Many of us (this one included) grew up in a world where phones were merely used as verbal communication devices and they were literally fixed in use and location. In the last twenty years however, the "phone" has evolved to such an extent that my current phone now has "phone" as merely one app of many. Indeed to add to this, many students I have talked to (face-to-face and in person) have never ever called someone on their device . Many students have extensive data usage contracts but the lowest of call usage options. To these students and beyond, smartphones are not the evil many people more advanced in years see them as. Teenagers today see a phone as their primary communication tool and in many cases, primary learning device.
Critics of my philosophy may no doubt point to the proliferation of our younger generation misusing the devices whether it is through selfie-marathons, over-use of Viber, Snapchat and for many still, excessive Facebook use. The critics may also point to how many students have been victimised through cyber-bullying or the filming of student-to-student physical altercations. It's true that some students have breached our trust and used their devices for great and often enduring harm. The aforementioned examples are however exactly why we need the smartphones in learning spaces. If students are educated on the right and wrong use of such devices, I'd argue (based on my own experiences and observations) that most students become far more responsible and prudent in device use both in and out of the classroom.
In my teaching experience, the smartphone is neither greater nor lesser than the user and this is where ladies and gentlemen, we must focus our attention. When people write offensive notes to each other in class or in the playground, do we throw our hands up in horror and demand the banning of all writing devices and anything that could be written on to negative effect? Of course we don't. Instead, we make the logical, considered decision to educate over prohibit. The same rational approach should therefore apply to smartphones. Students will use them in class whether teachers see the use or otherwise. Therefore it makes sense that such unstoppable use should be of a mature intent and nature and as much as possible, learning-aligned.
At the end of 2014, Aorere College made the informed evidenced-based decision to revise our banning of phones, digital devices in our classrooms. Our current guideline therefore became as follows:
Student-owned digital devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets and Chromebooks) are allowed to be used in classrooms for education purposes only and at the sole discretion of the teacher concerned.
At the beginning of 2015, the whole school and particularly advocates for the use of smartphones in classrooms held our collective breath in fear of what was to come. What did come? Nothing of negative substance. Why? Because as so many students rather nonchalantly informed us, for them it was nothing new. All that had happened was that their school life just mirrored their out-of-school life a little bit more. Sure, we had a few students who did not use their devices appropriately initially but education and in the rarest of cases, the mere suggestion of their Wi-Fi rights within the school being removed, quickly had them seeing the error of their ways and modifying current behaviours of concern. Teachers to their credit, (even the biggest doubters) were prepared to wait and see what the actual impact of allowing the phones into the class was before passing judgement. Most if not all, have come to see that smartphones (when the type of allowed use is made explicitly clear and also where students have been given significant digital citizenship training) add so much to learning possibilities.
18 months on since we changed our tolerance of digital devices, smartphones are a frequent sight in and out of our classrooms. I can't truly recall the last time a student was reprimanded for inappropriate use. Most students now see the learning and social benefits of having the devices, and when coupled with our school being GAFE-accredited school and having "beyond the gate" free Wi-Fi, they further see misuse as just not worth it. Furthermore, the huge number of students who have a device of smartphone or better have in turn given teachers the option to push out more learning information and activities digitally. As a result, there has been a significant reduction of students having to engage in non-learning "busy time" through having to copy information down from a whiteboard or needing to take extensive notes. Teachers are using increasingly using collaborative and summarising digital options such Kahoot, Padlet, Google Classroom to communicate more effectively with their learners, often regardless of location or time or learning context. I personally use Google Classroom every lesson as well as Google Apps for Education extensively and in 2016, for the first time have a number of students completing a senior NCEA English assessment completely via their smartphones.
In all honesty, I believe that opposition to smartphone use in learning spaces is more down to non-tech concerns regarding student behaviour and capabilities, both of which become non-issues if appropriate support and scaffolding is in place in the learning space.In the 1920s, the United States prohibited the selling of alcohol to private citizens. Did it reduce the drinking consumption of the public? No, not really. All it did do was make a number of rather shadowy characters of the time very wealthy through selling such wares via a significant black-market.
Smartphone use, just like any other device use must obviously be "fit for purpose" in any learning context. Over or inappropriate or token use only serves to discredit the teacher and the learning process at hand and makes valid use of the devices that little bit harder. Students should be innocent unless proven guilty with regards to smartphone use. If if once found guilty, punitive measure should not involve long-term use being removed. All this does is pit student against school and arguably "old-school" v "new school.". Misuse obviously cannot and should not be tolerated but we must as mature human beings not target the device but instead target the behaviour of concern. After all, technology is no monster. You can only be reading this article via digital means. Smartphones are as valid in the classroom of today and tomorrow as are and as will be pen, paper, students & teachers. Chances are you might even be reading reading this article on a mobile device, dare I say you might just even be reading on a smartphone!