automobile and the smartphone have capabilities that much greater than their antecedents.  The cell phone has become a powerful, handheld, web-enabled, image processing computer.  It is the most powerful research device created since the desktop computer, and many of our students already recognize this.  It is true that cell phones can serve as a communications device that may be a distraction in class, but focusing on this aspect is no more productive than focusing only on the fact that automobiles create junkyards when they are discarded.  In each case the problem is real but is solvable and does not represent a reason to ignore the potential usefulness of these technologies.  In addition, banning smartphones at this stage is probably as likely to succeed as was the attempt to ban all electronic calculators.

Recent research suggests that users are already changing their mental habits to take advantage of the computer software, like Google [5].  There is a tendency to use the computer to offload information that is needed less often.  This is consistent with transactive memory theories proposed by Daniel Wegner thirty years ago, namely that humans often depend on shared memories to complement their own remembering.  For example, a husband might depend upon his wife to remember some facts, or, in the modern day, a student might use the computer as an auxiliary memory, where facts could be recovered as needed [6].  In a similar way, classroom work might discriminate between essential facts, that must still be learned, and less critical information, that can be looked up on a computer as needed.    

When thinking about the classroom of the future, it is better to think in terms of the mobile ecosystem rather than specific devices, like smartphones.  Many young people seem to be quite satisfied to watch videos and read text on a phone screen, but those of us somewhat further along in years may well appreciate the larger screen on a tablet computer, like the iPad.  As the recent explosion of interest in tablet computers demonstrates, the world of computer devices is constantly changing, and so there may be some new device is the offing that will be more attractive.  The mobile ecosystem can be defined as the combination of mobile devices, apps, operating systems, physical objects, and networks that integrates information retrieval and communications.  Of course, there will still be some jobs that are better done on a laptop or desktop computer.

Apple has recently released the latest version of the iPhone, the 4s, which expands the already impressive capabilities of the previous versions.  In addition to a faster dual core chip and improved camera, the new version includes a "personal assistant," Siri, which understands verbal commands, so that you can now tell your phone, "Remind me to turn on the coffee maker when I get to work," and the phone will not only remind you, but the Global Positioning System in the phone will know when you get to work and remind you then.  Siri accepts vocal commands to search the web for information.  The search is currently directed to Wikipedia or WolframAlpha, but it is quite likely that soon this capability will be expanded to Google or Bing.  If Apple decides not to do this, some other smartphone maker will surely seize upon this as a competitive advantage.

How will this change the chemistry classroom?  Several faculty are already trying to answer this question.  For example, McDonald recently reported in this Newsletter , that she was using smartphones in her high school classroom [7]. There are already a large number of chemistry-related apps available [8] including Chemspider, which is an excellent data base of chemical information [9].  Williams has made a number of presentations about using the Mobile Internet for Chemistry, and many of these are available on Slideshare, including one titled, " Taming The Wild West Of Internet Based Chemistry You Can Help [10] and another on Mobile Chemistry and "Generation App" [11].  Some entire campuses have whole-heartedly made a commitment to mobile technology.  For example, Abilene Christian University, a small college in Texas, is entering its fourth academic year of implementing mobile technologies, like iPhones, iPods, and iPads,  across the campus, and according to a recent survey, "89 percent of faculty members bring mobile devices to class; 84 percent regularly use the devices in class; and half of faculty report using the devices in every class [12]."  Private communications from some of the Chemistry faculty involved in this effort suggest that they are enthusiastic about this change.

Cloud computing does not require commitment to mobile devices but access to the computing cloud does expand the capabilities of mobile computing.  Many of the same major corporations are behind this initiative as are behind mobile technologies, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.  Software like Google Docs and Dropbox create opportunities for even undergraduates to learn about manipulation of large data sets [13].  Hey et al have argued that this is an essential skill for science students in the Digital Age [14].

