For years, I have been an avid supporter and advocate of BYOD. Specifically, I have argued that students’ smartphones were powerful, pocket-sized computers with high-speed internet capable of connecting, creating, engaging. They were a fabulous solution to the very significant problems of digital divide. Schools lacking in computers or infrastructure would no longer be shackled by the technologies they lacked–just get out your pocket PCs, kids!
Lately, though, I must admit that I wonder about this idea and really have been questioning the validity of my beliefs. I more and more frequently encounter news stories and blog posts about schools or even entire countries abandoning their phone-friendly policies. Policy makers have decided the competition for students’ attention, the distractions, the discipline problems, the effects on student emotions were all too high of a price to pay for any positives the devices might promise. Surprisingly, their arguments against the devices in the classroom are starting to resonate a lot more with me.
Some experts, such as the folks at Common Sense Media, have determined that teens spend an average of 9 hours per day looking at a digital screen. I will testify that at least seems pretty accurate in my own household, even if I haven’t put a timer to it. Life is intently focused on a screen of some sort the vast majority of waking hours, riding in the car, sitting in their rooms, eating a snack, etc. The majority of the time, my kids, wife, and I are thumbing robotically through Instagram, watching YouTube or Netflix videos, checking Snapchat, or something similar.
I will say that the number and range of topics that my kids are learning about is sometimes really amazing. This is especially true for Reilly, my son, who watches videos on every topic under the sun. Also, I have much appreciation for the way that my kids are able to stay connected to their friends, particularly during the summer, as we live a half hour from most of them. I can completely understand my son’s penchant for gaming, as I enjoy an admittedly smaller variety of games almost as much. We ditched cable and satellite television a few years ago, too, so much of their phone time is a substitute for former television hours. All that to say I recognize there is considerable value, for sure.
On the other hand, though, it is unrealistic to deny that there are significant problems that come along with the devices’ constant presence. One that I think is most significant is the devices’ tendency to become the attention priority of the user. In other words, the user is so distracted by the device that he/she cannot maintain focus on anything or anyone else. Just try to count the number of times in a day when someone checks their phone while having a face-to-face interaction with someone. I’ve sure been guilty of it. Watch families/friends sitting together at restaurants. We see it (maybe take part) constantly–groups become zombies making idle chit-chat while staring at PewDiePie on their new iPhone or Galaxy. A 2018 study by Common Sense Media revealed more than half of teens acknowledged that phones distracted them in negative ways. Additional research by Common Sense shows that not only do a large number of kids check their social media feeds pretty much constantly, the negative outcomes (hateful comments, posts not being “liked” enough, etc.) more profoundly affect the kids already facing social/emotional problems.
For the teacher optimistic enough to try and use them in the classroom, a particular challenge I have heard about endlessly since basically the debut of the iPhone in 2007 is management. Even teachers who are still open-minded or enthusiastic about the possibilities struggle with ensuring that they are being used in purposeful, learning-focused ways. For a teacher who may not be experienced or especially skilled at general classroom management, this becomes an even bigger issue. I know that I and countless colleagues in the edtech world have attempted to share effective management strategies, but the dismal tales persist.
What’s the point to all of this then? Well, I suppose it is that I am probably less convinced of the power of student devices in the classroom than I was a decade ago, when my former superintendent abruptly declared our district to be a BYOD environment. Certainly, there have been some cool moments of real success, from creative student video productions to collaborative documents to engaging formal assessment and feedback apps and many more. I won’t begin to argue against those. I think, though, that more than a decade’s time passing should have ironed out many more of the wrinkles in the plan and the process. It hasn’t, and I still hear more negative feedback than positive (Okay, maybe complainers are just more…expressive.). I am currently running a Twitter survey to gauge my PLN’s feelings on student phones in the classroom and already seeing some interesting results. My mind is far from made up, and reflection is critical to my own professional practice, so I’m going to keep mulling the pros and cons of this issue for awhile. As always, I would welcome and respect your thoughts and comments!