Rethinking Technology in the Classroom

The conversation around cell phones at school has not changed in nearly a decade. When I was graduating from high school in the late 2000’s, the iPhone was this unimaginable new toy that only a lucky few had, and even fewer teachers knew existed. Our tool of choice at the time was a flip phone (for the niche, a Blackberry) and all we ever did was attempt to type poorly auto-corrected T9 texts from under the desk.

Teachers knew then that these devices were a distraction, and they were always asked to remain out of sight, or else.

Argument for Banning Phones in School

So much has changed in technology since then, but so little has changed in the ongoing debate around whether devices should be allowed in the classroom. This is reasonable, those for a smartphone ban would agree, because smartphones have become tools used more for distraction than anything else.

One teacher, comments on a Facebook advertisement about cell phone distractions: “I've taught for 30 years,” she says, “cell phone distractions are a no-brainer. Take them away!” Another educator explains how he solves the problem, “I have ‘class conduct’ points in my classroom. The first time I see or hear a cell phone then the student loses ALL of their class conducts for the quarter.”

Time and again, educators seem to agree that confiscating phones, banning them altogether, or penalizing students for phone use are the best and most reasonable solutions to cell phone distractions.

Using Technology In The Classroom

Alternatively, app companies developing polling software and other mobile tools that claim to engage students in learning are winning over teachers who think that banning technology is not the solution. But these technological alternatives are part of an if you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em attitude that has left a resistant majority in a difficult position.

One teacher expresses her frustration: “Sometimes it is the parents texting their children as if they were at the mall and not in school. We see a generation of zombies walking the halls. No one is engaged in learning, just social media. Technology is supposed to be an educational tool not a hindrance.” In her eyes, using devices at school opens an invitation for unwelcome distractions.

So which is better? Are cell phones a welcome education tool? Or are phones in for another decade-long ban?

I think there’s a much simpler and more positive lesson to teach here.

Balancing Time Spent Online

In the corporate world, productivity is getting eaten by distracted employees who think they can successfully multitask — overworking during downtime, under-performing when work matters. Socially, people are less happy due to increased pressure from social media and constant connectivity. Politically, the internet has become a sort of sideshow that you can’t look away from, and never want to participate in. Health-wise, there are more fitness apps and trackers today than there were ten years ago, but obesity has risen 2% in as much time.

The novelty has worn off, and everybody knows it. The expectations of a hyper-connected life have left people with a persisting urge to always be available, accessible, and online.

Earlier dreams of smartphones were that they’d be powerful tools for getting more done; apps for everything promised solutions to all of life’s inconveniences and problems. But passive consumption has become what people now do most with their smartphones and the internet, more than any other activity. Social networking and digital media now account for a third of all minutes spent using smartphones, with business and productivity apps used a mere 3% of the time.

This isn’t an easy reality teachers have to face, and those against phones in the classroom see this.

But students, employees, and anyone consumed by their devices need to learn an important lesson: balance. Classes do not need to be virtual or live-tweeted, polls and quizzes do not need to be mobile, and every activity does not need to be replaced by a digital component. Physical books still have virtue; face to face conversation is the most human activity mankind knows. The goal should not be to simply switch from on to offline or vice versa; it should be to teach students that they are capable of being happy and productive in either case.

Pamela Pavliscak, a sought-after expert and advisor on emotion and technology, advocates that the focus should not be whether time spent on or offline is better than the other, but rather which produces the most meaning.

“Strengthening relationships, building a community, showing care, gaining knowledge and mastery, and knowing yourself underpin well-being in any context.” - Pamela Pavliscak, Change Sciences

Teaching Technology Balance

Technology in the classroom as the only means of engaging distracted students is a dangerous method when technology is not the only way one needs to know how to engage another in conversation. Students who are asked not to raise their hand but to anonymously answer a question to a polling app raises concerns about how capable that student will be to ask their future employer difficult questions face to face.

Similarly, teachers that penalize students over cell phones during class are not teaching them how to appropriately manage their phone use in a professional setting, and teachers that believe taking phones away is appropriate need to instead teach their students etiquette and respect.

Professor and business-brain expert, Dr. Brynn Winegard, believes that students need to be armed with this knowledge and the understanding that presence and mindfulness matter. She says:

"Learning is challenging; you have to be ever-present for it. Students need to come prepared to be in the moment, to be mindful, to expend energy. They need to come prepared for how hard this is going to be." - Dr. Brynn Winegard

Of all leaders, teachers play a vastly important role in shaping how students understand this need for balance and finding meaning in technology use. Teachers themselves should strike a balance between assigning on and offline components, encouraging students to collaborate, learn, and apply knowledge confidently in both settings.

A student should leave high school knowing how to take notes both by hand and type-written, understanding there’s a significant importance for both, for example. And students expecting to enter the workforce should be capable of uninterrupted flow for an hour or more, noticing the buzz of a notification and making the conscious choice to remain focused instead. Balance is the skill the most successful learners will need to navigate the future, and teachers need to teach it.

Many teachers use Flipd to help students learn technology balance in education. Find out more at

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