Wes Moore
Eric Davis
Jonathan Horak
Jordan Kethley

TLC 321

April 11, 2002


Cell Phone Ethnography: Final Draft


     Since the mid-1800s, societies have tried to communicate in faster, more efficient ways.  It began with notes sent by horseback and courier, followed by the visual telegraph.  On the onset of the invention of electricity came the electrical telegraph – the first electrical means of communication.  Immediately, the world became a smaller place (no Dr. Lovata, the world did not actually shrink).  Over the past 200 years, communication technology has progressed leaps and bounds, including the ingenious “mobile cavalry telephone” (http://www.deadmedia.org/notes/25/252.html).  Invention begat invention leading up to the 1980s when wireless communication became popular through the use of pagers.  Like most technology, the beeper and early cell phones were first embraced by the business class and government.  As the technology advanced and became cheaper to produce, the majority of society began to exploit it.  Most technology before the pager soon became obsolete and the cell phone revolution commenced. 

     Segue to the mid 1990s….

     Cell phones prices dropped and rate plans dropped from dollars to cents per minute – from the anomaly to the norm.  Today cell phones litter society, such as, workplaces, schools, restaurants and places of leisure.  As college students, the aspect of this new technology that affects us the most is in schools, most of all, the classroom.  The objective of this cell phone ethnography was to research the use of cell phones on the college campus and in the classroom.  We hypothesized that the majority of students on campus own and / or used cell phones while on the Forty Acres, and that this usage has become somewhat of a necessary evil.  Mainly because it is a nuisance in class while serving an arguable purpose: an instant means of communication.  We collected data by surveying students at random on the West Mall, in the Texas Union and via e-mail.  A total of fifty-seven complete surveys were collected as a result of this sampling. 

     When we first selected the group members, we threw around lots of ideas, including monitoring cell phone usage on the West Mall by students entering and exiting buildings.  We also discussed comparing beeper usage from the past decade to cell phone usage of today.  In the end we narrowed our field of research to student usage on campus and responses from professors to said usage.  The student surveys consisted of four yes or no questions and two open response questions.  The questions were as follows: 

          1.  Do you own a cell phone?  Yes / No  ::  If yes, for how long? _______

          2.  Do you take it to campus with you?  Yes / No  :: If yes, for how many minutes do you talk on campus per week?  _______

          3.  Has your cell phone ever rung in class?  Yes / No 

          4.  Do you use it in between classes while on campus?  Yes / No

     In order to successfully conduct this survey on the West Mall (a.k.a.: stop trying to hand me meaningless pieces of paper land), we were forced to invest in tasty morsels consisting of Milky Ways™ and Snickers™ and use them as bribe material.  In many cases, our survey wasn’t interpreted correctly or filled out completely.  This forced us to void a few of the responses.

     Because the survey was taken on a highly populated and localized part of campus we were able to sample a diverse and accurate portion of the student body. For example, a little over half of the students surveyed were females.  This gender ratio is very similar to the gender makeup of the student body at UT.  Casual observation also correlated with the data.  While waiting for fifteen minutes for fellow group members to arrive, ten females were seen talking on their cell phones while walking on campus. In comparison, in the same time frame no males were seen talking on cell phones.

     Out of the valid surveys that we collected, eighty percent of the surveyed students own a cell phone.  Remarkably, all of the said surveyed students take said cell phones to said campus.

     As can be seen in the preceding graph, over three quarters of the students surveyed use their cell phones in between classes and while on campus.  We have seen the affects of cell phones on campus and in class on a first hand basis.  None of the group members have ever been in a class where a cell phone did not disrupt a lecture.  From the data we collected, we found that approximately forty-one percent of the surveyed students have had their cell phone ring during a class.  Remarkably, more than half of the surveyed students that have owned their cell phone for more than two years have allowed it to ring in class.  This data is alarming, but coincides with our original hypothesis that cell phones have become a disruption in the classroom.  To bring in an outside opinion, group members interviewed their professors from current and past semesters on the subject of cell phones in the classroom.  The general consensus of the professors was that cell phones have become a definite disruption in the classroom.  However, the level of disruption is inversely proportional to the size of the class itself.  Meaning, that in larger, less intimate classroom settings, cell phone disruption is almost expected by the professors and students, and is usually an accompaniment to all of the other commotion.  Whereas, in smaller classes, with more student/professor interaction, a cell phone is more noticed and usually causes some form of interference in the task at hand.

Although the level of disturbance in larger classes is significantly smaller, some professors that teach these larger classes react more harshly to cell phones going off.  For example, one professor that all but one of the group members have had, who will remain anonymous, goes to the extreme of planting a TA in the class on the first day to prove her point about cell phones ringing in class.  On the other end of the spectrum, most professors simply make an announcement about cell phones at the beginning of the semester or in their syllabus.  On the average, professors have noticed that cell phones have become more of a problem in just the last three or four years.  Before the cell phone craze, no other form of mobile communication was as intrusive in the classroom.  Even the popularity of pagers and two-way paging devices never boomed in the way cell phones have.  Some professors go so far as to pride themselves on their ability to “sniff out” vibrating cell phones as well as cell phones that ring in their classes. 

     From the data we collected, most of the students that talk on their cell phones while on campus, average between fifty and seventy minutes per week.  This hardly seems to necessitate the need for constant communicating abilities since most rate plans are on the average of 1000 to 2000 minutes per month.  This is somewhat of a paradox since we are not necessarily a busier society than before five years ago when cell phones were uncommon.  It seems that society is using this technology only because it is available, not because it is necessary.  Society has put forth the feeling that instant and direct communication is necessary, and without it, there is somewhat of a void.  Even a short in class discussion by Dr. Lovata showed that most of us felt incomplete without our cell phones on our persons at all times. 

     One of the variables researched by the group was the length of ownership of the persons’ cell phone.  The range of ownership was as low as three months and as high as fifty-one months.  Over eighty-five percent of the surveyed students have owned their cell phone for more than one year.  However, this doesn’t coincide with the age of the students.  For example, one female test subject explained that she had owned her cell phone for four years and yet she was only a freshman at UT.  This further proves that the growth of cell phone popularity is hitting younger people as well as college age people.  Many high schools have even started regulating cell phone use at school even going so far as banning bringing cell phones to school at all.  This also paralleled the use of pagers when all of the group members were in high school.  The average length of time of ownership is approximately twenty-six months.  However, more than a quarter of the students have owned a cell phone for over three years.  Although our data doesn’t show it, we believe that that majority of university students purchased their cell phones after arriving at the university, and not when they were living at home attending high school. 

     The goal of this study was to examine the use of cell phones on campus.  We examined how the use of cell phones has increased over the past few years, how cell phones fit into everyday life on campus, and how cell phones affect the classroom.  Our survey for students included questions about general usage.  It was short but very effective (mainly because of our bribing incentive).  Each member of the group also conducted small interviews with faculty about cell phones.  After calculating all of the data, our personal hypotheses and in class observations proved similar to the actual amount of cell phone use on campus.  The amount of students that allow their cell phones to ring in class that we observed simply by going to class is proportional to the actual amount of surveyed students that allow this to happen.  Our original hypothesis was that cell phone usage has become a nuisance on campus and that most of the student body owned a cell phone.  Our data clearly that this hypothesis is correct and that the amount of cell phone use of campus is very high