The other day, I got in the car with my 13-year-old son to drive to a middle school club hockey game. Seconds after buckling up, he adjusted his iPod and was quickly immersed in the sounds of his generation, uninterested in participating in any conversation with me. I slid a CD into my car stereo, and we drove to the game in separate musical worlds.
About an hour later, I was in the locker room when a cell phone rang. Then another. And then another. The annoying, distracting ring tones disrupted an important conversation I was having with one of the players before the game.
I was more than a bit irritated by the social isolation created by the iPod. And why would middle school boys, ages 12 or 13, need to be carrying cell phones on a Saturday night when their parents were at the game anyway? It felt like gadget overkill to me.
But this is the age we live in, and schools in particular are struggling with how to react to our cultural obsession with iPods, cell phones, personal digital assistants, Blackberries, and other popular handheld gizmos. Mike Lawrence, the executive director of Computer-Using Educators, a California-based association supporting technology use in schools, says that policies nationwide range from rigid “thou shalt not” regulations to actually handing out iPods and cell phones for students to use in certain classes. He argues that schools establishing gadget prohibitions are not taking the long view.
“I think you’re fighting a losing battle if you’re trying to fight technologies that are ubiquitous,” Lawrence says. “Schools should think carefully before they prohibit technologies that they don’t have to pay for and the kids already know how to use.”
I don’t think schools should fight the influx of technologies, either. They should find ways to harness their powers, especially if such efforts will improve student achievement. But at the same time, schools should have the common sense and authority to know when to say “Turn it off.”
That’s the approach taken by the 27,000-student Carrollton-Farmers Branch district near Dallas. “We are willing to pilot any tool for the students that we think may have educational value,” says instructional technology specialist La Donna Conner. “That gives us an opportunity to look at the positives and the negatives.”
After hearing that Duke University gives iPods to all incoming freshmen— for downloading and reviewing lectures, listening to books, and other tasks—the Texas district started a pilot program in which chewing-gum-pack-size iPod Shuffles were lent to select groups of English- language learners and students in one kindergarten and one high school French class. Conner says the devices give students 24/7 access to classroom material. A group of ESL high school students reading The Odyssey, for instance, can listen to the book over and over, anytime and anywhere.
But even as Conner talks up the program’s benefits, in the same breath she emphasizes that participating students are told that if they use the iPods in other classes, the devices will be confiscated.
In many classrooms, teachers are left to make the rules. Louisa LaGrotto, a Spanish teacher at Westlane Middle School in Indianapolis and the Indiana Teacher of the Year for 2006, takes a common-sense approach regarding the influx of technological gadgetry. For instance, she lets her Spanish I students have classroom conversations in Spanish using their cell phones.
Her colleague Ruth Huff, a computer technology teacher at Westlane, does not permit students to use cell phones in her class. However, she does let them listen to their iPods. “As long as the students are working, I have no problem with that,” she says. “In fact, many of them are better focused and less social while isolated with headphones on.”
“Better focused and less social.” That comment showcases the yin and yang of technology, the reality of how it can be both positive and negative, depending on your goals. When, for instance, would you want kids to be more, rather than less, social?
In my case, the answer is when I’m driving with my 13-year-old, which often provides a perfect opportunity to have a meaningful conversation between a father and a son. That’s when I need to tell him to “turn it off.”