There certainly seems to be a lot of flutter recently about whether it makes sense to use cell phones in the classroom as part of the learning environment for students of various cell-phone-using ages (that would be lots of kids aged 12 or 13 and up, I guess). A recent article by Bob Longo in TechNews World discusses some of the issues that come up around adopting cell phones in the classroom, and I tend to agree with what Bob has to say about it.
I think it’s most useful to take the long view here when thinking about how to adopt any kind of new technology into education. There can be good and bad applications of any form of communication in learning, even face-to-face communication. The standard lecture format really stinks in many instances because it can be so darn boring, even for us analog types who really enjoy listening to a good speaker. Not everyone learns well that way, and sometimes that method actually inhibits learning. Likewise, the use of television in the classroom can be good, if used the right way. Courses taught remotely via television have, for years, been beneficial to those who are geographically (or otherwise logistically) separated from a place of learning (remember “Sunrise Semester”?). A recent U.S. Dept. of Education study on on-line learning shows that students who take on-line courses often do much better than those who sit in a large classroom for the same course, and that those who take a hybrid course using both online and face-t0-face communication do best. Using the Internet for formal educating seems to be gaining acceptance, despite years of negative opinions on the matter (even by me, I must admit). These things take time. It’s hard to break old modes of learning, especially by educators like me who like to do it the way we’re used to doing it.
Let’s be realistic, though. We have to recognize that our communication technologies and styles have been changing for centuries. These technologies change so much of who we are, and how we see the world, and we don’t keep up well in all areas of our social/civic lives. In particular, our education methods are far behind our modes of communication a lot of the time. It’s not entirely the fault of educators. They’ve been trained to use certain models of learning that keep them in tight communicative control of the learning situation, even with differentiation for learning styles (a hats off to special education teachers here). The revolutionary digital era that we’re enmeshed in is changing us very quickly and it’s hard to think about having everything change with it.
But not everything has to change, and not that quickly. However, cell phone technology ought to be seriously considered as one of many communicative tools that could be used in some education settings some of the time. Note that I’m not suggesting it replace anything else being used right now. I think that, as a mode of communication, cell phones are very engaging for students of many ages who take to it like ducks to water. Texting, twittering and surfing the net are ways in which youth and many adults engage with the world. Let’s not ban it altogether in their learning, but try to embrace it somehow where it makes sense, or at least try to experiment with it a bit. That will mean we have to give up some of our dyed in the wool ideas about what learning settings are to look like. And I don’t mean just learning settings where we’re teaching about technology. I mean all learning settings, from mathematics, to ELA, to history, to even home economics (is that still taught?).
I challenge you to stop some of your short-term fluster for a bit and put some deep thought into what a different paradigm of learning might look like. For a short time, try not to worry about which cell phones will be used in the classroom, who will pay for the service, how will we get the DOE of wherever to change their policies, how will we keep control of the kids when they can’t pay attention to us because they’re so attached to their hand-held devices, etc., etc.
I challenge you to think about changing your habits as educators, parents and even students. Maybe there’s a hybrid method of learning we can consider where different types of communication can be used for different learning purposes. We’re going to try it at LAMPcamp next week when we get to work with middle-school aged kids from Brooklyn who are attending a YMCA camp that we’ve been invited to. Instead of having the campers check their cell phones at the door, we’re going to welcome their sidekicks and phones into the room, and we’re going to have the kids text us, and, most importantly, we’re going to try to have them really talk to us about their communication lives. We’re psyched. We have no idea how it’s going to go, but we’ll definitely keep you posted.
–Katherine G. Fry