Home Cellphones in the Classroom: Distraction or Tool?

Cellphones in the Classroom: Distraction or Tool?

The final version of the National Education Technology Plan (NETP) was released last week, setting forth the Obama Administration’s plan for improving access to and integration of technologies for teaching and learning. Among the recommendations the Department of Education makes in the NETP is a call for support for “efforts to ensure that all students and educators have 24/7 access to the Internet via devices, including mobile devices, and that states, districts, and schools adopt technologies and policies to enable leveraging the technology that students already have.”

The push for “24/7 access to the Internet” falls under another the auspices of yet another endeavor, the National Broadband Plan. But the call for better access to Internet-ready devices, particularly utilizing tools the students already possess is an interesting one. Because the device that is ubiquitous for American students isn’t the desktop computer or the notebook or the netbook or the iPad. It’s the cellphone.

This series on Education Technology is underwritten by Dell.

Cellphones: Teens’ Primary Communication and Computing Device, Banned from Most Schools

More than 75% of those between the ages of 12-17 own cellphones. The cellphone is teens’ preferred mode of communication, and as we all know, they use the cellphone not for voice but for texting. Teens send and receive an average of 3,339 texts per month, about six texts for every hour they’re awake.

Statistics like that probably contribute to the notion that cellphones at school are a distraction. And as a result, many schools have policies – both formal and informal – that restrict cellphone use on campus. But as Pam McLeod, a K-8 Technology Director in Alton, New Hampshire, told me, cellphones are “officially banned per policy, but I suspect kids use them a lot. There are plenty of iPhones joined to our wireless LAN.”

Why We Should Allow Cellphones in the Classroom

Allowing cellphones in the classroom isn’t controversial simply because they pose a distraction. Some point to concerns about their use for cyberbullying. And others point out that students’ cellphones can pose challenges to CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

Schools and libraries that receive E-rate funding from the federal government are required by CIPA to block or filter obscene material. As a result, most schools implement various levels of filtering, some much more stringent than what CIPA mandates. And when students use their own cellphones and data plans in lieu of wireless, they are able to bypass filters that schools have in place. Implementing a technical solution to this can take quite some time. McLeod says, for example, that the guest wireless is content filtered and isolated from the LAN. But in the meantime, many schools are working on acceptable use policies for cellphones.

But beyond crucial lessons in digital citizenship, cellphones can be a great (and low-cost) technology tool in the classroom. Cellphones are cameras and audio recorders, allowing students to work on multimedia projects. Cellphones are calculators. They are calendars – a far better way to record homework assignments than the print calendars students never carry around. Cellphones can be used to poll students in classrooms. In other words, cellphones can allow students to create and to share content, and they can provide an important bridge between the classroom and home.

Changing Attitudes, Changing Policies

Some also object to cellphones in the classroom as they may reveal the socioeconomic differences between students who have smartphones, those who have flipphones, and those who have none. The NETP suggests something akin to the Free Lunch program so that all students can have access to these and other mobile devices. In responding to other concerns about the expense, teacher Vicki Davis says that she asks students at the beginning of the year if they have access to unlimited texting so that she can send them homework reminders via SMS. For those that don’t, she helps them set up free alternatives.

Encouraging cellphones in the classroom is part of a larger push by some educators to embrace Web 2.0 tools for teaching and learning. But, as the National Education Technology Plan points out, it’s also a question of opening access to Internet-ready mobile devices. So, like many educators, McLeod says she’d like to see her district change its policy to match the support offered students who bring their own laptops or netbooks to school – sign a contract with the students, parents, and the school.

With the encouragement of the Department of Education and the recommendation of the National Education Technology Plan, not to mention budget issues that make other forms of one-to-one computing impossible, it may be that more schools re-evaluate their policies around student cellphone usage.

Photo by minasi

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