Technology in school

No, this isn’t another one of those essays about the usefulness of technology in teaching math. This is a response to a fascinating post in Heather’s Comparative Childhood blog, in response to a newsletter from her daughter’s middle school. Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:

Cell Phones, I-Pods, MP3 players, any other electronic devices are not permitted for student use at any point during the school day. If these items are seen or heard during school hours, they will be confiscated and a parent will have to pick up the device from your child’s house office.

This seems pretty reasonable, especially since the careful wording doesn’t prohibit possession of such devices, merely their use or visibility during the school day. And, of course, it is a middle school.

Heather’s post includes the following observations:

Is there ever a circumstance in which the presence and use of an iPod (or cell phone or MP3 player or digital camera or gameboy or fill-in-your-electronic-device-of-choice-here) is justifiable in a school setting? I guess I’m taking the perspective of the teacher on this one. There is nothing more annoying than someone’s cell phone going off during a lecture. And there is nothing more rampant in university settings than “creative” new ways to cheat during examinations. I can’t believe that the use of electronics for cheating begins at the college level.

My understanding on the ban of cell phones in public schools was that it was originally put in place to prevent drug deals going down on the school premises. But now cell phones could be used for anything from covertly cheating by sending text messages to voyeuristic photography in the ladies room to remotely setting off bombs. I won’t waste my space here, but we need only use of imagination to think of the ills of other electronics in the school settings. Nintendo DS’s create their own network within a local range.

These are eminently reasonable comments, but I need to take a different point of view, even though Heather is trying to take the perspective of the teacher. Of course she’s absolutely right that it is annoying and disruptive for a cell phone to ring during class, and she is also absolutely right that they need to be prohibited during tests, as they can be used for cheating (as Weston students know all too well). But there are also too many valuable uses of these electronic devices for them to be banned entirely in school — at least in high school, and I suspect in middle school as well. At Weston High School we ban cell phone use (or even visibility) in the classroom, but not in the cafeteria or outdoor areas; iPod use is left to the discretion of the teacher. Cell phones are a valuable way for students and parents to get in touch with each other, so students should be allowed to use them outside of the classrooom. And MP3 players may help many kids concentrate in noisy situations or just when taking a test; while I certainly don’t allow kids to shut out the world during a class discussion or lecture, I think it can be valuable to do so when trying to concentrate on individual work. I admit that there’s a small chance that a student may use an iPod for cheating, but that’s a lot harder than texting on a cell phone, which is currently the preferred method among high-school students and Boston firefighters. Of course a variant of the method used by the firefighters would be very difficult to prevent in school settings:

…a group of Boston firefighters took turns going into a men’s room at the Quincy middle school and sent answers via text message on their cellphones to colleagues in the testing room.

We can easily prevent this precise method of cheating in school by allowing only one student at a time to go to the bathroom and by banning cell phone use in the classroom during the test, but how do we prevent texting between a student who goes to the bathroom during the test and a classmate who has already taken the test and is currently in the cafeteria during a free period? Temporarily confiscating cell phones at the beginning of the test is the method preferred by some teachers. That works well…except for kids who have a second cell phone hidden away.

And while I’m looking at Heather’s blog, let me recommend several of her recent posts, especially the ones entitled “Wow” and “What would Jesus do, indeed”.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology, Weston