An Issue That Never Dies

Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.

Steven Spielberg

An issue that never seems to go away (or at least never seems to let up) is gaining momentum globally: the presence and purpose of personal smartphones in public school classrooms.

After recognizing that the academic benefits did not outweigh the negative impacts of their presence in the school, Central Middle School in Victoria, BC banned smartphones. Last year, France banned smartphones in all of its public schools for students under 15 years of age. Other countries like the UK and Israel are seriously considering legislation to restrict personal device use in their public school classrooms. And this past week Ontario announced its plans to ban smartphone use in classrooms and leave their use at the discretion of the teacher. Proponents argue that the legislation would give teachers more ‘teeth’ to confiscate misused devices and offer the support of the Ontario government against upset parents and entitled youth.

Crying Wolf?

The issue of the presence of smartphones in schools continues to heat up as the research continues to become clear and unequivocal: unhealthy smartphone use has adverse affects on both our mental and physiological health. Last year, I cautiously shared my concerns about the distraction that smartphones in classrooms were causing. I spoke my truth and perhaps that made me a Many people who claimed to know me assumed that I was anti-technology. 

And while I agree with many educational technologists that we often miss the point in banning smartphones in classroom (i.e. instant access to resources), we still need to demand better modelling of use from parents, teachers (more and more of which are millennials, the most prolific group of adult smartphone users), and other influential adults; we need to see a precipitous shift.

Other educators advocate that students along with their teacher should collaborate to develop a responsible use plan in that everyone holds ownership; trust and responsibility in creating a healthy and respectful learning environment for all. Do the advocates recommend that this plan be undertaken on a classroom by classroom basis? Many say ‘yes’. Critics have argued that bringing something like this to scale at the greater school-wide level without complete buy in are doomed to falter and fail.

Question of Privilege?

As an advocate for the healthy and balanced used of technology since 2006, I created a technology course that gave students an opportunity to earn an industry-standard certification through CompTIA as part of the completion of the Information Technology course. And with our ad-hoc technology advisory committee, we also championed ubiquitous wifi throughout our small rural school district. I understand (and still do) that technology is essential in education; it is the privilege of possessing technology that is being prioritized in our schools and classrooms by those not really understanding the pits and peaches of their presence.

kids phones
An issue that never goes away…smartphones, kids, and school.

More specifically, I viewed technology (and its access to support learning) as the leveler of the education playing field giving students in smaller, rural areas equal opportunity to resources. I vocalized the importance of the BYOD (bring your own device) movement to senior administration arguing equity for all; ‘we provide the highway and families provide the vehicle’ served as my mantra. The ratio of devices to students at that time was 1 in 8. Things have changed drastically. And so has my BYOD stance.

Currently, in our school district of 5400 students, we are closing in on a one device for every three students ratio. That’s well above provincial norms and way up from where the school district was just four years ago. If students require access to technology to support their learning schools are now in a position to provide it without having to leverage the use of student personal devices. Bye, bye BYOD.

Conversations to be had

We are at a critical point in our educational pedagogy of what learning in public schools actually means and looks like. In my classroom, I leverage the G-Suite for Education and Google Classroom tools for my students. These supports have provided them with personalized tools to support their reading, writing, collaborating, critical thinking, and research skills. The tools have allowed me to plan with differentiation and leverage universal design for learning in mind. As an educator, it is a powerful tool.

I’m not entirely sold that legislation is the way forward; but it might play a part of a multi-pronged approach. My instincts tell me that conversations (i.e. parent to parent, parent to student, student to teacher, teacher to parent, etc.) and personal re-evaluations of the role of technology in schools are also part of the recipe.

Much of my personal reflection on smartphone presence in the classroom continually circles back to this: Do the benefits of smartphones in our classrooms clearly outweigh the negatives of their presence?

I know my answer to this.


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