by Cheryl Jackson Friday September 17, 2010

One of my daughters has a friend who constantly browses and texts on her cell phone, even when she's in the middle of conversation with us. I must say, I find it rude and I want to scream "Put that thing down while we're talking!" I don't, of course. My daughter would kill me. But she's noticed it too, and it's no surprise that they don't spend much time together. It's hard to maintain a connection when one person is so absorbed in conversations with others online. And it's hard not to think "Maybe I'm not very important right now if you'd rather be talking to someone else."

Imagine how teachers must feel when their students whip out their phones during a lesson and thumbs start flying. In many school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, York Region and Peel, cell phones are banned, but kids still find ways to use them. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says perhaps they should be allowed.  When asked to comment on the TDSB's plan to reconsider the ban, Mr. McGuinty said, "Telephones and BlackBerrys...are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want our students to be is well-informed."  

You can imagine the reaction this got.  Some teachers say cell phones can help inform in class. Others say all it will inform is a student's plan to meet their friends at their locker after class. So who's right?  And what can be done about it anyway?

Julie Mueller teaches in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. She was a guest on our panel Is Technology Dumbing Down our Kids, and is an expert on technology in education. She's all for cell phones in the classroom. She shared her thoughts with me and here's some of what she had to say: "The possiblities for learning are endless....Liz Kolb, a former principal and adjuct professor at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan is quoted as naming the cell phone as 'the Swiss Army knife of education tools'." 

Mueller goes on to say "any tool comes with its concerns and considerations." She admits cell phones can distract, but says students have always found distractions. Teachers will have to find ways to keep students engaged, and will have to come up with rules for their use. Maybe there will be some class time when cell phones are put away. And kids must be taught etiquette and manners, says Mueller. She says "students should not be texting their friends or using the cell phone to cheat on tests." 

Mueller also addresses the equity issue. Not all kids have smart phones. So, will they be disadvantaged in this new world? Mueller says "Let's make it (the technology) iPod touch for classroom use is much less expensive than a desktop or even laptop computer."

I have to say, Mueller is convincing. Perhaps Mr. McGuinty wasn't so far off the mark. Let's face it, our kids are using their phones everywhere, for everything. So perhaps schools and teachers can harness the possiblities. And maybe, just maybe, the kids will learn some rules along the way, and will look up from their phones when someone is speaking to them. 

Teachers, do cell phones have a place in your class or do they make you crazy? Parents, what do you think? To get you thinking about this you can also check out some of our other shows:  Do School LIbraries Need Books? and Wired: How is Technology Affecting Your Child?