Electronic Devices Can Be an Educational Curse or Blessing

I thought I had seen everything after watching middle school kids text-messaging during the funeral of one of my high school students. Then, our school had its first play in three years. Throughout the audience, parents' faces were aglow as they text-messaged throughout their children's performances.

Mostly, I was a bear about electronic devices in class. Even during the worst of our school's gang-related violence, my students kept their cell phones out of sight and usually out of mind. Periodically, though, we would be working and I would see several students start to sneak a peak at their phones. Then we would hear shouting in classrooms and the halls and there would be a stampede of students, including mine, to a fight. I also saw the same thing in the gym. I would be playing ball with my students during my planning period and, all of a sudden, students from across the school and adults from the neighborhood would rush towards a brawl. Had our school been able to prevent abuses of the new technology, I believe, another of my former students would be alive today.

On the other hand, when students needed to take a call during class, they knew I would not question their word. If a student asked to step outside to answer their phone, my response was "of course." If a kid made simple eye contact and pointed to a phone, I would just nod, and the student would handle business and then return to work. One year, I had such a small class load that the same policy was extended to electronic music. The students knew each other, they knew that a few of their friends found it calming to listen to some music at some times and, in small personalized classes, there was no attempt to take advantage of my flexibility.

There is no question in my mind that personal electronic devices could be essential tools in the 21st century classroom. Neither is there any question, however, that we must first discuss, agree upon, teach and reinforce social norms for using those technologies.

Similarly, we should recruit one 100,000 new teachers for the urban classroom and some should come from programs like Teach for America. I would also recruit social workers, retired military and other baby boomers, as well as role models of all ages, in order to teach the socio-emotional skills required to build respectful learning cultures in schools. Together, we should teach kids how to be students, so that we have the freedom to innovate. I would recruit twenty-somethings from the community, regardless of whether they have a degree, to help promote the respectful conversations that must take place before we will have orderly enough environments for experimentation with new technologies.

We should recruit all types of teachers from all types of alternative backgrounds, but recruiting twenty-somethings would be especially helpful in regards to technology. I would seek out a broad range of tech-savvy young people and challenge them to create video gaming programs and other innovative instructional methods. We should also seek their help in using electronic devices for surveys to inform discussions and to obtain data on "hot spots" in troubled schools and solicit input from students in addressing problems. And even after students drop out of schools, we could use electronic devices to recruit them back.

I find two aspects of today's technology wars to be incomprehensible. Firstly, we live in an age of amazing digital miracles and yet the primary use of computers (at least in the part of the education world that I have seen) has been creating high-tech, high-dollar versions of old worksheets in order to reconstruct the old assembly line approach to teaching and learning. How is it that we are investing billions of dollars for computer systems for command and control, but not for exploration and creativity? For example, the Gates Foundation is investing millions in studying videotapes of instruction as a part of a campaign to fire teachers. Why not invest that money and talent into videotaping for better teacher education programs? Why not create gaming technologies so the education students could learn through their errors with virtual classes before they practice on real kids? In fact, why not use those same gaming devices to bring students into the conversation? Perhaps we could use avatars (or whatever those critters are called) for classroom simulations for teaching students how to deal with divisive issues. Why not use digital simulations to inform a cross-generational collaborative process where codes of conduct for electronics and digital tools are established?

Secondly, I can not understand why parents are not demanding that schools engage in those discussions before allowing cell phones into our buildings. After all, texting while driving is even more dangerous than allowing texting in class during a gang war. Shouldn't schools be partners in nurturing the healthy use of technology? If we want to combat electronic bullying, how come we are not appealing to the moral consciences of teens? If we want to curtail the non-stop "he said, she said" disputes made worse by the proliferation of cell phones, we must appeal to the better angels of our youth. We can't pry our kids' fingers off their electronic devices by fiat, but we can channel their desires for communication and companionship into more productive endeavors.

Please, read more of my thoughts at ScholasticAdministrator.com.