Research/opinion paper on cellphones in school…

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For one of my Education classes, I was required to write a research/opinion paper on a specific topic. I chose to do it on cellphone usage in schools, and since I received a solid mark on it, I figured I would share it here. If you would like a list of my references cited please let me know. I tried to include them, but WordPress formatted them strangely and I do not have the time at the moment to edit them properly.

Enjoy and feel free to comment.

In 1971 an author at the New York Times, C.P. Snow, remarked: “Technology… is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.” While the quote can be viewed as being a rather bleak observation, I feel there is a lot of wisdom within his words even forty years later. As technology in its various forms has advanced over that time, it has affected many facets of life including our education system. There have been both positive and negative consequences of technology integration in a school setting, though educators have had to face a challenge with regards to a particular piece of technology; the cell phone. Like many issues that arise in the classroom, there is no one answer on how to address the use of the cell phones in school, however, I wish to address both the positive and negative repercussions of this device.

In a general sense, cell phones have been very beneficial to many people on an everyday basis, and have practically become ubiquitous in our society. Statistics Canada reported in 2006 there were 16.8 million people who subscribed to a wireless communications provider, showing a strong year-after-year increase in the use of cellular devices. Considering the convenience owning a cell phone has, such as making phone calls practically anywhere, and having the ability to store contacts/important numbers directly in the phone, this is not that surprising. What is surprising are the advancements cellular phones have undergone in such a short period of time. Much like the limited capabilities of early computers, when cell phones were first introduced they were large, bulky, and easily susceptible to dropping calls mid-conversation. Today’s cell phones, on the other hand, are a far cry from what came before. With the introduction of “smart phones”, for example, users have access to the internet, text messaging, and an incredible amount of other applications. In addition to this, these types of phones can double as a personal media player, for music etc., and most cell phones come with a built in digital camera. While there is an obvious draw to owning a piece of technology that can rival some home computer systems, therein lies the challenge to educators; trying to deal with a device that does a lot more than just take calls.

I will not argue there are no benefits for parents allowing their children to have a cell phone, however with some of the advancements I already mentioned, there is a far greater chance for these to be misused. Firstly, access to the internet and the various related functions a cell phone can provide offer students another means for distraction. Especially in core-classes that are generally structured in a traditional setting, with work being done in desks and the teacher utilizing a whiteboard, students have plenty of opportunity to attend to other preferable activities on their cell. From checking Facebook, to looking up professional sport statistics, to just playing games, for example, if a student is not interested in what is being presented, a cell phone is easily hidden from plain view to capture one’s attention. Why bother with learning about Canadian history if a student would prefer to spend that same time playing Tetris? A diligent teacher should be able to notice when a student is not paying attention, but it can still be difficult to catch a pupil in the act of engaging with such a small gadget. Causing a distraction aside, with access to the internet cell phones also pose the problem of students cheating on academic work and tests. Once again due to the decreasing size of cell phones, it becomes a struggle for teachers to monitor their class at all times, and it only takes a moment to load google.ca on a “smart phone”.

Even without access to the internet, a cell phone can still be a massive distraction for students in the form of text messaging. Unlike my days in school when passing notes during or in-between class was the norm, students can now fire off a text message to their peers at anytime. Not only can text messaging involve more than two students at a time, but students engaging in such behavior could do so from completely different classes. It could be hard enough for a student to focus on their work if they were constantly texting their friend on the other side of the classroom, but this can also have adverse affects on the friend down the hall as well. In addition to the probable distractions that can arise with texting, there is also the matter of what effects this form of communication has on a student’s writing skills. Considering the instantaneous nature of text messages and the expectance of a quick reply, texts are rife with various acronyms, modified words, and other “text jargon”. From my own experience teaching, I was shocked at how often I saw text speak being used in written work handed in by my students. “U”, “L8er”, and “OMG”, are only three examples of the kind of writing that is prevalent within text messages, and that kind of jargon cannot possibly be beneficial to a student’s literacy skills.