Earlier in this online session, there was considerable discussion of the future of lecture as a teaching method.  If mobile learning becomes as widely adopted as expected, all the current methods will probably need some revision.  In some cases, like the traditional stand and deliver facts lecture, extensive adjustment will be needed.  When students will carry in their pockets the equivalent of a major research library, classroom work can, and should, go beyond focus on individual facts.  There will be many different ways to use mobile devices, but at this stage it is critical that these possibilities be explored.

The Clash of the Titans is coming soon to a classroom near you, and, unlike the movie of the same name, it will not be a spectator event; don't bother to bring popcorn.  Some of the largest and most innovative companies in this country will be trying to convince you to explore new ways for teaching and learning, and your students are already using their products.  It looks like interesting times ahead for chemical education, and I should continue to have plenty to write about, even if the Microsoft-Google battle over search never meets my expectations.



1.         Miller, M., "Microsoft CEO: We've Got Siri Beat, Bing vs Google = Draw", Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Watch, http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2118863/Microsoft-CEO-Weve-Got-Siri..., (Accessed on Nov. 1, 2011).

2.         Leonhard, G., "Mobile Marketing Futures: Data is the new Oil ", Media Futurist, Media Futurist, http://www.mediafuturist.com/2009/06/mobile-marketing-futures-data-is-th..., (Accessed on Oct. 25, 2011).

3.         Smith, A.,Smartphone Adoption and Usage 2011, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Smartphones.aspx, (Accessed on Nov. 1, 2011)

4.         Keller, J., As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011. p. A1.

5.         Bohannon, J., Searching for the Google Effect on People's Memory. Science, 2011. 333(July 15): p. 277.

6.         Wegner, D.M., Transactive Memory: A Contemporary Analysis of the Group Mind in Theories of Group Behavior, B. Mullen and G.R. Goethals, Editors. 1986, Springer-Verlag: New York, NY. p. 185-208.

7.         McDonald, L.M., "Anecdotal Uses of Facebook, Google Calendar, and Cell Phones in a High School Classroom of Entry", Committee Compt. Chem. Ed. Newsletter: http://science.widener.edu/svb/cccenews/fall2010/paper4.html

8.         Williams, A. and H.E. Pence, Smartphones: a Powerful Tool in the Chemistry Classroom. Journal of Chemical Education, 2011. 88(6): p. 761-3.

9.         Pence, H.E. and A. Williams, ChemSpider: An Online Chemical Information Resource. J.Chem.Ed., 2010. 87(11): p. 1123-4.

10.       Williams, A., Taming The Wild West Of Internet Based Chemistry You Can Help. 2010.

11.       Williams, A.,Mobile Chemistry and "Generation App",2011, http://www.slideshare.net/AntonyWilliams/mobile-chemistry-and-generation..., (Accessed on Nov. 2, 2011)

12.       Schaffhauser, D.,Mobile Initiatives 'Breaking Down the Walls of the Classroom' at Abilene Christian U,2011, http://campustechnology.com/articles/2011/10/24/mobile-initiatives-break..., (Accessed on Nov. 3, 2011)

13.       Bennett, J. and H.E. Pence, Managing Laboratory Data using Cloud Computing as an Organizational Tool. Journal of Chemical Education. Tentatively accepted.

14.       Hey, T., ed. The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery. 2009, Microsoft Research: Redmond, WA.


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assessment in the digital age

I have been collecting on-line data for assessment of the basics for eight years.  The data does not show any dramatic changes in recent years.  Students are getting roughly the same percentage of answers right the first time as they did years ago.  Most of my activities have changed over the years, but I just looked up data for one that has been used since 2007 where the range of first right answers by a similar number of students (700-800) at the same educational level has been 59% (2007), 64% (2008), 61%(2009), 64% (2010), 62%(2011) of 87 answers to be entered.  It seems to me that there is very little evidence for increased looking up of the answers on the web.

I know that there are some cohorts who are hell bent on getting maximum marks, and I encountered one of these a few years ago. These are, in my experience, by far the exception.  The data that I have which results from asking the same questions using the same numbers over several years, is that most students would sooner click a choice than look it up on the web.  However I do have evidence from student comment that once they get something wrong AND they haven't understood why it is wrong, they look stuff up on the web.  I find that very encouraging.



