Ban or Embrace Cellphones?

June 28, 2009 1 min read

The agenda for the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington this week is chock full of sessions about how to use mobile computing to improve learning, especially through the use of cellphones. And mobile learrning advocates such as Elliot Soloway from the University of Michigan are here to argue passionately for the increased use of cellphones and other mobile devices in K-12 schools.

Observing the growing number of attendees hanging out in the hallways and at lunch tables at the Washington Convention Center, most of whom are sporting some of the latest and greatest cellphones, it’s likely that Soloway and other advocates are going to find a very receptive audience.

But not everyone in the education world is jumping on the mobile computing bandwagon, especially regarding cellphones.

This recent op/ed piece in USA Today, for instance, is causing quite a stir among the educators and technology experts I follow on Twitter.

The piece, by Patrick Welsh, a veteran high school teacher in Alexandria, Va., who often writes about his classroom experiences and observations, comes down hard on the side of banning cellphones in schools.

Welsh, who has had some provocative opinions over the years on the problems plaguing the public schools, is no slouch. He’s been in the classroom for three decades or more, working with a very diverse student population, and regularly chronicling the highs and lows he’s observed. But he has also been somewhat of a tech skeptic. In this piece from last year he described the “technology overkill” that was taking over his school.

In the USA Today piece, he laments the problems with cellphones:

And the problem is getting worse, as students become more adept at disguising their texting. ...For the most part, all this subterfuge might seem like innocent adolescent behavior, but evidence suggests that texting is undermining students' ability to focus and to learn—and creating anxiety to boot. The quick-hit communication style students master for texting, he adds, has diminished their ability to hone other important skills: One of the great ironies of the high-tech revolution is that devices meant to facilitate communication are actually helping to destroy it. For my students, rethinking what they wrote and hammering out second or third drafts is beyond all but a handful. ...Math and science teachers at my school see the same, with kids wanting the quick answers instead of going through the struggle that will help them understand what is behind the mathematical or scientific principles involved. Ultimately, Welsh recommends what might be deemed by many teens and parents alike as heretical: Parents should disable texting features on their children's cellphones, and schools should crack down on their use altogether. What do you think schools should do? Ban or embrace cellphones?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.