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Over the last year I have engaged many educators on the topic of using “Cellphones” as learning tools in the classroom. I would say that in most of these discussions, the leading reason given not to have “Cellphones” in a classroom is that they are a distraction.

For the purpose of this post, I am placing some Webster definitions here:

Telephone: an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance; specifically: one in which sound is converted into electrical impulses for transmission (as by wire or radio waves)

Cell Phone: a portable usually cordless telephone for use in a cellular system.

Smartphone: a cell phone that includes additional software functions (as e-mail or an Internet browser).

Personal Computer: : a general-purpose computer equipped with a microprocessor and designed to run especially commercial software (as a word processor or Internet browser) for an individual user.

Distraction: 1. the act of distracting or the state of being distracted; especially: mental confusion <driven to distraction>

2. something that distracts; especially: amusement <a harmless distraction>


Now with the terms defined by Webster, we can all have a clear understanding. Few people would dispute the advantages technology has given us as a result of the advent and evolution of computers. Technology, although not always visible, is evident or influential in almost everything that we do in our society today. It has had an immeasurable effect on our culture and will continue to as it evolves. The personal computer has enabled individuals to apply many of these advantages in their everyday lives. This however has taken both training, teaching, and learning on the part of the users.

Most educators have noted that technology has had a profound effect on teaching and learning. I think it is safe to say that with technology’s influence; many things have changed in education since the 19th Century (not rows of course). Education has adapted to technology, albeit ever too slowly for some, over the years. Technology will always move faster than education will accept it, because as a system, the conservative nature of education seems very slow to act on change and technology and tides wait for no man, or woman.

I remember a time when telephones were not even in a classroom for a teacher to use. The idea of telephones in the classroom is a fairly recent movement in education terms. Many school buildings built in previous centuries have found it difficult or impossible to accommodate telephones in the classroom. Ironically, for years districts refused to put them in classrooms with the belief that telephones would be a distraction for the teachers.

What is more distracting to a teacher and learning than the PA SYSTEM BLARING ANNOUNCEMENTS FOR PEOPLE TO COME TO THE MAIN OFFICE DURING THE PERIOD THAT LEARNING IS TAKING PLACE? How about: the cutting of the grass with the industrial mowers outside the window of the classroom, a Warm day, a hot day, a snow day, a dress up day, a dress down day, a Pajama day, someone walking in the hallway, a class returning from a field trip, fire drills. TESTING DAY, assemblies. These are all distractions. Teachers and students deal with them.

Now, if students had telephones in class and were receiving and making calls for the purpose of talking, that would be a distraction. It is not an appropriate time for such conversations. Teachers learned that when they were given telephones in their rooms, so why not expect the same from kids. Additionally, teachers have been taught classroom management strategies. They can put in place procedures and consequences to manage the potential problems of telephone conversations in class. That is not the distraction everyone talks about.

Beyond talking, there is texting. That is sneaky, stealthy talking. It is the digital form of sending notes. Note-passing is the bane of a teacher’s existence and this method is technological. Again, there are procedures in place for passing notes. The teacher needs only to now stipulate written or digital; problem solved.

Here is the rub. These kids are going beyond the limitations of voice and texting of the Cellphone, and are using Smartphones. They are doing things that can’t be done on a telephone. There must be more afoot here. The smartphone adds a new level of sophistication to deal with. The smartphone has the capability of a personal computer. That changes the dynamic in the classroom.

Additionally, kids can now look stuff up on the phones. They have access to Google and can actually check facts to dispute what the teacher might be saying. Kids can view stuff on their phone during a teacher’s lecture that removes them from where they should be, paying attention for a test. They can take a picture of the “Blackboard” for notes. They can video or audio record a teacher’s presentation. They can creatively do many things in the classroom that could not be done a year ago. They have control because they own the device that does all of this. That is scary to many educators. What many viewed as a toy-like telephone has evolved into a learning tool that can not only communicate, but can publish to the world. That is a powerful device.

If this is such a powerful learning tool, why hasn’t it been embraced by educators universally? Smartphones, after all, are actually personal computers with phone capabilities. It would seem, with many schools dedicating their computers, and computer labs to test preparation, and test-taking, that personal learning devices for students would fill a gap. Smartphones are powerful, mobile, personal learning devices.  But of course, there is that damned control issue thing.

Here is a novel idea. Since we hold kid’s accountable for what they do on the internet with all devices anyway, why not teach them how to do it right. Why not teach them how to maximize their learning. We can’t expect them to use the technology appropriately if they “learn it on the streets”. Teachers have procedures in place and methods to use that can take the distraction factor out. Teachers must be open to doing this because the tech will never go backwards. Administrators must accept that control is less of an issue than responsibility. Teaching and learning will always be a better alternative to banning. Learning new ways to do things can be a very big distraction from the old ways. Relevance will always be a distraction from obsolescence!

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