Category Archives: 21st Century Education

Cellphones in the Classroom: A Response

I’ve been hearing a lot of negativity around using cell phones in the classroom. I thought it time to respond to some of the statements I commonly hear:

“I think cell phones don’t belong in the classroom. They are a major distraction and are not worth the trouble they can cause. How can you regulate a student’s personal cell phone? How can you keep them from texting each other and help them to remain on task? What do you do about students who don’t have cell phones? How will they participate? What happens to their self esteem when they don’t have a cell phone to pull out with the rest of the class? What about the students with really nice phones? How do you keep them from getting stolen? I could go on and on… cell phones in the classroom are not a good idea.”

Here’s my response:

We can’t forget that cellphones are powerful mobile mini-computers. There is a period of normalization that occurs with any new technology. We need to guide students through digital citizenship and appropriate use. We also need to get to the point in which students are self-regulating, which means some initial guiding and regulation on our part as teachers working with students. I guess what we have to ask ourselves is “do we want to pretend we don’t know students are texting behind our backs anyway” or do we want to be open and find an opportunity to teach them appropriate use and guide them towards self-regulation by helping them manage their attention?

Try putting students in groups when not all your students have cell phones. You’ll find the “haves” are willing to share with the “have-nots” during this time as many have data plans (though you should never insist on sharing and I can bet it would be a very rare case that someone objects anyway). This way everyone gets an opportunity for deeper learning, instead of no one. Working in groups of 3 or 4 is great. If you’re worried about the self-esteem of the ones who don’t have phones, it’s not like they don’t already know who the “have” and “have-nots” are. I remember back in high school when many of the girls around me were wearing designer clothes and I was wearing regular clothes. It’s a life lesson they’ve already learned.

I’ve actually never had a cell phone stolen in class before. When they’re out in the open, it’s pretty obvious which phone belongs to whom and kids rarely let them out of their sights. Though yes, it is a potential problem and you would need to share those risks with your students.

Right now students are texting with their phones because it’s a great tool in their social world, as they look for ways to keep adults out of a space while they work to find their identities. They engage in shifting social circles as they try to establish long-lasting friendships like the ones we now have in adulthood. I have spoken with students who feel pressured by their friends to text back immediately upon receipt. They get into a dangerous cycle of compulsion that is full of internal interruptions and social pressure. This is very different from how adults use texting. We can take our time getting back to people without feeling quite the same stress. As teachers we can try to get rid of the external interruptions in their environment but they will find ways around it. Controlling their external environment by banning cell phones does nothing to quell the internal interruptions that take place in the head, repeatedly popping up and reminding them to “take a look at that screen” and check where they stand in each other’s friends’ lists. In order to help kids control their compulsion, we need to teach them how to become autonomous.

We need to teach kids how to become self-regulators and how to engage in appropriate social etiquette. This can happen through allowing use at appropriate times during class, guided by helping them manage the type of attention required of the task at hand. We do this through adult guidance, attention cuing, mentorship, and teaching digital citizenship. You can’t teach these when you ignore what they’re doing anyway and your risk putting yourself outside of their world.

I produced a 37-minute documentary on this topic for my Masters. I interviewed David Buckingham, author and Director of the London Knowledge Learning Lab; Danah Boyd, author, Berkeley fellow and researcher for Microsoft and Harvard; Linda Stone, retired Executive from Apple and Microsoft; Dr. David Meyer, Psychology professor at the University of Michigan; and Neil Andersen, author, media consultant, and speaker with the Association for Media Literacy. I also interviewed teachers and school administrators, parents, and most of all..teens. You can view some of the clips from my documentary at www.janemitchinson.ca

The Importance of Teaching Digital Citizenship

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory / Stock Photos

The story out of Vancouver this week about visuals of the gang rape of a teen-aged girl being passed around Facebook and cell phones was so horrifyingly sad. The speed of transfer of information can seriously amplify situations when teens are not taught digital rights and responsibilities. We have to remember that it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s the use of the technology. The user’s values dictate the way a medium is used. This is why we need adults to be present in teen social space as guides. We can do this partly through the implementation of a mandatory digital citizenship and literacy course in all our schools. Teens need adults who are available to them and can be trusted to act on their behalf.