If texting between friends were not enough of a concern, there is the further problem of cyber-bullying through cell phones. Text messages laden with discriminatory comments, threats, and similar negative messages can be directed at anyone with a cell phone, and unfortunately can come from both anonymous and known senders. Even more unfortunate are the extreme cases when texting leads to violence, such as one case in Florida. On March 17, 2010, what began as an exchange of unkind words via text lead to the vicious beating of a fifteen year old girl, Josey Lou Rately. Rately was left in a coma after Wayne Treacy, the boy who committed the attack, rode his bike three miles to the girl’s school, allowing three hours to pass between the text messaging and the attack. While I admit Rately said some very unkind words via text to Treacy, also fifteen years old at the time, that does not justify the actions the boy took. What I find especially heart-wrenching about this case, is the fact that Treacy had never personally met Rately, and it was through a mutual friend the text messaging even began. Whether this friend realized how serious things had escalated over the course of the exchange, and whether or not she recognized the risk of Treacy coming to the girl’s school, she played a role in the events that unfolded by pointing Rately out to the boy. Although Kayla Manson claimed she thought Treacy would merely verbally assault Rately, what happened instead was far from it. Thrown to the cement, followed by having her head slammed into the pavement, Rately was then kicked in the head repeatedly with steel-toed boots. Despite this being an extreme example, it nonetheless highlights a very real threat that text messaging can produce amongst students. This form of cyber-bullying has been attributed to a number of cases where young adults have committed suicide too, and it is something that can be incredibly difficult to monitor since it occurs via cell phones.

As mentioned prior, cell phones typically come equipped with a digital camera that can be used to take both pictures and video. This particular attribute of a cell phone has also opened a new door for cyber-bullying, along with a number of other issues. In congruence with text messaging, it is now possible for a student to take an embarrassing photo of a peer, or capture a video, and forward it on to any number of the student population. While these types of media capture will vary in severity of what is being depicted, in any case this can become a traumatizing event for the person who is being exploited in such a way. Advancements in the technology yield better quality captures than what was initially featured, and larger storage space makes it possible for an increase in quantity of such captures to be saved. Pictures or video being taken in change rooms and washrooms have become a major concern, with student privacy being invaded without necessarily knowing it is even happening. Media capture of this kind extends beyond the student body and can affect teaching staff as well, with students purposely instigating some form of extreme reaction from a teacher just to be caught digitally for instance. Whether directed towards students or staff, this type of behavior is made possible by cell phones going above and beyond its basic function of making phone calls.

Of equal or greater concern as the above examples point out, there is also the serious issue of a relatively new phenomenon known as “sexting”. “Sexting” is the act of sending sexually explicit material via text, or email, and there have been a number of recent cases that highlight the problem of such activities. In Brooksville, Florida, during March, 2009, a fourteen year old boy was arrested and accused of sending a picture of his genitalia to a female classmate. During that same month, pornography charges were laid on a fourteen year old girl living in Passaic County, New Jersey, for uploading nearly thirty explicit nude pictures of herself to the website Myspace.com. This particular case carries the weight of charges that could force the girl to register as a sex offender if convicted. Three high school girls from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, also faced charges of manufacturing, and disseminating or possessing child pornography, after they sent nude/semi-nude photos of themselves to three male students via cell phone. In turn, the boys were charged with possession of child pornography due to having the images on their phones.

A final example that ended with extremely tragic results was the case of eighteen year old Jessica Logan. During her last year of high school in Cincinnati, at the request of her then boyfriend, Logan sent a number of nude photographs via text. When the couple’s relationship ended, her ex-boyfriend sent the private pictures to many other girls in the high school, which prompted them to harass Logan in a number of ways. Being ridiculed and tormented with names, such as “slut” and “whore”, Logan responded with skipping school and showing signs of depression. This eventually culminated with the young girl taking her own life by hanging herself in her bedroom. What started as a seemingly harmless gesture of commitment to her boyfriend quickly became the catalyst for a young adult to end her life, leaving a family to mourn the loss of their child because of one bad decision.

