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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

BYOD: The Latest Educational Scapegoat

By Starr Sackstein — April 03, 2014 6 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

Inside the pocket or purse of many students lies the power to unlock an incredible amount of knowledge, offering access to information far beyond the reach of any textbook.

So logically, the best place for these tools of learning is at home or in a locker, right?

I mean, they are a distraction, right?

Once upon a time, teachers were offended by students who spent time doodling in a corner in lieu of paying attention to their riveting lectures, somehow blaming the students for their lack of engagement.

Since we can’t deny students the right to have a pen and paper in class, the newest scapegoats are their intelligent devices. Clearly, a cell phone can be dangerous to learning and therefore has no place in the classroom.

For far too long now, I’ve been listening to people I respect make cases for why personal electronics are detrimental to learning. Full systems outlaw their use and make it extra challenging to engage kids with tools that they’re using anyway, but not to their fullest potential. Why not work with what we have and teach them to use these devices to their greatest capacity?

Smart Phone Mythology and Excuses

As technology grows more pervasive in our culture, it seems a likely excuse for all the woes education is suffering currently: Lack of attention span, distraction, misinformation etc. Teachers steadfast in their traditional beliefs fear harnessing the power of a tool, they themselves are uncomfortable using.

Smart phones, however, are not responsible for the shifts in our students’ behaviors. The shift has been happening for decades, but now students have the power to find answers at the tip of their fingers or the sound of their voices. Whenever a curiosity arises, they are able to seek out information on that subject without needing a teacher or a book; all they need is a phone and access to a network.

Other dissenters of the #BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies suggest that access to the equipment can be a burden. If the school provides other technology for those students without devices, then no one can be at a loss. It reduces the number of laptops or computers or tablets the school has to be responsible for and it offers students an opportunity to be have real accountability for the equipment they use. Ownership is the best way to keep equipment functioning.

Perhaps some fear that students will no longer talk to each other if they are allowed access to their devices all day long, eroding the personal, face to face communication inherent in education. This too, seems a flimsy argument as kids are on their phones all the time anyway. What it can do, however, is provide an entry for those students who are more reticent in nature, offering them a voice to contribute more in classroom discussion.

Whatever the excuses or dogma associated with technology and traditional pedagogy, we can’t allow our fear or lack of knowledge to inhibit our ability to grow and move forward. Teachers can empower themselves by doing research and taking risks in their own classrooms to see for themselves the power of the devices.

Fearing advances in technology does no one any good. They’re happening and denying that they are merely prolongs the inevitable. With every change education has undergone systems have fought against only to later embrace them.

Technology in its many forms offer a new kind of access to students of all ages. It’s a natural agent of differentiation, allowing kids and adults to find information that works at their own pace and level. With this knowledge, we’d be remiss to continue ignoring or disallowing the use of a potentially powerful ally.

Practical Use of Personal Electronic Devices

Allowing students the freedom to use their own electronic devices can be a liberating and empowering experience for all shareholders. Teachers no longer have to fight over the one computer lab or laptop cart and students are already familiar with the basic function of their own devices.

Among the many ways teachers can start to embrace this trend is by:

  • Using Twitter for classroom conversation once a week. Create a class hashtag and provide an opportunity for students to prepare for class discussions. Let them pre-read articles, review materials and then provide a forum for them to share ideas.
  • Filming classroom projects - students can use their phones to quickly take and upload footage for movies and then edit them from their phones for creative, synthesized class projects.
  • Podcasting by using simple voice recorders - great for teaching and practicing interviewing skills. Students can review recordings and learn to edit them for convergence articles.
  • Using the Google Educational Suite to create a paperless classroom - students can collaborate with each other and review and share feedback readily using Google Docs or other Google Drive features. Excuses about missing work, be gone.
  • Using devices as e-readers - kids will no longer have to purchase a book and schools won’t have to purchase class sets. Kids can read, annotate and review texts from their phones with ease.
  • Research is easier as well, now students have the entire internet at their fingertips. During a class discussion, students are able to do fast research to contribute more information and/or seek deeper understanding of a particular text or subject.
  • Citing the research is also easier when writing as there are countless apps dedicated to MLA, Chicago and AP style citation like EasyBib.
  • Dictionary apps also help students easily mine text without having to find a paper version or share the only 3 copies a classroom has.
  • Instagram works wonders for visual literacy. Ask students to take a picture of something they find interesting from a particular angle and write a 5 sentence caption that tells the story.

These are just some suggestions, but the possibilities are limitless and easy to implement.

Unintended Benefits

With all of the distractions that students do encounter, providing opportunities for kids to mitigate and practice using these devices in meaningful ways will help them with time management and task completion in the future.

In addition to this meaningful benefit, teachers also never have to make copies of their handouts or readings ever again. Simply email it to the students and allow them to check email in class. They can even modify documents using the Google Documents app on their phones.

Shifting Perspective

Students will always find ways to be off-task if they aren’t engaged in their own learning which must give every teacher pause. We need to consider our own pedagogical practices and reflect on the effectiveness of our chosen methodology for the students we teach. If we aren’t comfortable with the new technology that is not a good enough reason to avoid it. The learning that happens in our space can no longer to be tailored to our own needs, but to those of our students for whom we have a duty to serve.

Granted, the shifting paradigm of education is elucidating a great number of changes that need to occur. There is much learning that must be done in order to effectively grow with it. Teachers have an obligation to model this learning process for our students, showing them that we practice the very tenets we espouse on a regular basis.

Ask yourself this, how can we expect students to do what we ask, if we aren’t courageous enough ourselves to take that first step?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.