Change your ringtone about banning cell phones in school

Imagine a school where every student has a connected personal computer at their desk.  Now imagine that it is not one school, but every school in America.  Now kick up the fantasy a notch and imagine that all this was available at no charge to you the taxpayer.  That’s right.  Free personal connected computers for every high school student in the US.

Wish granted. Cell phones are powerful, portable, connected computers that 75% of U.S. teens already own.

Educators need to embrace mobile technology and find ways to make it work for them and their students.  Instead, the opposite seems to be happening.

States and districts across the country have restricted cell phone use on campus.  Most notable is NYC public school’s outright ban of cellphones on campus.   According to a 2009 Pew study, 24% of students in the US are not allowed to have cell phones on campus, and 62% are forbidden to bring them into class.  On the other side, the state legislature of Florida has voted to support a student’s right to cell phones on campus.

Schools point out that cell phones in the classroom are a distraction and therefore should be prohibited.  Schools also ban PlayStation, radios, and boomerangs from the classroom, but kids still find ways to get distracted.  The only sure fire way to keep kids engaged in the classroom is to ENGAGE them.  Proscription is not the answer.  It should be up to teachers to decide if and how technology is used in the classroom.  Not the state or the district.  There will always be penalties for disrupting class, either with a cell phone or by blowing a whistle or by doing jumping jacks in the aisle.  We should expect our teachers to manage the classroom, and not rely on arbitrary and unilateral bans from a central bureaucracy.

Another complaint, mostly from teacher unions, is that student cell phones violates teacher privacy in the classroom.  It makes it harder for a teacher to deny a ridiculous statement or out of bounds behavior if kids have it digitally recorded (and presumably posted to YouTube).  Check out this out of control teacher break down caught on cellphone video.

Kids have already found clever ways to use their phones to their educational benefit.  Recording lectures; taking pics of the notes on the whiteboard; setting alerts for assignments; accessing the internet; graphing scientific calculator; language translation; dictionary/thesaurus.  This is on top of the regular uses of texting and calling to get to and from campus and afterschool events.  It is convenient for parents and kids to talk directly when needed: “Hey Mom I forgot my cleats”; “Catch a ride home with the Johnson’s today”; you get the idea.

Teachers should embrace mobile technology and incorporate it into lesson plans.  Have kids use the calendar app to keep track of due dates and exams; use SMS for polls and quizzes; give assignments that use the camera; award “points” for checking-in to class on time; a timer and pedometer for PE; distributing free epub eBooks  rather than paying for paper books; linking to lectures from great minds like Sagan, Feynman, and Friedman. Teachers in every subject should ask their students, “Is there an app for that?”.

Cell phone bans hit lower income kids the hardest.  As we have seen around the world, people lower income regions rely on their mobile phones for getting online, as they cannot afford multiple devices and multiple access subscriptions.  This trend follows in public schools.  A Pew research study found that black and Hispanic minority teens were more likely to own cell phones than white kids, and are almost twice as likely to use them for accessing the internet.

Teachers should not use technology (or the lack of it) as a crutch or an excuse.  But they should find ways to keep their lessons up to date and leverage the best tools available to help them do their jobs.  Today, about half of the handsets in the US are “smartphones” that run applications and have web access.  Over the next two years, teen cell phone ownership will pass 90%, and the penetration of Android, iPhone, Backberry and other smartphones will be almost as high.  Kids will spend much more time online via their phones than from PCs.  For classrooms that are lucky to have a Pentium running Win95, cell phones can change how we learn and teach more than any other technology.

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