In 1973 Martin Cooper changed the world, although most of us weren’t paying attention at the time. As a newly remarried mom of two, I had other things to do besides marvel at the first public telephone call placed on a cellular phone.
“Following the April 3, 1973, public demonstration, using a brick-like 30-ounce phone, Cooper started the 10-year process of bringing the portable cell phone to market. Motorola introduced the 16-ounce ‘DynaTAC’ phone into commercial service in 1983, with each phone costing the consumer $3,500. It took seven additional years before there were a million subscribers in the United States.”
So began our journey to today where every other person in America has a phone attached to their body and can’t seem to function for more than five minutes without reporting their actions to someone. And while Cooper understood our need for a better way to communicate, unfettered by place or circumstance, I’m sure he could not have foreseen that his invention would also drastically change education and perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the public high school.
I know some of you are already making that face, and if I were in close proximity to you I might even get the little pat on the shoulder that says you understand my limited knowledge and experience and you are willing to wait for me to catch up with the rest of you in the modern world. I’ve already gotten the look a couple of times this week while voicing my opinion of a recent change in cell phone policy for a local high school.
I’m not sure if all of you are aware of it, but there is a definite division in the world over electronic devices. There is the “lived without it this long, don’t want one now” group. There is the “I’ll choose what I like and need” group. And there is the “if it’s new and shiny and my neighbor has one I have to try it” group. Of course we often have very little choice in the matter, even if we are delusional enough to think for a moment that we do. Tried to buy a rotary phone, record, typewriter ribbon, or VHS tape lately? Welcome to the world of antiques. As consumers we are like cows to the slaughter- we just follow the herd through the chute until we are in the truck and there is nowhere else to go.
With this in mind it was no surprise to me to find that there are two camps forming over the use of cell phones in high school. There are teachers like me who think that unlimited use of the devices will have more negative than positive consequences. And there are those who embrace the cell phone as just another tool to add to their rapidly growing kit. Both make some valid points.
I know that many people think of me as old-fashioned and opinionated and stubborn. But thanks to the training I received in the seventeen schools I attended during the dark ages, I also know how to do a little research before forming an opinion. And thanks to the fact that I am not as hopelessly clueless as some of my colleagues might think, I did most of that research online. I also made a couple of phone calls and even talked to some teachers in person- an ancient, but rewarding practice.
Here is what is happening. High schools across America are letting students not only carry their cell phones, but use them in class with the blessings of the teachers and administration. This is what one administrator had to say: “Students are using them. We’d be fools to think that they’re not. They’re ahead of us in the curve, and we need our (curriculum) to reflect what they’re already doing.” Well if that is the logic for allowing their use then I assume that anything a teen is currently using will at some point end up in the classroom.
The idea behind the use of the cell phone in class is that it will generate interest in the lesson, allow students to search for information, and enable the teacher to text questions, schedules, plans, etc. to students. One teacher made the comment that shy students no longer have to speak in class. They can just text their responses to him and no one has to know what they said. An art teacher said that she requires her students to paint from photos taken with their phones. A principal said "We don't have a secretary calling every student who is absent; we just do it through text messaging. There's no more mailing about back-to-school night. We're saving money in paper expenses and stamps, and we're getting immediate responses." Good to know they are in a district where every parent and child can afford a phone! But if they don’t, there is a way out of that dilemma as well- “Most students have a text messaging-enabled cell phone, and if they don't have one, they can easily share.”
"We think school should be preparing students for real life—and in real life, people use cell phones," says blogger Lisa Nielsen. "If you're making an artificial world inside the school, you're not preparing them for the real world."
For the other side of the story I present just a few problems that students, teachers, and administrators have encountered with unlimited use of cell phones. And I know that the intention is not “unlimited” use, but the reality most often is just that. Some of these concerns hadn’t even occurred to me until I researched this topic.
- Students can use their cell phone camera to take pictures of assignments and tests and email them to classmates and friends. One girl did so during first period and her friend in the last period class made 100% on her test.
- Camera phones can and have been used to take locker room and restroom photos, and compromising photos of teachers or other staff members. Photos and videos end up online and are often used for cyber bullying.
- One of the most annoying daily distractions reported by teachers who have experience with classroom cell phone use is parents texting their students.
- One survey of 200 principals reports that 94% of them believe teachers are guilty of using their phones for non-educational purposes. 69% feel that the use of cell phones adversely affects the teacher’s focus on the classroom and students. 80% say that cell phones pose a problem during testing.
- School bus drivers tell of incidents of friends, family members and gang members awaiting the arrival of buses at their afternoon drop-off sites in response to text messages sent by students during conflicts on the buses.
- Some emergency personnel consider cell phones a problem. During a crisis, such as a school shooting, students need to take direction from adults. School leaders may need to lock down or evacuate the building. And students who are calling or texting on cell phones during a crisis can easily miss life-saving directions. Students can also accelerate rumors on their phones by spreading inaccurate information to parents, other students and the media. One teacher told me of a lock-down situation where there were suddenly so many parents on campus that the authorities could not look for the person posing the threat.
- Students who are texting, sexting, or playing games on their phones create one more behavior problem that must be dealt with by the teacher. One principal admitted that he knows the problem exists. “Students are only supposed to use them in class under teacher direction. Do they text at different times? I’m sure they do,” he said. But he said he’s going to try not to dwell on the negatives, letting teachers handle students who violate the policy.
- The use of cell phones in the classroom creates yet another division between the “haves and have nots”. While supporters of the plan say that students can share, the reality is that those in low income households are going to suffer some consequences if their district goes “full technology” based on parental purchasing power. Who is going to get all of those “paperless” notices from the school office if the parents can’t afford a cell phone? Of course it saves the district money if students use cell phones- the district doesn’t have to buy them laptops or PCs.
Clearly the lists of pros and cons could go on and on. But don’t think that any of this will result in a national policy based on logic or experience or consequences. We will simply wake up one day and all educators will be required to use a cell phone because a congressman who knows a lobbyist who knows a teacher says it’s a great teaching tool. Like hobos hopping a train, many in leadership don’t care where the train is going as long as they get to ride.
I said earlier that Mr. Cooper’s invention may have marked the beginning of the end of public high school. I think that is something we should all seriously consider. If high school students can get all of the information they need from their cell phones and teachers can communicate with students via cell phones, then why do we need all these classrooms? Throw in a weekly chat and an occasional power point presentation and everyone could just stay home in their pajamas. Other than sports, there wouldn’t be any reason to go to an expensive school building. No need to pay for utilities and lunches and buses. Teachers could be paid less because they work from home. Parents would be responsible for safety and behavior. Students could do what they want, when they want it. They would be responsible for their own education based on their individual goals in life. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!