Higher level learning is essential if facts are cheap

Wonderful and thought-provoking article!  I think we have clashes of so many ideas and roles in academia with this generation of students.  We as experts no longer have to be the source of rich content as we as  have been for so many generations.  The Internet has brought us off the podium. The redefinition of our role requires a rework of thinking about teaching and learning in this age.

We are now the guides to content.  This opens so many doors!  It also puts a larger cognitive burden on our students (I don't think they realize this).  In an age where information recall is no longer a "testable" issue, students must become more adept at higher levels of learning (evaluation, synthesis, comparison all up there on Bloom's taxonomy).   I find this such a challenge because the internet and easy access to the answers that lie at the lower levels of thought make it very easy for students to build a house of cards. 

So how do we guide them on the basics in this new world?  I think that in this age is essential to identify core skills (maybe the skills or concepts you might want them to have if the power goes out?).  Having these makes the vast store of information on the Internet more powerful and it is our responsibility to give students these tools. 

I see this as an opportunity in education, a new balance that needs to be struck between students and instructors to use information to the benefit of the learning experience.   I think if we guide students well, they will be better thinkers excelling in synthesis and the leaps of imagination that come from that power.

Clash of the Titans

Hi Harry,

I enjoyed your article.  I've had students use their phones to look up information which is useful in getting answers when we discuss some topic like alternative energy and we need specific information I don't have.  This is very useful.    Though I'll bet for every positve interaction there are a number of uses that have nothing to do with the topic being discussed, an unneeded additional distraction.


In particular I've not had a problem with students using calculators and programmable calculators on tests, but I have a real problem using phones on tests.  THe ability to take pictures of the test, and have a capable friend send you the answer isn't what most of us are testing for.  

Collaboration on semester projects, properly cited, should be encouraged, I don't see it on tests.

Thanks for an interesting paper!


An Open Question

While there are many new ways to teach (POGIL, Case-based, etc...), how are we keeping up with evaluating knowledge (the need to give students a grade)?

Especially, in the era of the ‘Google Effect’ and Yahoo Answers, are we currently evaluating the students or their ability to search?

~Andrew Spaeth
U. of Kansas

Evaluating information

Dear Andrew,

As I read your comment, I was immediately struck by your question, "how are we keeping up with evaluating knowledge?"  I think that this is a key question, but it is not limited to how we give grades.  In the past, most of the information students accessed on campus was screened by either faculty or librarians.  Now students have access to the real world, where they, themselves, have to determine what is true, useful, etc.  This is a set of skills that faclty have not always been good about teaching in the past, because it wasn't as important.

I used to tell my students that, "All information is biased.  Your job is to recognize the bias and determine how much it limits the way you will use the information."  That message has become key today.  It has become too easy to cut and paste information without really evaluating it.  I think that evaluating information is now a key skill, which should be given much more emphasis.  This is especially true when our society seems to be drifting towards the idea what facts are inconvenient obstacles that can be ignored on the way to a predetermined conclusion.

Grades are important,  but I think our first priority should be to find better ways to teach our students to evaluate information.  That is the key step on the path to knowledge for both science and society.


Harry, I think the success of


I think the success of essentially guided-inquiry teaching methods (POGIL, PLTL, Case-based Learning) all support the concept that teaching (and learning) is not about information delivery. Textbooks and all forms of direct instruction (lectures, handouts, videos) at their very best can only construct information - this is not knowledge. Knowledge construction -what learning truly is- is what the student does. If so, then learning is a function of the community: the student process, the guidance the teacher provides, the peer-to-peer interaction, and the background information that forms the basis of discussion and thinking (and this is where textbooks and lectures can come in).

In that sense, I agree with you that textbooks are only one of the many (lectures, internet, previous knowledge, peers) possible sources of information, and textbooks need not take on the role of sole source, nor should they try to construct information for the students. The age of easy access to information facilitates a refocusing of learning (and teaching) as an activity rather than as information delivery.

