Smartphones in the Classroom?

17 Jun

I had a "teacher dream" last night. For those of you who are teachers, I'm sure you know what I mean. For those who are not, every teacher I have ever met has a version of this kind of dream. They basically dream about being back in school. The profession is such that many really don't stop thinking about it, even when they're asleep. Last night's dream was different. I was still the teacher, still in front of the classroom, but while many of my "teacher dreams" have been riddled with anxiety (I'm late for class, I have forgotten what I was going to teach etc), this one was a great dream. It was the first day of school and we were introducing ourselves. I went last and we were laughing and sharing. A student asked me a question (my academic history was a bit boring for them), and I didn't know the answer. It wasn't related to our subject, it was about an obscure comic from my old university, so I asked who had their phones with them. The students froze. I think they thought I was going to confiscate them. I smiled and pulled mine out, noting that it's faster to look the information up on my phone than it would be to wait for the ancient computer in the corner to boot up. The students were relieved and one student at the front found the information faster than I could. Class continued and I woke up.

When I go back into my classroom, I will have that freedom. My school board has lifted their ban on cell phones in the school.I'll be able to use the technology that my students already have to engage them, to takethe classroom beyond the school. It's an exciting idea. It's also an amazing challenge. Like most teachers, I worry about the potential pitfalls, the distraction of the shiny new toy. At the same time I wonder how different it is from the more traditional way of passing notes in class or sneaking reading material in their desks or their books? It doesn't really seem all that different to me. At the end of the day, it's my responsibility to ensure that my students are engaged. Technology can be one more tool to differentiate instruction and to engage students.

I understand all the arguments against it, and some are compelling. I would be uncomfortable with any activity or assignment that required students to have one. What would then happen to the ones who don't? Many students (in my school, most students) do have them. They are using them. I would rather have them be out in the open than hidden under the desk. I would like to help students learn how to balance that responsibility. They will likely be using those phones in their future jobs and careers. If students have the opportunity to learn how to manage that use, how to make sure they don't go off in class, in a board meeting, in a theatre, it might save them a great deal of trouble and embarrassment later. 

Communication is powerful. Students like to be connected, to communicate with each other, that's nothing new. It's simply the medium that has changed. I was taught how to write a letter, where to put the address and the salutation, the date and the valediction. I was never taught how to write an email, text or IM. I feel that it is my job as a teacher to help students learn how to communicate effectively. The smartphone seems to be the most common communication tool, so shouldn't it have a place in the classroom? Should we not teach our students (whether or not they have one) how to communicate effectively in that medium? As with any new tool, it's bound to be problematic at first. It has been my experience that the novelty wears off quickly. 

In his comprehensive text, Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture, David Buckingham makes the case that:

...there is a widening gap between children's worlds outside school and the emphases of many education systems. While the social and cultural experiences of children have been dramatically transformed over the past fifty years, schools have signally failed to keep pace with change. The classrooms of today would be easily recognizable to the pioneers of public education of the mid-nineteenth century: the ways in which teaching and learning are organized, the kinds of skills and knowledge that are valued in assessment, and a good deal of the actual curriculum content, have changed only superficially since that time. Indeed, some have argued that schooling is now heading determinedly backwards, retreating from the uncertainty of contemporary social change... (Buckingham, 32-3)

His argument is compelling. Most of the secondary school classrooms I have seen would be very recognizable to students from a century ago. Teachers may not be able to do much to change that fact. The driving force behind that change has to be government. But we can work with what we have to bridge the gap between the outside world and the classroom. I believe that we should still teach students how to write a letter. It is an important skill to have. At the same time, we need to teach them how to communicate in other ways. We need to allow them to think critically about the forms of communication that they are most likely to use. Those kinds of conversations and moments of reflection are unlikely to happen in other settings, shouldn't they happen in school? If teachers and students have a tool that allows for more information and knowledge to come into the classroom, why not use it?

Of course, I haven't yet embarked on this new journey. It is still just an idea in my head. In my dream, it worked out well. I'd be interested to hear from teachers who have actually used this technology in their classes. How did it work? Was it successful? Or was it simply the distraction that people fear?

Work Cited

Buckingham, David. Media Education: Literacy, Learning, and Contemporary Culture.

Cambridge: Polity, 2003. Print.

Image by: Phil Roeder