To Ban or Not to Ban: Schools Weigh Cell Phone Policies

| August 22, 2011 | 29 Comments
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Last week, a  study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that cellphones have become “near ubiquitous”: 83% of American adults own one. Over half of all adult mobile phone owners had used their phones at least once to get information they needed right away. And more than a quarter said that they had experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phones at hand.

The findings of this Pew research — the reliance of adults on their cellphones — stands in sharp contrast to the policies of many schools, where cellphones remained banned or restricted. Students likely have these same needs as adults: to get online and find information they need right away. But often students are banned from using their cell phones in schools, something that students themselves list as one of the greatest obstacles they face in using technology in the classroom.

Students are “asked to do research on a desktop computer that absolutely has less processing power than the computer in their pocket.”

For many schools, these are formal rules, written in school policy or in student handbooks. But as phones become like more extended appendages in everyone’s lives, schools are rethinking their policies. MindShift asked teachers how or whether these rules were changing and received some interesting feedback.

Educator Nilda Vargas reported that students can use cell phones to access their online books, while teacher Shekema Silveri replied that although she requires cell phone usage in her class, the school policy against it hasn’t changed. “Most teachers are still afraid of cell phones in the classroom because they know little about how to use them as a tool for learning,” she wrote on MindShift’s Facebook page.

High school teacher Kim Ibarra said that her school has gone from a “no cell phones in school at all — not even in the hallways or at lunch” policy about four to five years ago, to “cell phone usage in the classroom if the teacher has asked for permission ahead of time with an explanation of what will be done and why it is necessary” about two years ago, to “cell phones can be used in the classroom if the teacher has students using them for educational purposes” last year, and back to the more prohibitive “students may use cell phones in the school only at lunch in a specified area” — the policy for this upcoming year.

Many teachers noted that written policies don’t always mirror informal policies, and thatthere’s a groundswell of those who recognize that cellphones need not be seen solely as distractions or as ways for students to cheat. More educators are realizing that cell phones can enhance learning.

High school teacher Jamie Williams describes his school’s policy regarding cell phones:

“My high school’s policy is cell phones should be off and out of sight. If seen, they are taken and the student is written up. Our handbook says students may use phones with teacher permission. I’m a huge tech nerd and make my students use their phones throughout my class. My biggest gripe is that most students have these great smartphones and barely use the device to a tenth of their potential.

Williams teaches art and technology classes. For his art class, he asks students to use photos they’ve taken on their cell phones as the basis for paintings they’ll create. During tests, Williams allows his students to use both their handwritten notes and those they’ve saved on their phones. In his video class, most students have phones capable of shooting in high definition, and use them for projects. This year, he’s hoping to make a large-scale mosaic of student life created solely from cell phone images.

Williams notes that it’s difficult for students to have to go from one class where they’re expected to make full use of their phones to another in which the phone has to be off and hidden. He also points to the irony that in a lot of these latter classes, students are “asked to do research on a desktop computer that absolutely has less processing power than the computer in their pocket.”

And that’s probably one of the most important observations: many students already carry a powerful computing device in their pockets, while oftentimes much of the technology hardware at schools is woefully out-of-date. By allowing cellphones, schools may find they have equipped students with better devices — with devices that work as calculators, cameras, video cameras, books, and notebooks, for example — at no or low cost to the school.

Cellphones are, of course, just one piece of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program, and this wiki created by Manitoba educator Darren Kuropatwa gives some tips on how to prepare for and take advantage of cell phones and other devices brought into the classroom from home.

But the biggest obstacle remains the attitudes of those educators and administrators who still frown on the devices and fear their usage, who confiscate them from students, who see them as a distraction rather than a powerful tool for learning. It’s clear that schools must come up with an acceptable use policy for cellphones in the classroom. But as more adults indicate that they’re “lost” without their cellphones, it hardly seems acceptable that we ban students’ access to the devices.

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  • Joan Roig

    Nice article.  I have been trying to convince some of my colleagues that the use of the cell phone can bring us as many advantages as we (as teachers/professors/guides) want.  However, some of them still believe that these devices will be a new item to distract the students…  

  • W Strauss

    One problem–parents are usually paying for the phones, and have the say-so as to what services will be purchased.  Not all phones are created equal.

    • Laura Love

      I believe we are accommodating for this in our message to parents.  There isn’t an expectation students will have a phone or a data plan, and we have plans for sharing tech tools in small groups.

