Back to School – with mobile device

Mark Canes

It’s the day after Labor / Labour Day – back to school (or for many, back to reality).  On the topic of school, I’ve been following a story about use of technology in high schools – specifically mobile technology like smartphones and tablets.

The debate seems to evoke strong opinions. Seems you either think that high school students should be completely cut off from portable devices in the classroom, or you think that texting should be woven into the fabric of every class.

Mostly, the arguments are quite simple and straightforward on both sides:

  • These devices are today’s equivalent of pen and paper – they’re part of reality and best integrated into the classroom, vs
  • Texting and browsing during class causes distraction, lack of focus, and jeopardizes the student’s ability to learn basic skills like writing

Of course there are many other arguments, but these seem to capture the essence of most.

My take on this is quite simple: why does it have to be all or nothing? In the real world, into which high school students will be dumped in 1 – 4 years, here’s what happens:

  • Many people (in Canada, most people) use smartphones and / or tablets daily for various tasks, work and leisure
  •  Most people know when to “unplug” and leave the devices alone (I haven’t seen too many people swimming with their iPad so far)
  • Those few that don’t get it (drive while texting, use their phone during a movie) are no different from the idiots when I was young who drove without seatbelts, or smoked during a movie in a no-smoking auditorium – if they didn’t have their smartphones, they’d find some other way to be inconsiderate or anti-social – and yes, they are in the minority.

I think that a common sense approach to mobile devices in the classroom would involve flexibility, teachers who do not feel threatened by the technology, and some absolute “unplug” rules that are enforced – like no devices during a discussion session or test, with the punishment for non-compliance being immediate confiscation of the offending device for a minimum of 24 hours. The rest of the time, students can learn to use these tools to enhance their learning and work, just like we so-called adults are trying to do in the workforce.

The bigger issue would be in lower-income (or mixed income) areas where some kids would show up with the newest tablet, while others in the same class can’t afford even a basic smartphone. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed anyway, to avoid a future where high school graduates are not up to date with basic technology tools used in everyday work – it’s a national productivity issue, and as such it’s incumbent on both government and business to find a way to make devices available during school hours to those students who cannot afford their own. But that’s a topic for a different blog post.