I do not advocate for complete invasion of teen social space, but we need to have a presence. This is a very delicate balance since teens need some of their own private space to practice socializing within youth circles and for finding their identities. If they feel adults are encroaching too far into this territory, they will look for alternate spaces to keep adults out. That’s what made texting among youth popular in the first place.

The lack of empathy and humanity these youth showed is heart-breaking. The keen interest and voyeurism displayed over such a violent act -alarming. We have to ask ourselves what society will look like in the future if we fail to find the delicate balance of adult presence in teens’ online and linked worlds.

Questions from Teens on Texting

Great discussion is being generated in class with all the media buzz around cell phones in the classroom. I took the opportunity to discuss texting with one of my grade 11 classes, asking students to think about the fears around teens and texting and to frame questions around those fears. Here’s what we discussed:

“Is texting really making us become more anti-social?”

Texting is actually quite social. In fact it’s hyper-social. Teens are connecting with each other around the clock and staying more connected to each other than ever. Adults worry when teens go off to their rooms and text because face-to-face interaction with them drops off. Adults equate your physical absence with anti-social behaviour because they have learned to be social by being physically present. They are worried about being kept outside of your social space. Spend some face-to-face time with your parents every day.

“Won’t we have a harder time communicating face-to-face?”

Just because you are communicating less face-to-face doesn’t mean you’ll forget how to do it. It’s just another form of communication that you can choose from. That means you’ll need to assess the most effective way to get your message across when communicating. For example, teens enjoy using sarcasm with each other. That’s difficult to read in a text. You’re probably already reserving that for face-to-face interaction.

Some teens I interviewed during my documentary said they use texting to help them think about what they want to communicate when responding in a difficult situation, instead of acting impulsively. This can be a benefit in preventing a situation from escalating, however, teens do lose the opportunity to read body language. Sometimes what we say or write isn’t exactly how we feel. Teens need to think ahead about the possible outcomes of using each kind of communication before they engage in a difficult conversation. It’s not much different than before cell phones when teens used notes to express themselves instead of dealing face-to-face. Teens have already been negotiating between written forms of communication and face-to-face.

Another question that came up was “is texting ruining our ability to spell correctly and use proper grammar?” The response will appear in an upcoming post.

Opening up Facebook to Education

FindYourSearch / Stock Photos

I wasn’t surprised at the negative comments that appeared in the story write-up about the Waterloo Region Public school board planning to open its firewall to Facebook this September. Any time anything “new” is explored in education, wide-spread skepticism and reservation become rampant. I do find it hard to believe that not one student The Record spoke with felt that Facebook should be openly welcome in the schools. Or, maybe students weren’t asked about the potential benefits at all. Certainly, the experts in social media were not consulted.

I just returned this week from Scotland where I interviewed Dr. Tracey Alloway of Stirling University about using Facebook as a learning tool. Alloway has completed extensive research in the area and is currently meeting with her research team to write up and publish the results of her findings. What she told me was that social media, particularly Facebook, builds and exercises working memory –an important part of processing and managing incoming information. She likens working memory to a series of post-it notes that are sorted and pieced together to develop comprehension of a greater concept. Her studies also showed that using Facebook can actually increase the IQs of teens, improve multi-tasking skills, and raise Oxytocin levels –a chemical in the brain that helps us feel pleasure and fight depression.

While it is likely that students will continue to use Facebook to socialize, the novelty will wear off and with some guidance, they will find academically productive uses for the social media tool as well. Cyberbullying will become much less of a concern as teachers and parents become a guiding presence. Study groups, peer tutoring, and career networks will continue to develop as learning continues during and after school hours. With some lessons in digital literacy and digital citizenship, students will have a safe and empowering forum in which to communicate in the anytime, anyplace world they have created for themselves.

Teetering between Digital Immigrant and Digital Native

photosteve101 / Foter.com / CC BY

The initial panic is wearing off from being back at school. I think I’ve come to terms with the the fact that I won’t see my family again until August.

There is a lot of reading, which I initially tried to read off the computer screen. I have since printed off the articles, highlighted passages and written notes in the margin. I do have the technology to write sticky notes in the columns of PDFs and highlight text but I don’t seem to retain the information in the same way. There’s something about feeling the paper in hand and putting the geographical positioning of the passages into photographic memory that makes me connect better with the text than a screen scroll on a computer. This brings to question whether it’s a digital native versus digital immigrant issue. I don’t think that it is.

