Open Letter on Cell Phones in Schools

The director of my school district has asked for teacher’s opinions on the policy of banning cell phones in schools. Below is an open-letter that I have written in response.

Dear -,

The students that we have the responsibility of teaching have access to a wide range of advanced tools. Many students have iPods and portable gaming devices, which are inherently powerful small computers with various strengths and limitations. Cell phones have become nearly ubiquitous among students; while there are definitely financially disadvantaged students who do not have cell phones, nearly all do. In addition, the most rudimentary cell phones can do much, much more than simply make phone calls. By banning cell phones in schools completely (Yes, requiring a cell phone be turned and placed inside a locker still counts as banning.), we are crippling tools that they can use to help better themselves. By so doing, we are not protecting the students; we are limiting them.

I will be speaking both experientially and theoretically about the advantages of allowing cell phones in schools and honestly about the inherent dangers. However, I speak about danger, it must be realized that all technology comes with danger and risk. We can either acknowledge that and prepare students to think and to handle it, or we can let them flounder when they have to deal with everything on their own because we did not do our job.

As a technology consultant and a specialist in ICT and Web 2.0 technology, I can confidently say that students are engaged by technology, often much more so than content itself. As an English and reading teacher, I constantly would bring in online and computer technology to help engage the students. This included Web 2.0 sites (an example would be using Voicethread for digital storytelling) as well as an interactive whiteboard, or touchscreen, that was built with help from a skilled student. In addition, I ran an online course management system that allowed the students to work, turn in assignments, and collaborate in an online environment. I used free software called Moodle, which I have shared with other teachers this year, to do so. As a media specialist, I have continued all of those endeavors on a greater scale. In addition, on the library website, we have close to 50 registered student users who make use of the library discussion forums to collaborate, talk about books, and ask for help. I mention this all as evidence of experience I have of implementing technology and the positive impact that it has had on my students.

To reach all of our students, we need to meet them where they are. Last year, I had a student who showed me outside of class time how he had modified his PSP, a portable gaming device. He had modified the hardware by wiring extra lights directly to the speakers so that they pulsated to the beat of his game’s music. In addition, he had modified the programming of the device so that it functioned as a universal remote. He actually was able to control my DVD player and aspects of the model classroom from his desk. This student had immense potential, but he only had a low C in most of his classes. Despite being in his junior year, when I talked to him about using his skills in college, I realized no one had ever spoken to this student about college. I needed help building an interactive whiteboard and I wanted to nurture his skills. I showed him a design schematic of a specific electronics part that I needed but that was not available to buy, and he came in the next day with a working prototype. Within the next two weeks, close to 20 teachers in my school will have working interactive whiteboards directly because of the work of this student. I bring up his story because some of our students are very technologically minded and if we can reach them by allowing cell phones and finding creative uses for them, then I do not see a reason not to do it.

While not all of our students are as technologically savvy as the student described above, all of them value communication and relationships. This is evidenced by the sheer number of students using social networks (I would be happy to discuss the banning of social networks at your convenience as well.). Students misuse cell phones in schools because we do not give them any outlet to use them correctly. I have taken students to museums, plays, and ballets from Nashville to Dixon, and there was never a single problem with a student using his or her phone inappropriately. The students were allowed to text their parents when we were leaving to give them an approximate time of our arrival, and that is what the students limited their use to. Students are going to have and use their cell phones. To be blunt, we are fighting a losing battle. Students will use their cell phones; the manner in which they use them will be determined by the number and type of restrictions we place on them. So, if they are going to use them anyway, shouldn’t we make use of that by giving them a constructive outlet in which to use them that will simultaneously serve sound instructional practices?

There are many uses of today’s cell phone. Chris Betcher is a widely known and respected teacher and educational technology integrator. In his latest blog entry he writes, “I used to own a mobile phone, an iPod, a digital camera, a video camera, a GPS, and a voicerecorder, and I often carried many of them with me at any given moment. I also used to carry photos of my kids in my wallet. Gradually each of these devices has become subsumed into devices that could combine many of these functions – at first, my mobile phone gained a camera, and then my next phone had a camera, and a voice recorder. I still needed an iPod if I wanted to have my music with me, and I still needed a GPS if I wanted to know where I was going. I could maybe carry 3 or 4 photos of my kids at most.

“My latest device is an iPhone, and it has finally merged all of these tools into a single pocketsized device. I now no longer carry all these things around with as individual tools, but I still have all these tools in my pocket. They are now just one device. The phone, the cameras, the voicerecorder, the GPS, the iPod with all my videos, music and photos accessable whereever I go, combined with mobile internet access and the dozens of amazing apps I have installed for doing just about anything you can think of, has fundamentally changed the experience of interacting with these devices individually.” From http://betch.edublogs.org/2009/10/28/finding-new-things-to-do-with-an-iwb/.

My co-librarian and I, recognizing the potential of this technology, bought a class set of iPod Touch that we can use with classes for instructional purposes, either through podcasting or Internet browsing, or by extending the capabilities of the device by adding applications. There is a business college in the US that has given all of its MBA students Blackberry smartphones with Internet access so that they can learn the importance of being able to help clients from anywhere at any time. Aoyama Gakuin University is giving several hundred students iPhones for both instructional uses and to track students attendance using the GPS. Duke University is giving all of its freshman iPods for class use. The spectrum of people from prestigious colleges and universities to our own students can recognize the value and potential of these devices, yet we cannot. We may be missing a tremendous opportunity.

There are many tools that turn cell phones into instructional devices. Every middle and high school is given 1 CPS unit, as are the JROTC classes. CPS, which stands for Classroom Performance System, is a set of responders and a receiver that make questioning interactive by keeping track of, charting, and graphing student responses. This is technology that the district supports. One practical application of cell phones in schools is using the websites that allow teachers to setup class activities that use cell phones. Students text in their answers and they are instantly displayed on the projector in the model classroom. This in an instant CPS without the prohibitive cost.

There is value in cell phones if we can adapt our teaching style and use them correctly. We, as teachers, need to setup clear guidelines on their use. For example, a math teacher might allow use of a calculator during a class work activity but not on a test. Similarly, by defining clear circumstances when students are allowed to use cell phones, students will understand when they are not.

I realize that there are complications that do not necessarily make this an easy decision. Text messages, for example, cost money. Last year, I caught a student in our district who recorded another student picking his nose and posted the video on YouTube as blackmail. There is some risk involved and I would be lying to say otherwise. However, these happened despite our best intentions and restrictions. We cannot prevent students from carrying cell phones unless we want to install metal detectors and search every student as they come in the building. A better solution is to teach the students the best way to use the technology that they have at their disposal and prepare them for the changes that are to come. We, as professionals, try so hard to protect and shield students, that we sometimes shield them from life and our good intentions end up hurting the students.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me jason.bedell@cmcss.net or call (931) 503-1788, extension 3.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this matter.

Sincerely Jason Bedell.

  • http://electricsense.com/ Lloyd Burrell

    I am all for gadgets, but cell phones are electromagnetic radiation emitting devices which more and more studies are showing to be dangerous to humans health and particularly those of children. Just this week a new Council of Europe Committee Resolution of 47 members countries, calls for a dramatic reduction in human exposure to EMFs and microwave radiation from mobile phones and other wireless devices.
    I think there should be a moratorium on this subject before cell phones are introduced as teaching aids in schools.
    Lloyd Burrell´s last blog post ..The Russians love their children too……

  • paublo mac

    hell ya Lloyd i hear ya hha