Cellphones In The Classroom: Bad Idea, Inevitable, Or Both?

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Last week was an interesting one in Canada, where Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty suggested that schools should be open to the idea of allowing students to use cellphones in the classroom.

Photo by Brad Moon

This idea runs contrary to what has been the general policy of requiring students to turn off their cellphones and smartphones during class, and seems a tad ironic given that the Premier has banned Blackberries from his own cabinet meetings in the hope that this would force people to actually listen to one another. He even called out a cameraman in the news conference for texting instead of listening. The Premier is also on record for having advised parents to limit their kids’ cellphone use over concerns about long-term exposure to radio waves. Curtis has touched on some of the non-technical issues raised by cellphone use among kids, including inappropriate texting and sexting. Given the slew of issues, currently, many Canadian school boards (including the largest, in Toronto) ban the use of cell phones in class; should that policy be not only retracted, but effectively reversed?

A case can certainly be made for the devices being a useful teaching tool. Some universities are already using them as polling devices or for input in multiple choice exams, and students have been known to use them for taking notes, recording lectures and other purposes. But universities and colleges have the advantage of being a paid educational option, with an established expectation that students pony up for such things as text books, computers and anything else deemed to be required. If a university forces all students buy a specific laptop, a smartphone or an iPad as an entrance requirement, that’s not a huge issue; students who don’t like the policy can go elsewhere.

If cellphones and smartphones are allowed to be used in the classroom in public schools, things get dicier. With a huge range in capabilities among hundreds of different devices running dozens of OS variations, finding common ground could be interesting. School boards that have a hard enough time keeping computer labs up and running should enjoy troubleshooting an application that’s accessed by twenty different cell phones in each classroom. Personally, while I understand that a cellphone as an input device makes quizzes easier, I’d rather see an investment in an iPad or something with a larger screen and more capabilities so that it becomes less of a gimmick and more of a true multipurpose educational tool. Then there’s the question of equality. Some kids own cell phones and some even own smartphones. In some cases, those equipped with the devices may represent the majority -I suppose that depends on the school and the age of the children. But if a cellphone is to be used as an educational supplement, then everyone in a class has to have one. And if there are schools that balk at spending $2,000 to put a SMART Board or equivalent technology in every classroom, how is equipping 20 kids in every class with a cellphone going to go over?

Even subsidizing won’t be cheap. In Canada, the bottom rung cellphones through the big carriers go for around $75 each, while a smartphone starts at $350 to buy outright. I’m not sure how much utility would be derived using the most basic cell phone available, so I wouldn’t count on those $75 models being up to snuff. Add in wireless service plans and it gets much worse.

Then there’s that whole distraction factor. If kids have the capability to text, IM, e-mail, photograph, record and otherwise distract each other in class, will that outweigh any potential gain that the devices offer? How do you separate school-related activity from general use? Should we care? The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) is against allowing cellphones in class, citing issues such as distraction to students, potential for student/teacher conflicts, the potential for causing a socioeconomic divide between students and even the possibility of using the devices to cheat on tests.

I’m sure the day will come when smartphones or tablets (and cellphones, if a device that specialized still exists) are ubiquitous, even among primary school age kids, and fully integrated into the educational system just as PCs are today. I’m just not convinced that we’re anywhere near there yet. The principal in BC who installed an illegal cellphone jamming device in his school may have been extreme, but I think that any suggestion of opening classes up to cellphones is a little premature.

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