“Students, as you leave class, use your phone to take a picture of the code posted by the doorway.”
What? Cell phones in the classroom? I thought we were banning those! I mean, can’t kids use them for cheating, texting each other, and gasp, sexting?
The Cell Phone as the Swiss Army Knife of Digital Learning Tools
The cover of the February issue of Educational Leadership caught my attention: “Teaching Screenagers.” Yes! That is who we are teaching – the iGeneration.
As you probably know already, the debates surrounding the best way to approach this generation and their increasing number of tech-tools continue to rage on, with few clear-cut answers.
Some parents and teachers want to control and heavily limit the use of technology, especially smart phones. Others believe that rather than spend valuable classroom time confiscating their phones, we can use them as versatile tools for learning.
The quotation from Liz Kolb’s article from Educational Leadership in the opening of this post is an example of the latter group, an attempt at positive use of cell phones in the classroom.
Kolb continues, “As students left class, the teacher told them to use their phones to take a picture of the bar code she had posted by the doorway. When they did so, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and a short video from Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War appeared on their phones, along with their homework assignment—read the text, watch the video, and then send a 140-character text-message summary of the Gettysburg Address to the class brainstorming board. The next day in class, the students would compare and evaluate the various summaries.”
Is this the best we can do, then? Accept the trend and try to use it for good?
Preparing Students for 21st Century Jobs
Many educators will answer yes to that question. After all, technology isn’t going anywhere.
Look at the typical teenager, they argue, and you will see them multi-tasking with a phone. For them it is a tool to stay connected with their friends. Most likely they don’t view it as possible on-the-job training.
Yet their ability to text messages, connect photos and videos to the Internet, network, organize, and communicate data with their phone may be requirements for a future job. So, the argue goes, let’s use these tools in class and teach them to use them responsibly.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
While I am always an advocate of teaching valuable lessons about responsibility and certainly do recognize the power for good that can come with technology, I caution educators to do their research before jumping head first into the technology ocean.
In my most recent newsletter and blog, I wrote about a fascinating book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book that describes the often-overlooked negatives regarding the Internet’s effect on our brains, especially our students’ brains.
I do not want to repeat myself here, so I will share a couple of points I did not include in the original article.
Various studies have shown that the use of the Internet, rich media, and hypertext rarely lead to storage in long-term memory. This is true for adults as well as children.
Technology proponents used to praise the coming advantages of using multi-media over linear book reading and traditional learning.
Yet the reality is now clear: multi-tasking ends up over-loading the brain and prevents a cohesive narrative from forming that can be moved from working memory into long-term memory schemas.
What the Internet does positively is it promotes brain activity associated with problem solving and decision-making. Similar to a crossword puzzle.
What the Internet does not do is stimulate concentrated, uninterrupted thought. The more we turn our attention to the Internet as the only source of information, the more we rewire our brains for the type of thinking it promotes. As Carr writes,
“Such intensive exercise, when it becomes our primary mode of thought, can impede deep learning and thinking. Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the intellectual environment of the Internet” (126).
“Are You Saying We Should Ban Technology?”
No, I am not saying that.
Like Carr, I do not want to demonize technology or demand its removal from our schools and classrooms. I am only asking that it be used with wisdom, caution, and serious research.
Return to the earlier example of the teacher who used cell phones proactively in the classroom. Obviously, her students will likely enjoy the assignment and might even find it “cool.” But that does not mean the learning ends when technology exits.
We are too quick to give in to fads, especially when resistance means tension with our fad-loving children and students.
We are the adults; so we must be informed. Use technology. Figure out creative ways to incorporate its use into the classroom.
Just do so with balance. That’s the key.
The teacher who gained the students’ interest by use of cell phones cannot then rely solely on technology to hold the students’ attention. To do so would promote certain types of thinking to the neglect of others.
The plasticity of the brain means it can change shapes quickly to adapt to new demands and ways of operating. It also means that the more one path is reinforced over another, the deeper that path is etched into our physical brain and the more difficult it is to remap our minds.
If this teacher worked for me, I would make sure she followed-up this lesson with prolonged silent reading and face-to-face discussion. It seems as though she did this, and for that she should be applauded.
The cell phone idea is the hook. The catch is when the students move past “oh cool” into deeper levels of thinking that only come with sustained, uninterrupted thought – which the Internet is not very useful at stimulating.
If You Abuse It, You Lose It
As we incorporate technology into the classroom, the are other issues of responsibility to keep in mind.
Like all privileges, using cell phones for learning comes with a condition: If you abuse it, you lose it.
The earlier cited article provides practical suggestions for doing so, such as keeping parents informed of any cell phone activities that the class is conducting through the use of permission forms, parent information nights, and inviting parents to participate via their own cell phones.
Teaching Life Skills
Most importantly, students need to be made aware that they leave a digital trail that will follow them for life. Teenagers often do not have the ability to see the long range consequences of their actions.
We have to train and prepare them. Show and discuss the short video Digital Dossier, which describes all the digital records that accumulate from birth to death—to make a student aware of their life-long digital footsteps that leave a permanent trail for life.
The Future is Upon Us
The future is here. What started out as a luxury, a convenience, a way to keep track of our kids has escalated into a nightmare of wondering where-in-the-world could our child go online with that cell phone.
As with anything, it can be a tool for good, but also for evil. Let’s train our students how to use it as a tool to learn, make wise decisions, and prepare for the 21st century.