  • David Didau

    I am fortunate in that my school as a very relaxed attitude to mobile phones – ironically the only place they’re banned is in the ICT faculty! I often get students to use their phones to record reflections on their learning and to then publish this to a class blog. They love it.

  • http://socrative.com Ben – Socrative

    Cell phones are an everyday component of our professional and social lives, thus they should be allowed in schools.  BUT, they must be thoughtfully leveraged to push learning forward.  Either provide students solutions to overcome gaps in their current understanding or push them to gain technological fluency previously unattained.  Furthermore, classroom management will always be difficult and yes technology can add complexity.  BUT, a thoughtfully led and designed class will gain from its inclusion.  

  • guest

    Anyone ever see the language for this policy in their handbook?

    • Laura Love

      Yes, we have just developed it for Hudson High School (in WI).  LLove

  • Anonymous

    Leadership Public Schools (leadps.org) is working on this right now with ExitTicket.org (www.exitticket.org), which is an exit ticket (clicker/voting) student performance system using smartphones in the classroom. It’s easier to have the students BYOT (Bring your Own Technology): less IT support hassle for the teacher (every student knows how to run their own device), they charge it on their own (lower utility bill and IT expenditure for the school). We supply some smartphones for kids who don’t have one.

  • Steven Howell

    While I agree that the times are changing and that cell phones have become the norm, it is impossible to agree that they should be inducted as tools in school. This is primarily because of the issue of control in the classroom. It is impossible to prevent students from accessing prohibited websites and keep them from texting eachother in class because the teacher cannot monitor 30 cell phones at once. Even if the technology existed that gave the teacher access, it would be a breach of privacy issues with individual parties and their cell phone plans. Unless the school ISSUES these phones to students (unlikely due to budget constraints by an ever watchful government), I cannot foresee its effective use in a classroom environment. It may be ready in the future, but not at this present time.

    • Tom

      You are right, Steven, it all boils down to issues of control, not learning.  We have created a culture of dependency where the teacher is supposed to control every minute aspect of the learning process. Every child should be on the same web site at the same time; every child should be completing the same lesson at the same level at the same pace.  No child should do anything that the teacher hasn’t suggested because the teacher has no way to “reward learning”, only ways to reward a response to their teaching.  At the same time we say we want to produce independent learners.  Remind me again how that would happen? We have demonstrated for decades that we will have control, even when we have to sacrifice powerful learning to maintain it! 

      • bnteach

        I couldn’t agree more, Tom.  As a high school teacher, most students have embraced and appreciated that our building has gone to a cell phone friendly campus.  It’s honestly a beautiful sight to see students on their phones before and after school, during passing time, and during class – most of us are in some way, social beings.  When used appropriately in class, they are a learning tool for everyone – even me, the teacher! I have been amazed at the level of sharing and collaboration that has taken place between students because of cell phone usage.  When students are empowered to share their world, it’s amazing to see what can unfold. Trying to micromanage every detail of their learning would burn any teacher out – collaboration and communication is key to any growth!

    • Lillian Davis

      I couldn’t disagree more. If a teacher honestly thinks that by restricting the use of 

    • Anonymous

      Let’s try this again:

      I couldn’t disagree more. If a teacher honestly thinks that by restricting the use of cell phones he or she is keeping the students from texting they clearly have not sat near teenagers at any given point in a day. If a teacher thinks that students aren’t already accessing those prohibited sites than that teacher is living in la-la land.The best thing I ever saw a college teacher do was to tell the students to put their cell phones on the desk but out of the way. If it buzzed he ignored it, if the student picked it up he asked them to “return to class.” If it rang he told them to turn the ringer off. During class he would ask the class to look up something on the internet giving those with smart phone the right to use their phones. Most of them beat the rest of us in finding those things.Incorporate it correctly and you have a modicum of control. Restrict it in an effort to control and you will lose control completely.

  • http://twitter.com/newtechnetwork New Tech Network

    Weighing in again with “teach,not ban” . If we want our students to use cell phones and other digital devices appropriately as they enter the work force,  we need to work with them on norms/guidelines in school, during the school day.  Teachers also will likely need training on how to guide students with appropriate use and harnessing the power of personal digital devices.