My brain has seemed to re-wire itself over the past 10 years though I am considered a digital immigrant. I have much evidence of this transition, especially since going back to school. I had to re-learn how to write with a pen. Yes, I know how strange that sounds, but it took a long time to 1. choose between printing and cursive for speed and legibility, and 2. I couldn’t remember what my style of hand-writing looked like. The only time I had been using pen and paper was to write short shopping lists and to-do lists.

So far, I have discussed only the use of tools, but even my processing of information is slowly changing back. I am a little better able to focus on individual tasks one at a time again. Since, re-gaining this skill, I found my level of comprehension has gone up. Before, I had gotten to the point of multi-tasking so much with technology that I couldn’t even remember what other tasks needed completion.

Three weeks ago, I was trying to read an article for school on my computer when I came across a word I needed to look up. The word was “inchoate” (which is quite funny, because that’s how I’ve been through this whole transformation). I ended up searching the Internet for the meaning of the word and got lost in different information as links led to other links, leading me away and on to other topics.

I made a point of disciplining myself and returned to read my article and my thoughts drifted to another class of mine. We had been discussing how Facebook looks at your profile and tailors the sidebar advertisements to your interests. That reminded me of a great book I read called, “Feed”. (spoiler alert) The book was about a futuristic society in which when children when born, typically, they were implanted with a chip. The chip monitored a person’s interests and formed demographic and psychographic profiles in order to offer geographical services and products right to the brain throughout life. “Feed” focused on two teenaged characters. One had a late implant and as a result, she could at times, willingly disconnect herself from the feed. Because she was still able to think for herself, she ended up playing with the system and giving out messages to the chip that she was interested in things outside her demographic and psychographic profile like expensive cars and things that didn’t make sense for her lifestlye. It was an informal experiment she was trying out (I won’t spoil the book entirely, but the act leads to her demise). The other teen had the implant from birth and couldn’t decide things for himself, couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t form coherent full sentences. He let the feed guide his movements and activities. Ironically, I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but I was trying so hard to finish my reading that I resisted looking up the information. When I got to the end of the article, I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to look for. I even posted on Facebook that I was having difficulty remembering something I knew I wanted to look up, complaining and blaming multi-tasking with technology. When I stepped away from the computer and went to have a shower, it was while rinsing my hair that I remembered what I wanted to look up.

I am frightened for the digital natives. Their ability to retain information in their long term memory by connecting and making attachments is at risk largely due to the distractions precipitated by the act of technological multi-tasking and short spans of time with information. Stephen Kotler wrote an article in the May 2009 edition of Psychology Today in which he wrote,

“The harm being done by Twitter is the harm it’s doing to the brain. The average user goes tweet-tweet all day long. This tunes the brain to reading and comprehending information 140 characters at a time.

No one’s yet done the research, but I’m willing to bet my lunch-money, that if you take a Twitter-addicted teen and give them a reading comprehension test, their comprehension levels will plunge once they pass the 140 word mark.”

Kevin Parrish wrote an article in Tom’s Guide, published in September of 2009 about research done by Dr. Alloway, that suggests that Kotler is right.

“As reported by the Telegraph, Dr. Tracy Alloway, working out of the University of Stirling in Scotland, says that working memory is the ability to remember information, and actually put that information to use. After extensive research in working memory, she believes that success and happiness stem from this ability rather than having high IQs. She also believes that certain video games can train working memory, especially those that involve planning and strategy.

Although Facebook offers “thinking” games such as Sudoku, managing friends and dates on the social website exercises the working memory. Twitter, YouTube and texting, on the other hand, isn’t exactly healthy. “On Twitter you receive an endless stream of information, but it’s also very succinct,” said Dr Alloway. ”You don’t have to process that information. Your attention span is being reduced and you’re not engaging your brain and improving nerve connections.””

Alloway’s work was done with 11-14 year old test subjects. Perhaps, it would also be beneficial to study those of us that teeter on the wall between the digital natives and digital immigrants. It might also be worth studying younger teachers for the added benefit of revealing the impact on the development of a new “educational model”.