Each of the various exemplars above show slightly different aspects of “sexting”, but each of the cases points out the negative results such activities invite. While these also bring some debate forward in regards to child pornography laws already in place, for many of these students involved the damage has already been done. In every example the consequences will be carried forward in life, and the future of these students has been greatly affected not only for them personally, but for those in relation as well. Despite the consequences that can arise, statistics show how prevalent this kind behavior is becoming in our society. A study conducted in 2008, by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, found that 20% of teens between the ages of thirteen and nineteen have sent or posted nude/semi-nude digital pictures of themselves. Out of the 22% of girls who reported doing so, 11% of them were between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. These statistics are incredibly alarming considering the many ways digital pictures can end up online; whether it be social networking sites like Myspace.com, or photo-hosting sites such as Photobucket.com, all it takes is a photo ending up in the wrong hands before it can become accessible to a vast multitude of internet users.

Although the cell phone does present many possible problems and concerns, there are a number of findings that show the positive ways in which this technology can be utilized in the classroom. Using the above mentioned features, some educators have found meaningful ways to employ the use of cell phones in the classroom, for example:

–          Recording audio of a teacher’s lesson for later study purposes.

–          Creating short videos for a variety of projects.

–          Taking pictures during field trips, to later be used for projects, discussion, etc.

–          Creating reminders for homework, assignment due dates, and various events.

–          Transferring electronic files from school to home.

–          Providing questions in the form of a text that require students to answer back with a text.

–          Accessing websites that compliment the lesson which is being given.

Those are only seven ways which some teachers have adapted as a teaching strategy, and a British study, that examined the use of cell phones in such ways, highlighted a correlation to higher performance motivation from students allowed to employ the device. In many ways it comes down to a teacher being able to thoughtfully construct a lesson plan that will allow effective student involvement with their cell phone.

It is apparent this paper focuses largely on the negative aspects of cell phones in school, and the reason why is due to my own opinion on the subject matter. Over the course of time I spent researching, the vast majority of material I found was either centered on the problems with cell phone usage in the classroom, and any articles or journals which contained positive attributes were quite frankly questionable. The reasons those materials are questionable, in my opinion, is on account of the lack of research that has been put behind cell phone usage to enhance learning and, in addition, the benefits do not seem to outweigh the problems that can arise. I do think it is admirable that some teachers have decided to adapt their teaching styles to incorporate a tool that has become so prevalent; however, I still do not see why this is really even necessary. Every positive example that I highlighted in this paper, as well as unmentioned ones I discovered through research, all beg the question: why is this a better tool to use than what is already available?

While I am a firm believer in integrating technology in the classroom, I do not think cell phones are particularly valuable when there are so many other resources to be used. What a novel idea to have students accessing websites for class purposes on a computer, especially when these can be monitored in a much less difficult manner, and can be set to block out many un-wanted websites. In addition to that, the transferring of electronic files from school to home can be done just as easily, either through a flash drive, or by email. If you want students to take pictures on a field trip, or create short videos for an assignment, provide them with digital cameras which were design to do just that. If a teacher actually has enough time to make sure text reminders are being sent to their students for various reasons, they could easily create a simple web page that does the same thing. In fact, the creation of a class website could not only provide reminders for students, but it could also be used to:

–          Host recorded lessons, assignments, handouts, etc.

–          Showcase student work, as well as allow discussion via the internet.

–          Provide a forum for parents to view student work.

–          Allow interaction with other students around the world.

Current cell phones are really just an amalgamation of various pre-existing resources, and I feel there are far more positive ways to utilize those tools, than to try and adapt to yet another changing piece of technology. Some will argue not every student has access to a computer at home but if that were the case, chances are they would also not have access to a “smart phone” as well.

The issue of cell phone usage in school is going to be addressed by different schools, teachers, and others involved in very unique ways. Some may find the value in using them as an additional tool for learning, and others may want to ensure they are kept out of the classroom. No matter what, these devices have become a fixture in most people’s lives and will no doubt cause a continuing debate as to their role in school for years to come. Current cell phones may have a vast number of perks compared to what came before, but I feel those who want to incorporate cell phones into their classroom are losing sight of its primary function. It was invented as a tool for communication, and no matter how many “bells and whistles” are added to it, there are plenty of other resources that do not share nearly as many possible problems all rolled into one. Call me old fashioned, but when I want to show my class a video, ask them a question, or create a project, the last thing I want them to reach for is their phone. Technology is a wonderful thing, but not when a person becomes a slave to it.

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