Jesse Brown: Why smart phones in the classroom equals smarter kids

Jesse Brown: Why smart phones in the classroom equals smarter kids

Fears of cyber-cheating and sexting in school are so last year

Gadget Goes to SchoolWhen Dalton McGuinty suggested in September 2010 that cellphones and tablets might have useful educational applications, he was savaged by both the press and his political opponents. The Toronto Sun called the idea a “terrible” surrender to already tech-addled kids who want to use gadgets only for Facebook. The National Post likened it to welcoming cigarettes and sharp objects into class. Even Wired magazine panned the idea of gadgets in school as “premature,” citing the potential for distraction, cyber-cheating and a digital divide between kids with the latest gear and kids without. The Ontario Tories picked up all the outrage and ran with it, slamming the notion as “absurd,” a prime example of just how out of touch McGuinty was, and asking, “Shouldn’t our kids be learning math and science instead?” They went on to suggest that if McGuinty gets his way, we will soon have “sexting” in our classrooms.

The real concerns parents have about bringing cellphones into class are somewhat less lurid. Kids—boys in particular—are thought to be less literate today than they were in the past. The statistics don’t back this up. The last major study conducted in Canada showed that 88 per cent of 13-year-olds were reading at or above their expected levels. Still, the general perception is that technology is the enemy of literacy. What teacher in their right mind would welcome it into their classroom?

As it turns out, there are many. There’s a digital revolution underway in education. A new generation of teachers is embracing the use of classroom technology. They want to harness the fascination kids have with glowing screens and direct it toward learning. This transition is natural for kids, but painfully hard for schools. The truth is, smart phones threaten to disrupt decades of common practice in the classroom. And that’s a good thing. Changes to the way we teach and test our kids are long overdue.

Last May, with much teacher support and little parental opposition, the TDSB voted to lift the cellphone ban that had been enacted in 2007. Granted, many teachers were simply fed up with having to enforce it in every school hallway, obligated as they were to confiscate cellphones from defiant students. But a growing contingent of educators was also eager to experiment with gadgets in class, so long as they had the authority to dictate how and when they were used. These voices prevailed, and trustees spoke excitedly of stepping into “21st-century learning” and an “enhanced” educational environment.

While hand-helds are now technically admissible, the board also temporarily allowed individual principals to prolong the ban, and most have chosen to do so. Today, more than six months since the vote and halfway into a new school year, cellphones, smart phones and tablets (or “personal technology devices,” as the board calls them) are still forbidden in most of the TDSB’s almost 600 schools.

Peter Chang, the TDSB superintendent charged with implementing the new tech policy, says his ultimate goal is to allow each teacher to decide what’s best for his or her class. He explains that the TDSB is taking things slow to ensure that smart phones are properly supported and integrated into the board’s policies, infrastructure and training. Chang describes the bureaucratic and logistical nightmare of a potential 250,000 students bringing gadgets to school: the strain the devices will put on Wi-Fi networks; the lack of tech training among staff; issues of compatibility and tech support; and the legal implications—is the board liable if students use the schools’ networks to download pirated music or pornography?

So, instead of bursting the gates open, Chang is slowly nudging along a three-phase implementation process, wherein the board will draft thorough new technology policies, then create and promote learning plans for teachers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he’ll study the experiences of the few pilot schools sprinkled throughout the city where gadgets are already in use. The best-case scenario, Chang says, is a board-wide rollout next September.

Teachers who are already experimenting with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) speak ecstatically of students’ reactions—how engaged and enthusiastic they are about learning. Traditionally, schoolwork has been a one-way conversation between child and teacher, but with BYOD, students are encouraged to post their work on learning blogs and collaborate through apps that let many hands edit a single document.

Cate Cuttle is one of the TDSB’s early adopters. She teaches business at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute. A mere two months into her smart phone experiment, she describes their impact as “thrilling.” Not all of her students own devices, so they share. About three quarters of them bring smart phones, then buddy up with partners to do research together. To many kids, gadgets exist exclusively for socializing and video games. Cuttle hopes to teach them that there are other applications. “I absolutely feel a responsibility to prepare them for technology in the real world.”

Royan Lee is a literacy teacher at Beverley Acres, a middle school in Richmond Hill. The school lies within the York Region District board, which never had a ban, so Lee has allowed smart phones in his class for the past three years. He’s now a leading proponent of the practice, which he documents on his Spicy Learning education blog. Every September, Lee tells his Grade 7 students that they’re welcome to bring to class whatever hand-held gadget they own. If a student doesn’t have a device, he pulls one from a box of school-owned gear—a privilege afforded to his funded pilot project.

Lee has no particular strategy for integrating the devices with his teaching. He generally doesn’t limit usage to any specific website or app, or to a predetermined time or unit. He lets students use their devices in class in much the same way that adults use their devices at work—whenever they are helpful and appropriate. Students are free to check Google or Wikipedia for answers or to email him questions they’d prefer not to ask in front of their peers. I asked Lee whether students take advantage of his lax attitude by texting each other and visiting distracting websites. “Sure,” he says. “They also chat verbally with each other, and when it gets in the way of learning I stop that, too. It’s what teachers do.”

The bigger problem for Lee is having to tell his students to put away their phones during standardized tests. All of the online research abilities and collaborative skills he teaches through BYOD are useless in an exam. Lee describes traditional testing as “isolated, high-pressure, rote-memorization” assessment—an anachronistic and false way to gauge a student’s learning.

He’s got a point. It’s hard to think of a real-world challenge where you are placed in silent isolation with paper and pen, left to rely exclusively on memory. Today, solving a problem with the help of technology is not “cheating.” It’s how just about everyone, outside of school, solves just about every problem. Problem solving with the help of a smart phone requires critical thinking, multiple literacies, the ability to analyze information from different sources and some basic tech know-how.

To graduate a student without these abilities is unconscionable.