Life Was Better Before Sliced Bread

This story was all over Twitter and educational discussions yesterday.  “TDSB allows cellphones back in the classroom“.  For those of you who don’t know, TDSB stands for the Toronto District School Board.  It is the biggest single school district in the province of Ontario.

As with many articles, the headline is true but doesn’t necessarily translate literally or universally.  If you read through the article, and I would urge you to do so, there is an important paragraph at the bottom that tells the rest of the story.

Cellphones won’t permeate Toronto’s schools in this way next fall, when the new rules take effect. They will be allowed in the classroom only for educational purposes and with the permission of the teacher, and in the hallways as long as they’re not disruptive.

So, the intent of the motion passed by the District School Board seems pretty clear.  I read it as “if it’s appropriate and the teacher is OK with it, then let it happen.  Otherwise, no.”  It’s pretty naïve to think that the current ban in education is effective; it just encourages sneakier under the desk use and that can never be good.  As in most cases, the comments by the public to the original article are just as telling as the article itself.  It really gets a sense of the responders and where they stand on the issue – taking that stand hopefully after thoughtfully reading the article and doing research before expressing thoughts.  Oh, and using a spell checker too.

Many of the comments take us back to a more idealistic place and time.  Schools used corporal punishment to keep kids in line.  Everyone was a mathematical genius and needed no assists.  All the research that a person could ever need was found in the books in the library.  All the students spoke English and the only time that anyone other than the teacher took centre stage happened when a guest speaker was invited to the class.  All of the desks faced the front of the room and they might actually even interlock to keep them in a straight line.  Life was perfect and everyone was successful and went on to great things in society.  If you were lucky enough, technology included a public address system that allowed the principal to give his morning announcements.  Certainly the concept of a cell phone, a portable computing device, or internet connectivity was something left for the movies!

But, really … the days of The Beave and Wally are behind us.  We do have sliced bread.  In fact, in Family Studies classes, it’s possible to go online and find all sorts of recipes for the cause.

Implementation won’t be smooth.  There are many issues in search of a solution – equity of access, appropriate use, cheating and plagiarism – but these are the things that education addresses on a regular basis, with or without smart phones.  We know that students come from diverse financial situations.  We know that not all students come to school having had a suitable breakfast and that not all of them will go home to June and Ward.  Students have always sought ways to get better grades and, at times, have turned to creative ways to raise grades.  All of these are the things that teachers deal with day after day.

For years, schools have tried their very best to have as much computer technology and connectivity that funding allows.  And still, it’s not enough.  Three – five year old computers just don’t do things justice in today’s world and we know that students are going home to use high end computers, no content filters, and are fairly savvy in the tools that they use.  We know that many students pack smart phones when they arrive at school.  Ironically, the “phone” feature is seldom used.  Instead, applications loaded on the smart phone enable picture and video taking and editing, communication, collaboration, and so much more.  It seems to me that any educational system would be showing neglect by NOT taking advantage of all of the computing potential.

But, smart phones can be used for evil. Students can send nasty messages or cheat using these things.  They can distract students from the task at hand.  The language above does include an opt out – “with the permission of the teacher”.  Any parent knows that that isn’t going to work.  The moment that one class opts in, there will be so much pressure for all to opt in.  I suspect that there will be a great deal of initial pain as classes come to grips with things.  But, education has rebounded from new technologies before.

Utopia for many means  a 1:1 implementation of computers and technology.  There have been pockets of this sort of implementation but the cost has been prohibitive to expand everywhere.  However, there are leaders who have worked with 1:1 schools and they should seize the opportunity to step up into this new type of environment to lend their expertise.  Between student technology and school provided technology, we may end up with something close to 1:1 – but certainly not everyone having the same model of technology.  The personal smart phone could truly put the “personal” into personal computing.  Forget the fact that it’s a phone; look at everything else that it can do.

This decision by TDSB is exciting.  It’s not going to be easy and there will be a great deal of growing required but, done properly, this makes it an exciting time to be a learner.

OTR Links for 05/21/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.