Friday, July 15, 2011

Cellphones, Facebook, and the Banning of Technology in Schools

A discussion developed on the Lookjed educators' list recently about cellphones in schools. It seems that there is a Yeshiva in Israel which uses a signal blocker to prevent their students from using cellphones in certain locations at certain times (probably the Beit Midrash during morning seder and the like). Most respondents to the original post were thrilled with the potentially availability of such a device, while one commenter took the extreme opposite approach, nothing that we cannot ban everything and it is better to make learning more fun for the students so that they do not feel the need to text or do whatever else it is they are doing on their phones.

I held off commenting on this thread for a while, and when I saw that no one else had taken what I consider to be the middle road on this issue, I contributed my two cents. Before getting to the heart of my thoughts on the issue, I would like to broaden it as well.

I would guess that many schools are like mine in that they have some form of a ban on cellphones during school hours. This results in a cute cat-and-mouse game of students trying to use their phones and some teachers trying to catch them. Every once in a while a culprit is caught, and those teachers who are particularly savvy about it generally have fewer students texting anyway - either because the kids know that the teacher knows the tricks or because teachers who are savvy about stuff like this also happen to be pretty savvy about how to hold the attention of students (what we call "with-itness").

I would guess as well that there are many schools that ban or block various websites on their school's server. Obviously, a school should take steps to block any pornographic or similarly objectionable sites, but it seems that other sites, such as Facebook, have been targeted as well.

In asking around, I have had a difficult time finding a good reason for banning Facebook (or other similar sites, but no question that FB is the most popular one and thus the easiest target). If the issue is that it distracts kids while they are online, then we may as well ban the entire internet. If the issue is that kids share things on FB that are not appropriate for school, then we have to ask if we are banning something that has tremendous upside because of the possible actions of a few deviants (and keep in mind that every rule in a school has a few deviants - dress code, anyone?). If the issue is that Facebook and texting can and sometimes are used for social exclusion, bullying, and cyber-harassment, then once again we have to consider both that these things can take place without these tools and that we are potentially banning useful tools because of the possible misuse by a few.

Obviously, I am increasingly not in favor of such bans and blocks, and not only because I make use of both of these tools extensively. One some level, I believe that such policies stem from the digital native/digital immigrant divide. Most of the adults in schools, even those of us who are relatively tech-savvy, are still digital immigrants. We can remember a part of our lives when digital technology was not the lifeblood of human existence. Our students, on the other hand, are natives. They have been using computers since several minutes after birth, and they are thus incredibly agile with a wide range of tools. There is no doubt that they use their cellphones and Facebook accounts in ways that most adults do not - and to some extent that probably scares us. Not scares us in the sense of worried that something bad might happen, but scared in the sense that this obliterates the normal power structure in school. Our students may be zooming past us on the information superhighway, driving fully tricked-out sportscars while we are trying to figure out all of the features on our five-year old minivans. And so we level the playing field the only way we can - we let the air out of their tires by setting up bans and blocks.

This is a battle that we will lose. If we are merely banning something, our students will find a way to beat the ban. If we block a site, we run the risk of having mediocre reasons for doing so, which will ultimately make us look silly and weak to our students.

So what to do? My position is that our best bet is to co-opt technology as much as we can, and for two reasons:

1) They are very useful in educational settings. Basic cellphones can be used as calculators and as clickers, using sites such as Smartphones are even better, as they are effectively mini-computers, and hence research devices that students have and thus schools do not even have to buy. Facebook can be used as a communication device within a class or a school community. Their newest competitor, Google+, seems to have even more potential for use in schools (and within two weeks of its beta rollout there are already a myriad of posts online about how best to utilize it in education).

2) We are wasting a golden educational opportunity. To the extent that we have concerns about how students make use of their phones or facebook accounts, the only way that we educate them about this right now is to have lectures by experts, from within the school or outside, about the dangers of the internet. If these were effective, there would be no need to keep having them, and thus I would conclude that a powerpoint slideshow by some grave-looking individual cannot compete for a moment with the razzle-dazzle of colorful and social websites (who did you listen to as a teenager - your mother or your friends?). By allowing these things in school, we have a chance to offer guidance, to provide students with more socially acceptable and appropriate ways to use all of their wonderful toys, and occasionally to catch them misusing them - thus opening up a teachable moment in a relevant manner (lectures in auditoriums are not teachable moments).

There is one more reason to make use of these tools as much as we can in schools. As I noted above, our students use their phones in a manner that is different, either qualitatively or quantitatively, from the way that we use them. However, I have noticed that they can be limited in the way that they use them. To them, a cellphone is for texting, music, and games - but not for answering poll questions or helping in a collaborative effort in class. To the extent that we can show them new cool ways to use technology, we may close the native/immigrant gap one small bit at a time.

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