08 December 2007

Don’t Hang Up on Your Students’ Futures

In today's (8 December 2007) Grand Rapids (MI) Press I have an opinion piece protesting mobile phone bans in local schools. Well, not protesting, simply suggesting that if we cannot figure out how to teach with a tool this powerful we are surely failing as educators. Of course, in this topsy-turvy communications world, it is the print media which required a 1,300 word story be cut to 750, while here, on-line (or by feed to your mobile phone) you can read the whole thing...

In a classroom with sixty future teachers I tried an experiment. “Everybody have their mobile phones?” I asked. They looked surprised. “OK,” I told these Michigan State University students, “you have fifteen minutes to receive a text message. The message must say (1) where the person is, (2) what they ate for lunch today, and (c) what decade were they born in.” Then I offered extra credit if the text response came from outside the US, and more extra-credit if it was both from outside the country and in a language other than English. Instantly the room was filled fingers flying across tiny keypads, and within fifteen minutes we had far more responses than students. “What could we do with this information?” I asked. “Could we graph it? Map it? Analyze it for information on diet? Work on translating the French, German, Spanish, and Urdu messages we received?”

This wasn’t an original idea of mine. A friend had emailed me an online video on best practices in education and I had grabbed this assignment from that. But it was a powerful lesson. Just the week before another instructor in education at MSU had been quoted in a New York Times article complaining about cell phones in the classroom and I had forcefully argued that this was the wrong tack to take. Mobile phones are potentially the most powerful communication and information device ever created, I had suggested, and they are already everywhere. How blind, I asked, must we as educators be if we cannot use such a remarkable tool? If we cannot teach with such a remarkable tool? If we cannot help students see how this tool will impact their lives in amazing ways as they go forward? So I went into the class wanting to show future teachers one more way to embrace the technology of the 21st Century rather than fearing it.

My ideas about mobile phones in education are not original either. Around the world educators are utilizing this technology. Phones deliver content via text, they allow intra-classroom communication (students using Bluetooth to text answers to their teachers), they provide sophisticated handheld calculators, they take photos which document experiments, they act as digital voice recorders, they play podcasts of pre-recorded lessons, they support second language acquisition, they support and encourage writing, and where the phones connect to the internet, they give students handheld access to the world’s greatest library. Researchers and teachers in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Israel, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Singapore, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Kenya and dozens of other nations are developing and supporting “mobile learning” initiatives. In the United Kingdom the government just supported the publication of a remarkable book (available as a pdf download) from the Institute of Education at the University of London, Mobile Learning – towards a research agenda, which looks at the many cognitive interactive effects of this new educational context. TeachersTV in the UK – an online training tool, produced a half-hour video this fall on the power of mobile phones in the classroom.

Having excited my class with the phone lesson, and having met with them again to investigate all the ways that new technologies and electronic devices can support diverse learners – including the students they will mostly work with, those with learning, attention, and behavioral “disabilities,” I came home on Tuesday night, watched House, and then the local news. And on the local news I heard a top story about East Grand Rapids Schools blocking cell phone use and prohibiting iPod use. The story went on to say how this new policy was similar to those in Holland and other West Michigan cities, but less restrictive than the Grand Rapids Public Schools which, if the story was correct, prohibited all student electronic devices. Why? I asked myself, why, in a state so desperate to prepare our children for a new global economy, would we be so reluctant to actually begin to do that?

Educational researcher Alan November called American schools, “reality free zones” in the June 2007 issue of Technology and Learning magazine. “If we could get past our fear of the unknown and embrace the very tools we are blocking (which are also essential tools for the global economy),” he said, “then we could build much more motivating and rigorous learning environments. We also have an opportunity to teach the ethics and the social responsibility that accompany the use of such powerful tools.” He went on to discuss how today’s students have “information and communication containers” different than those of past generations – mobile phones, iPods, blogs, computers, instant messaging, video games. These technologies are certainly different than the 16th through 19th Century technologies comfortable for those who run the schools in West Michigan (pens, paper, printed books, notebooks, chalkboards), but they are no less valid, just as those old technologies are no less fraught with potential problems.

“Yes,” I have told teachers, phones in school can cause problems. Then I hold up my right hand, still scarred from where a friend stabbed me with a pencil in fifth grade. “The school, for some reason,” I say, “did not choose to ban pencils because of my injury.” I could point out that the school did not ban pencils (or paper either) when students were caught using them to write notes to friends, or to cheat, or to graffiti the boys’ room walls. Instead, the schools kept those technologies in place in the classroom, and taught both with them and the appropriate use of them.

For today’s students, who will graduate into a world dominated by digital technology and instant communication, the mobile phone (along with November’s other “containers”) will be at least as essential as all the technologies those who make school policy learned “back then” – pens and pencils, books and paper, card catalogs and library organization, typewriters and the old-style telephone. Right now students who are not experienced with their iPods will be at a disadvantage at many of our best universities (Duke and Stanford for example) and will likely be behind in language classes everywhere. Students who cannot search information quickly and effectively online will be unable to do college-level research or function at all in graduate school, or – and this is increasingly true throughout the economy – hold most jobs. Students who cannot communicate well with their employers by email and text-message will be in trouble in many ways. Yet with all that, our K-12 schools resist, using technology in the most limited ways – restricting the function to that of antique forms – the computer becomes little more than a typewriter or – with PowerPoint – a filmstrip projector.

The lesson I gave my students in instant text-message research is just one of many I try to provide. I encourage laptops in the classroom, and ask students to look things up for me, to check on the things I or other students say, and to communicate the results quickly to their classmates via email. I ask them to keep their mobile phones on their desks – that way – if they’ve forgotten to silence them and they do ring, we are all not listening while everyone searches their backpacks. I talk about the etiquette of taking important calls. I strongly encourage email conversation and debate. I expect use of Google, Google Scholar, Wiktionary, Wikipedia and talk about the best ways to use those essential tools. In the classrooms so equipped I use the Interactive White Boards (“SmartBoards”) not with PowerPoint but with on-line resources. I want these future teachers to know that they cannot fear these technologies in their classrooms, because their students must learn to use them.

New technologies scare and confuse people raised in the past. They scare and confuse schools. I recently found a series of articles from an 1842 educational journal explaining to teachers how to use the newest technology – the chalkboard – and reassuring them that “this new system” would not “replace books.” 2,500 years ago Plato feared literacy would destroy students' memorization skills and the quality of spoken language. So the fears we see around computers and mobile phones are simply part of a long pattern. But we cannot afford to simply train our students to be “just like us.” We must help them to navigate the world that is their future, and we cannot do that if we keep the technologies which will define that future out of our schools.

- Ira Socol

The essential iPod for college (The New York Times)
tshirtia - books for your mobile phone
Books in My Phone
Mobile Books
Japan: books written on, and delivered via, mobile phone.
Academic Papers
SMS in the Classroom - "Pls Turn Ur Mobile On" (Ireland
- Open Access)
SMS in a Literature Course (Germany)

SMS messaging in microeconomics experiments (Australia - Open Access)
Testing using SMS messaging (New Zealand)
Cell Phones in the L2 Classroom (Korea)
Instantaneous Feedback in the Interactive Classroom (Singapore - Open Access)

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