Smartphones: smartfriends or smartfoes?

Photo by CERDEC, CC-BY 2.0
Photo by CERDEC, CC-BY 2.0

The war over smartphone use in the classroom is a particularly uncomfortable and murky area of emerging educational policy. Different schools have different contradictory policies, and individual teachers may or may not adhere to those policies. More traditional-minded educators often distrust the notion that students can use technology in a mature and productive fashion, and even evangelists of cutting-edge educational technologies might argue that students should only use locked-down, supervised devices provided to them for limited use during specific lessons, such as school-owned iPads from a communal cart which can be wheeled from classroom to classroom.

J. Robinson from The 21st Century Principal is not one of those educators. He just wrote a piece called Let’s End the Administrator War on Mobile Devices arguing that focusing on smartphones as a problem is a red herring which impedes the development of better educational practices. He notes that many educators “believe fiercely that cell phones are nuisances and have no place in education,” but asserts that “it is that same possibility and potential for mischief that make mobile devices powerful tools for learning and powerful tools for the classroom.” He goes on to argue that policies should focus on behavioral issues rather than devices themselves, and he suggests that school policies ought to foster the “healthy” use of mobile devices in order to “capitalize on their educational potential.”

Photo by CERDEC, CC-BY 2.0
Photo by CERDEC, CC-BY 2.0

Robinson’s experience is with K-12 students. Educators at the K-12 level have the added burden of being in loco parentis and must both educate and discipline students. Where those two priorities clash is an eternal point of friction, and nowhere does discipline grate against education more fiercely than in the cultural struggle over mobile and personal computing devices in the hands of students.

I taught several sessions of the Etymologies course at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth program. Although CTY can be a very progressive and permissive program in certain regards, the policies regarding technology were always draconian—at least, as of 2010 when I last taught. The general message from the administration was that during the entire three-week session, students would ideally never use a piece of technology unless it were directly related to an educational activity. They especially should not be allowed to access the Internet during those three weeks unless in a computer lab and under the direct observation of a faculty member. If we would ever catch a student with a cell phone—or heaven forbid, a smartphone—we were to confiscate it and turn it in to the site director. As a digital native myself, I felt sympathy for my students, but hey—rules were rules. I gave warnings instead of doing immediate confiscations, but on more than one occasion, I had to play the role of Meanie-Teacher Phone-Snatcher.

Currently, I teach ESL to adults. I encourage my students to use their phones in class. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I’m interested in how we can use technology to help us learn and that I want them to feel comfortable using their devices for productive purposes. If they want to take a photo of my whiteboard or of my presentation slide, for example, then that’s fine. But I also tell them that we’re all adults, and I expect that they will be mature and trustworthy in their phone usage. If I do catch a student on Facebook or otherwise goofing off, I ask them firmly and politely to get back on task, but I’m not in loco parentis—I have the luxury of knowing that my students are adults who are ultimately responsible for their own actions and their own learning.

What’s your perspective? Should students be trusted to use their own devices in the classroom? If so, under what conditions? How can the use of a personal smartphone or tablet enhance a student’s learning in your classroom?

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