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Ban Cellphones in Class? Good Luck with That

Instead of a futile fight against technology, teach students how to understand and manage their lives online.

By Crawford Kilian 11 Sep 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is the author of Writing for the Web.

Late in the 1980s, I was an early and eager recruit to the cause of computers in education. I taught a communications course for a new program at Capilano College that required students to buy their own Macs and trundle them into a computer lab.

It was exhilarating for a teacher, but also chastening. Back in the early 1970s I’d dreamed of having the world’s best library in a box, and teaching in a classroom where each student sat in front of a screen and saw just what I, the Lord High Instructor, wanted to put on it.

As soon as I did preside over such a class, I found myself demoted from sage on the stage to guide on the side. With access to the brand-new web, my students were literally all over the map, anywhere but where I wanted them to be.

In a conservative institution like education, this student freedom was horrifying. Like a nightmare, desktop computers morphed into sleek little laptops and turned up in all my classrooms. My dirty looks and dire threats kept them shut except during breaks, when they instantly snapped open (so did cellphones) and my students grabbed a few minutes to get on with their real lives.

Just before I retired in 2008, I tried exploiting my students’ addiction by showing them how to use their laptops to find specific answers to questions. Somewhat to my surprise, it worked. If I’d stuck around for a year or two more, I’d have explored this opportunity more deeply.

Instead, in 2010 I became a retread, teaching courses in another community college to replace the regular instructor for a semester. He’d left course outlines and a strict injunction: no cellphones in class.

Steve Jobs, saboteur

But by now we were well into the smartphone age. Steve Jobs, who had enlivened my teaching career for 20 years, now threatened to sabotage my encore. My students took it very badly when I asked them to put their phones away. In vain I created course blogs and invited students to download their course materials; they just wanted to text one another.

Eventually I got my own smartphone, but it has never become the focus of my life. Yet in the past decade I have seen, from North Vancouver to Helsinki, the enslavement of students (and everyone else) to their smartphones.

With the start of the new school year, I can understand the renewed debate about the use of smartphones in school. It’s reminiscent of the old debate about using calculators in math class; somehow math formulas were supposed to be better if you stored them in your brain cells instead of silicon chips.

And that argument has merit. It breaks my heart to see some kid at a cash register wait for it to say what my change should be, when I’ve already done the calculation in my head.

Going for addictive jolts

We have also learned that online life has a lot in common with any other addictive drug, from coffee and sugar to fentanyl. Almost as soon as I began teaching how to write for the computer screen, I learned that we like online text and images that deliver jolts — surprises, good or bad, that reward us for clicking on them. It doesn’t take long to find reliable sources of jolts, whether on porn sites or Breitbart or memeorandum or whatever your preferred source of thrills might be.

Worse yet, reading on screens seems to have rewired our brains to skim text rather than absorb it word by word. That’s why students hate to read the textbooks they’re assigned: it takes too long on the printed page to get to the next jolt.

The typical classroom lecture, whether in high school or post-secondary, is predictably jolt-free. As the teacher drones on and on, students feel they need a jolt more than they need their next breath. In the 1950s we got our jolts by making eye contact with our classmates or passing handwritten notes to them. Texting is just a more expensive way to do the same thing.

So, if we want education to proceed as it did in the last century, we should lock up the kids’ cellphones and teach them how to read print on paper.

Discovering the joy of offline life

We’d have good reason to do so. It really is a source of pleasure (and jolts) to be able to do stuff without relying on advanced technology: to go running without earbuds, or make bagels from scratch. Or cook an excellent dinner and share it with friends, with not a single smartphone on the table or in anyone’s hand.

All that said, smartphones will go on delivering jolts until the Next Big Thing delivers them straight from the cloud to the chip implanted behind your left ear. Then, as now, the problem won’t be the gadget, any more than your eyes or ears are the problem. The problem will be how you interpret the data you’re getting.

As with many education issues, this is a good one to try out on Pasi Sahlberg, the guru of Finnish education. The Finns have been eager pioneers in education technology, but they understand that it’s complicated. On his blog, Sahlberg earlier this year noted that in Finland a cellphone ban would be considered a violation of citizens’ freedom of speech.

“I am also personally worried about the disturbing aspect of having smartphones present when we are about to get something done,” he goes on. “I have heard hundreds of stories from teachers here and abroad how having your smartphone in your pocket and sensing the incoming messages vibrating distracts students’ attention from learning. Probably the best ongoing research-based effort to understand this better is Alberta’s Growing Up Digital initiative that is a joint project of Alberta Teachers Association and Harvard Medical School.”

Sahlberg offers wise advice: “An active approach to teach children the ‘goods and bads’ of smartphones and help each one to self-regulate and control what to do with their phones. Heavy use of digital technologies that often manifests itself as addiction is equally harmful out-of-school. Therefore, it is important we teach children healthy ways to grow up with [the] digital world.”

So, let’s consider making phones and online communication a subject in and of itself in our schools’ curriculum. How do they affect us, and how do we affect others when we use them? How can we judge the information they give us, whether from Google or our classmates?

And, most important of all, how can we ensure that we remain the masters, and our phones remain our servants?  [Tyee]

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