The Cell Phone Nemesis?

cellphoneLast Friday, I had a very thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation with a teacher at our alternative high school. The subject was our district’s cellphone-friendly policy, which recognizes the potential positive applications of these increasingly powerful, pocket-sized computers. The discussion focused (in my mind, at least) on the need for a clear plan when a school or district implements such a policy. While I assured him plans were in the works to offer clear guidelines for students and teachers, I had to admit that no explicit direction was in place when the policy went into effect. I am a strong supporter of the plan, but the teacher, who I truly respect, offered some insightful anecdotes based upon his experiences so far. Three that stood out with me follow.

  • Students are often (usually, in fact) unaware of the impolite nature of their cellphone use. It isn’t unheard of to have a student actually take a call during class. Illustrating this adroitly, I checked an email on my Droid while we were speaking. It was nothing more than a glance lasting 4 or 5 seconds, but for that time, my attention left the teacher and communicated, albeit unintentionally, that my email was more important than our conversation. For many today, manners seem like an antiquated concept, but they are vital to an increasingly cooperative, collaborative society. I had to sheepishly apologize and agree completely with his point.
  • Cell phones are not always useful or appropriate in the classroom. Teachers who forbid their use during class may be viewed as some type of rebellious dinosaur. Just like any technology, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and teachers need to have the ability to make their own decisions about how to use or not use the devices in ways that best meet the needs of students and the requirements of the curriculum.
  • Not all students have cell phones, much less the more powerful smart phones. Equity of access is a real issue, particularly in low-income schools. I asserted that we should still try to take advantage of the resources which were available, but I see his point.

We are in the embryonic stage in our cell phone policy. Teachers and administrators would immediately confiscate phones that were seen being used in school barely over a year ago. Teachers need to see examples of their applicability in the curriculum, and students need real guidance in the proper and appropriate ways they can take advantage of this freedom. There is immense potential in the use of these little tools in the curriculum, but it is imperative that schools do their research and formulate clear plans for acceptable and effective use, or teachers will grow frustrated and resistant in a hurry, and students will end up missing out on the opportunity to leverage a powerful technology.

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8 Comments

  1. What about involving students in these discussions? Experiences we’ve had with using cellphones always include student input and therefore, ownership. Seems to work pretty well.

  2. Great point, Dean. That is something we have done too little of. We had groups of students engage in a wonderful conversation last year in which they expressed their desire to be able to use the devices, but we haven’t used this approach in setting the policy. I will definitely advocate this–thanks!

  3. Joanna Ashlock

    April 7, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I’m glad you brought this up beause I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Starting Monday, you might need to refer to me as the dinosaur because I am going back to the old rules about cell phones and ipods. They will be taken up immediately if I see them. Now let me explain why. My observation of allowing students to use these has been a complete and detrimental distraction in my classroom (maybe not in all, but in mine it has been). Students are taking longer to get assignments done and as I watch them, I see them spending every few minutes scrolling through their ipod or watching the latest cool video someone sent them. Every few minutes they are answering and reading texts they are getting from often their own parents! My classroom should be collaborative. I want them to help each other solve problems and ask questions. When they have one ear blocked with a headphone and music going, they don’t turn to their neighbor to collaborate on anything and they sure don’t answer when I call their name! These devices have shown to be a huge distraction in my room, therefore I’m going back to the old rules. No cell phones or ipods.

    Now, on the flip side of that: When a student is test driving a car they built in the hallway and comes to me asking for a calculator to find an average, I ask, “Do you have a cell phone? Use it.” When a student needs to look up the current weather statistics for a project in one of my modules, I encourage using their iphone app rather than taking time to search on the Internet. These uses are very different, I think we’d all agree, than the scenarios described in the first paragraph.

    Bottom line is my students, in my classroom, are not mature enough to handle the multi-tasking responsibility of listening and collaborating without distractions in the classroom. They are unable to leave their cell phones and ipods alone for 45 minutes to get the most out of the classroom. They need rules to help them learn that struture so that when they are adults and have meetings and discussions with their peers, they can read their emails and conduct a face-to-face meeting without missing a beat, right?

    • Thanks for sharing this, Joanna. You need to do what is best for your classroom, and that may mean not allowing cell phones to be out. A compromise might be to require that they be hidden until students are instructed to get them out. If you don’t think they will be able to handle that, though, do what is best for you and your students. I was discussing the district’s policy with our Instructional Technology Director today, and you definitely are in control. We need to know the benefits and drawbacks, certainly, as we move forward.

  4. Randy,
    Thanks for the update! Like others, I am trying to watch districts that are allowing cell phone use! I am interested in their successes, challenges, and policies. I appreciate your willingness to share real-life implementation:)

  5. My counterpart at Keller ISD told me one campus had made $23,000.00 on cell phone charges because students were “caught” with them.

    Today’s students use electronic communication devices. Our student/parent handbook says:
    Students may utilize electronic communication devices at school and at school activities. Students may utilize their devices in the classroom when the teacher deems appropriate for educational purposes. These devices include but are not to be limited to the following: cell phones, smart phones, iPhones, iPods and mp3 players. The district encourages students and staff to use electronic communication devices for
    educational purposes during the school day.
    District employees may confiscate any electronic communication device if it clearly is not being used as an educational device in the classroom. If an electronic communication device is confiscated it shall be handed over to the campus administration no later than the end of the teacher’s workday. Parents shall be
    notified by the campus administration within two school days after the electronic communication device is confiscated with an explanation for the confiscation. The electronic device may be returned to either the parent or the student.
    Students who violate this policy shall be subject to the disciplinary measures outlined in the Code of
    Conduct.

    • A couple of sentences from the policy are important to note:
      “Students may utilize their devices in the classroom when the teacher deems appropriate for educational purposes.” This does allow for teacher autonomy. Teachers should not feel pressured either way, but, at least in the case of the one I spoke with, they do worry about how they appear, if they ban the devices.

      “The district encourages students and staff to use electronic communication devices for
      educational purposes during the school day.”
      This encouragement should involve a significant amount of guidance in effective use. That will be coming, but it has not to this point.

  6. Whitney Isbell

    June 15, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Randy-

    I am late getting in to the cell phone debate. Here are my thoughts about the policy:

    1. Cell phones are not being used by students in the classroom for academic purposes. Seems like the new saying now is, “stop texting in class”. I rarely take up a cell phone but I do expect students to not use their cell phones to text during class.

    2. I have had students who received calls from parents during class. I do not get upset about that because 100% of the time those calls were emergencies. I do not have problems with students receiving calls during class.

    3. Texting is changing the paradigm for teaching academic language. The quality of student writing has decreased as a direct result of the new language of email and text. I often find myself falling into the shorthand trap when I am in a hurry. That being said, we as teachers and parents need to reinforce the difference between slang/shorthand and academic language.

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