With respect,

Roberto (Greg) Gregorius

Canisus College

student use of cell phones

Hi Harry,

I find your article very thought provoking. I believe I was listening to a recent NPR discussion which said that it is no longer the "Digital Divide" that we need to recognize, but the "App Gap".  I think this reflects part of your theme.

A student was outside my office with his Android a couple of weeks ago, took a picture of a question, clicked a button which must have been some sort of OCR app and converted the image to text.  Then he clicked another button which submitted it to Google and the first hit was the answer to the question!  Yes, I had a key posted online and he found it in 3 App clicks (picture/OCR/Google).

I mentioned this to several faculty members and they were horrified, saying the kid thinks he is smart, but he is not, and he is not learning anything.  What you say about calculators is so true, when I moved into my office I found an old copy of the "Arkansas Math Crusdae 1992 Evaluation", and what were they doing???  Well, one thing, was trying to figure out if they should allow students to use calculators, and their attitude reflects the current attitude towards smart phones, sure the kids think they are smart with their calculators, but are they learning anything??

Are you familiar with Project Tomorrow?  They have some real interesting stuff.  Here is a slideshare presentation from Julie Evans of relevance to your paper: "Coming Soon to Your School or Campus: the New "Free Agent Learner," Are you ready?"


Thanks for your wonderful and insightful paper.



The times they are a-changin'!

Dear Bob,

I loved your comment that some of your colleagues were horrified, saying "the kid thinks he is smart, but he is not, and he is not learning anything. "

I would argue that the student is learning how to access information in the 21st Century, and this is a critical skill that he has apparently acquired without much help from his instructors.  The traditional paradigm that information flows from the front of the classroom to the back is no longer valid.  Now a student with a smartphone can often "recall" information almost as fast as the instructor (and in some cases even faster). 

I think the critical question for modern instruction is to decide what needs to be taught and what students can look up as needed.  What is the minimal amount of information a student needs to make use of the wealth of information avalailable on the Web?  A student can now quickly look up the Hofmann rearrangement but it won't do her much good unless she knows what an amide is and how they normally react.  To put it another way, how much of the information that we tested on in the past can now be off-loaded to alternate memory (i.e. Google) and how much must be in permanent memory?  Can we count on students to figure these new information strategies out for themselves, or is this part of what teachers are being paid to provide?  Do we still need textbooks that look like one-volume encyclopedias, or should the textbook of the future be a relatively brief digest (less than 400 pages) with copius web references that say, "for more information go to this URL?"  Does this suggest that we should, as some have suggested, "flip" the classroom, having students do the lecture- type material at home and reserving the classroom for discussion of special problems and explanation of how the class material is related to the larger world?  This would provide more time to teach skills like critical thinking that are not being taught well today (if you believe Academically Adrift). 

To put the question briefly, can we continue to teach the same way we have taught before information was readily available in an age where information is cheap but knowledge is hard to find?


small change


I have really enjoyed the posts and wanted to share a little bit of a small movement in the secondary level reagarding teaching the same way we have always been taught.

There is a small community of teachers who are "flipping" their classrooms at the secondary level in order to foster the ideas you mention.  Learning is the role of school, factual dissemination is no longer its role.  The flip uses the convenience of the online world.  Particularly, most of the "flipped" teachers are pre-recording any lecture (or providing links to external "guest" lectures) and spending their class time working on assignments that are more engaging in the learning process (hopefully). 

For me, this is quite exciting.  My chemistry classroom is not lecture-based anymore.  We spend a lot more timein class doing labs (although sometimes cookbook) and working with chemistry instead of just learning about chemistry.

As for data, I cannot verify this is going to be anymore successful than current teaching practices, but this is gaining some steam and I'm sure the research will follow (I will have some research on this as it is becoming a focus for my dissertation, but I'm not there yet).


Here's a link to the small group that are willing to identify themselves as flippers: http://flippedclassroom.com/.


Chris Luker