Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cell Phones: Tools for Learning? Or Weapons of Mass Distraction?

The other day I received an email from a recent graduate of our Teacher Preparation Program. He was helping out in a school at home, since Commencement is long past for us, but classes are still going in K-12 schools. He saw this sign hanging up at a high school teacher's door:

With thanks to my (anonymous) (former) student for allowing me to post this...

Knowing that I am fascinated by educational technology, and the way we often use consumer technologies as educational technologies in schools, this prompted a question from him:
Hmmm...I use my phone to find a lot of information, more than my computer even. Maybe though in study hall high school kids "waste" too much time on it? Or should study hall be their choice of time once in high school? Your time, use it as you want without disrupting the class? 

Interesting question for me as a techie teacher! Should students be allowed to use their cell phones as the see fit in school? Maybe just in study hall, where it is unstructured learning time (in theory, at least?) Or, as this teacher has done, should cell phones be banned entirely? 

After a little thought, here is how I responded:
Boy, that’s a tough call. I’m torn, honestly. 

On one hand, I really agree with you—I live my life with my phone in hand today, and I think that’s even more the case for high school (and middle school?) students today. To require them to put their phone away is like asking them to put a piece of their brain away. (I’ve actually seen some research to support this idea: phones and the capability to find the information you need can be conceived of as a kind of artificial intelligence. Basically, students don’t need to know everything anymore…but they need to know how to access the facts they need. Interesting, no?)

On the other hand, I also see the distraction factor from glowing screens. If teachers aren’t willing to shift their pedagogy and make the content come to life for their students, I can imagine that the magnetic pull of the phone is a challenge for keeping them focused.

I guess—if I’m really pressed on this—I would say I would rather have a both-and: students should have reasonable access to their phones to support their work and learning, but the teachers should also have a responsibility to teach them how to use the tech in ways that will support their work and learning, including changing up their teaching practices.

Maybe that’s my pie-in-the-sky, “academic” response to a real life problem in schools today, but that’s where my head is today. ;-)

This is my best thinking for right now, and I'd love to hear your feedback and/or pushback.

To those teaching in K-12 in particular, what do you think? Should students be allowed to use their phones in school? Or is the cost of potential distraction too great?


  1. I'm not a K-12 teacher, but I have been a university-level TA for several years now. To me it's a matter of knowing yourself, whether or not your phone or computer are a distraction. There are some age groups (younger ones) where you can guess that they don't know themselves that well and you can make a choice for them. For older students, the role of teacher changes from commander to tutor, and you'll just have to make a call. I would let college students have their phones out in class, and if I think they are using them for distractions, I would remind them how much money they are paying to be in class. If they want to waste their (or their parents') money, that is their choice. The one case where I would ban phones and other devices is during a test, of course, as there isn't a good way to 100% guarantee students won't cheat if their devices are out. That's actually really unfortunate because there are a lot of college courses in STEM where the main goal is actually to learn where the resources are that you will need in the future.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Kim. I do think it's different for college students, because--as you indicate--they are choosing to be there, and paying the big bucks for it. As K-12 education is compulsory, I wonder if there are times we should say no to phones? I totally agree about during tests, unless the nature of the test is finding information and/or using resources.

      There are times I do ask my college students to put their devices away. But...there are also times I encourage them to capture what is happening in class via photo or video (e.g., when we are collecting data during a lab activity in my Science Methods course,) or times I encourage them to use the resources at their disposal as part of their own learning. I think we can teach appropriate use along these lines for K-12 students as well.

  2. We allow phones in most of our high school classes. I, personally don't have a problem with them most of the time. When I am teaching to the whole class, I ask them to shut their computers and turn their phones upside down. Of course, I teach juniors and seniors. I think their maturity level handles the phone situation a bit better.

    I do agree that kids use their phones for more than a distraction. In my college prep lit class, kids were always looking things up on their phones as we discussed books. They wanted to back up their opinions with facts and the phone is quick for them.

    Just my two cents

    1. Thanks for your insights, my friend! Sounds like we are on the same page. :-)