I just finished watching a thought-provoking presentation by Iqbal Quadir. Iqbal asserts that technology, particularly those technologies that have facilitated communication, have been critical to the growth and success of democratic societies and the economic welfare of their citizens. He states,

“If citizens can network and make themselves more organized and productive, so that their voices are heard, so then things would improve.”

Quadir, who grew up in Bangladesh, where the ratio of people to phones was 500 to 1, also states that the telephone is a weapon against poverty, because increasing connectivity results in increased productivity. Phones act like rivers or highways, improving reliability and enabling specialization. Quadir put his ideas into action, leaving a New York banking job to set up a rural cellular network in his home country. The results have had a dramatic impact, increasing productivity, personal welfare, and the country’s GNP.

This presentation struck home with me, as I considered the general view of cellphones in schools today and a new direction being taken by Birdville, my home district. By and large, cellphones are considered to be nuisances, and, if allowed at all, they are only to be used outside of classroom hours or in the case of an emergency. Within the classroom, they are detrimental to the learning process, distracting students from the “important” matters of the curriculum. Here is a typical scenario pulled from last week’s headlines. Through a new, more progressive policy phones are allowed only in high school, and only if out of sight and turned off. Notice this statement: “Last year, 1,253 high school students were cited for violating the cell phone policy.” Clearly, there are serious discipline issues in this school (Sarcasm intended–imagine how much instructional time and effort is used wasted enforcing such policies.).

I’m truly not intending to pick on this particular district, because I do believe it is representative of the typical No phonesAmerican school system. A technology that has the ability to facilitate communication between students, parents, teachers, scientists, researchers, astronauts, doctors, politicians, etc. is viewed as a distraction. A tool that can be used to take photos, record video/audio. and access the Internet is seen as a means for students to cheat (As if it requires a cell phone to accomplish that. Might as well ban paper and pencils, while we’re at it.). Rather than address their use in a forward-thinking, progressive manner, most schools opt for the easy route, which is, of course, to eliminate the “threat.” How sadly ironic it is that in a land where cellphones are moving toward equaling the total population (230 million subscribers by the end of 2006), where the devices are being put into the hands of students of almost all ages (My 2nd grade daughter has classmates who own them.), and in a time when the power they possess surpasses the capabilities of the computers I grew up with, we can’t find a way to leverage them in every classroom.

Imagine applying the same concepts put forth by Quadir in the classroom. Cell phones used to connect students, used to have instant access to information, used to communicate information instantly between teachers, students, parents. Is it not conceivable that the results would mirror those in Bangladesh? Might students become empowered and connected, and their productivity and power actually increase?

Next year will be the first in my own district to put this to the test.  We are starting a new era of cell-phone-friendly schools, as we attempt to take advantage of their capabilities and find new ways of using them in our curriculum. It will be interesting, particularly to see how some reluctant teachers respond to the new policy. Students will have to display responsibility and discipline to make it work, as well. If teachers can adapt, and if students demonstrate as much energy, creativity, and excitement in the actual implementation as they did in our recent student technology summit, the potential impact is quite significant. I will be posting further on this as we move forward with this. I’ll also be digging for more success stories of implementation, so please share if you have any!

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References:

Cell Phone Use Exploding (2007). Retrieved April 23, 2009, from http://china.usc.edu/ShowAverageDay.aspx?articleID=663&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1.

Image credit:

No cell phones!

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