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Ban or Embrace Cellphones?


The agenda for the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington this week is chock full of sessions about how to use mobile computing to improve learning, especially through the use of cellphones. And mobile learrning advocates such as Elliot Soloway from the University of Michigan are here to argue passionately for the increased use of cellphones and other mobile devices in K-12 schools.

Observing the growing number of attendees hanging out in the hallways and at lunch tables at the Washington Convention Center, most of whom are sporting some of the latest and greatest cellphones, it's likely that Soloway and other advocates are going to find a very receptive audience.

But not everyone in the education world is jumping on the mobile computing bandwagon, especially regarding cellphones.

This recent op/ed piece in USA Today, for instance, is causing quite a stir among the educators and technology experts I follow on Twitter.

The piece, by Patrick Welsh, a veteran high school teacher in Alexandria, Va., who often writes about his classroom experiences and observations, comes down hard on the side of banning cellphones in schools.

Welsh, who has had some provocative opinions over the years on the problems plaguing the public schools, is no slouch. He's been in the classroom for three decades or more, working with a very diverse student population, and regularly chronicling the highs and lows he's observed. But he has also been somewhat of a tech skeptic. In this piece from last year he described the "technology overkill" that was taking over his school.

In the USA Today piece, he laments the problems with cellphones:

And the problem is getting worse, as students become more adept at disguising their texting. ...For the most part, all this subterfuge might seem like innocent adolescent behavior, but evidence suggests that texting is undermining students' ability to focus and to learn—and creating anxiety to boot.

The quick-hit communication style students master for texting, he adds, has diminished their ability to hone other important skills:

One of the great ironies of the high-tech revolution is that devices meant to facilitate communication are actually helping to destroy it. For my students, rethinking what they wrote and hammering out second or third drafts is beyond all but a handful. ...Math and science teachers at my school see the same, with kids wanting the quick answers instead of going through the struggle that will help them understand what is behind the mathematical or scientific principles involved.

Ultimately, Welsh recommends what might be deemed by many teens and parents alike as heretical: Parents should disable texting features on their children's cellphones, and schools should crack down on their use altogether.

What do you think schools should do? Ban or embrace cellphones?


I think schools should find ways to engage students with technology by teaching them to use their devices to collaborate and to gather and disseminate pertinent information. And I believe we should teach the skills they need to to use technology responsibly and appropriatly in any givin situation. "Got texting? Great! Here is how we will use texting in this class and this is when it will be used. Texting outside of those parameters will not be tolerated." It's akin teaching code-switching. We teach kids the language they use with their friends may not be the language they use with grandparents or at school. Likewise there are different ways to use cellphones in different settings. These are skills they will need as adults in the real world. Totally denying kids access to cellphones in all classes will like turn them off to many of the lessons you want them learn.

Banning works as well here as it does in Georgia or Iran (you decide which Georgia). Exploiting cell phones is by far the best way to limit their intervention: I regularly ask two to four students to verify ANYTHING - any date, any event, any speech, any reference at all - using their phones. It keeps them busy, on task, and shows others the value-added available for any instructional moment.

For that matter, the quick answer is what every politician also chooses, so to blame a 10th grader as superficial is worse than hypocritical. What is interesting is whether another kid, another time, gets a better answer the second time, and then for the teacher - or even better the other kid - to make that better answer even more apparent to everybody. The question isn't whether the answer is first, or second, or third, but rather does it work? Is it cost-effective to pursue the question beyond the first hit? Sometimes is, sometimes isn't. And I most surely trust a kid's assessment of that than a teacher's, more because of their experience in getting and testing (limited that may be) those quick answers than because of their coursework twenty or thirty years ago.

Long division via palm is a lot quicker than via paper. Whose answer is better?

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