  • http://peterpappas.com/ peterpappas

    As a friend once said to me “if you can’t fix it, feature it.” Many students are already carrying the devices – don’t compete with them – harness them. For more on the subject see my post “SmartPhone – Dumb School” School in the mobile context http://bit.ly/qayTq2 

  • Tom

    I”m all for banning “cell phones” – but really, why bother?  Very few students have “cell phones”.  What they have are powerful pocket computers that are the most incredible learning tool imaginable. How many schools have policies banning “pocket learning tools”?  Pretty hard to justify, I’d say.  So go ahead, ban “cell phones”, and while you’re at it, let’s ban telegraph machines.  Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if every child was clicking away on one of those?
    But let’s make sure a school’s policies encourage APPROPRIATE use of every learning tool a child can get their hands on!

  • Mark

    Attached article shows how cellphones can be gradually implemented, using sms to access google, polleverywhere for free student polls, submitted via sms text messaging and sharing thoughts on a Wiffiti board.
    http://www.homepages.dsu.edu/mgeary/vita/cellphone-inservice.pdf

  • http://profiles.google.com/johnnort John Norton

    A middle level public school teacher told me this story over the weekend as we were chatting on Skype (she was at home, as you’ll soon guess):

    She has received national attention for her creative science teaching, in which she blends standards/content, hands-on learning, high-interest nonfiction reading, including current events, and blogs/wikis, twitter and other useful webtools. Her district’s high firewall is always a challenge, and the most recent layer of cyber-bricks blocks any URL-shortening service (bit.ly, tinyurl, etc).

    SO – any URL that’s shared in a shortened version can’t be clicked from her classroom. Her workaround: surreptitious use of a smartphone to enter the shortened URL, capture the full-length URL, and email it to her school account. In many (most?) school districts, you pretty much have to be a contortionist to be an innovative teacher.

  • http://www.transvaginalmeshlawsuits.com/ Transvaginal mesh information

    I believe that the real issue about cell phones in class rooms wasn’t included in this article.
    At the beginning there is a statistic which says 83% of adults owns a cell phone. How is that figure for students? How many % of students has one? If the answer for that is not 100% then it should not be allowed for educational purposes.
    Why? because doesn’t support equality. Just imagine that your child gets a lower grade because he didn’t had the latest and fastest phone to do research or math calculation, while hes wealthier classmate gets a higher grade. Students should be restricted to the technology which is commonly available for everyone in the school.
    On their spare time, or at breaks let them use it whatever way they like.

    Best regards,
    Chris.

  • http://twitter.com/drdouggreen Douglas Green

    So a student has a handheld computer that allows learning anything, anytime, anywhere and schools want to ban it? That sounds crazy to me. Such schools might become obsolete at some point. Would you rather seek the future or wait until it hits you over the head? Imagine getting to college with little handheld learning skill and finding classmates who have been doing it for years? So not every student has one and all handhelds are not created equal? How about telling students you can use your device only if you are willing to share, which means collaborate. Schools could even use tech funds to purchase some for kids without. Try iTouch.  

  • Joell Marchese

    To offset recent and continued educational budget cuts, we need to take advantage of the technology the kids already have.

  • Doug-kern

    Computers or cell phones…either can be abused by students if the rest of the classroom management situation is not together.  

  • Wazzup20011983

    I think any teacher that allows a student to use their “notes” from their cell phone is just asking for Cheating to be a commonplace occurance.  All students would need to do then would be to have one student use their cell phone to take notes, about the test, and create a cheat sheet for all the other periods to use.  How dumb is that.  And this teacher is involved in technology! Ughh! Teachers please don’t let cell phones be used in class. I have seen countless students use them, text their friends to meet and hang out in the hallways. and lie about having to use the bathroom.  What happened to students memorizing and actually having to study to pass their tests. I know it is just one dumb teacher but everyone else please don’t be so lame!

  • Doneeboy21

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  • Bill

    You’re missing the point. Far too many kids spend class time checking email and texting instead of focusing on instruction.
    If a teacher wants to make an exception for academic purposes, fine. But this is the exception, not the rule.

  • Kate

    There is a time and a place when cell phones are useful. I like to have students take pictures on field trips to make imovies in class as a reflection of the field trip. In class normally, if I see a cell phone I take it.

  • http://shakespearecast.com/ Seanjay

    Educators need to spend less time and energy keeping students from information and tools and more time learning what teaching will be in the near future.

  • Sarah

    As educators we have a duty to prepare students for the real world. What I have observed is that students will powerful smart phones aren’t using them to educate and inform themselves, but simply to socialize. I believe that banning cell phones is a disservice to our students because we are not teaching them how to use their phones to learn and access information. If students are so uninvested in the classroom that they are using their cellphones constantly to socialize that is culture and engagement, not one that will be solved by banning them.

  • HUMAN PERSON

    hi