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Cellphones in Schools: Flip ’Em Open

By Matt Levinson — November 20, 2009 4 min read
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Cheating in school is not a new phenomenon. The game has just changed a bit with the advent of cellphones and texting. Marc Prensky, an author on technology and a game designer himself, loves to share the story of a talk he once had with high school students. When he suggested that schools should have open-phone tests, as a measure to combat cellphone cheating, one of the students responded, “Dude, we already have open-phone tests. The teachers just don’t know it.”

Cellphone use among teenagers is rampant and growing at an exponential rate. Common Sense Media, a national, independent nonprofit organization that helps educators and parents teach kids how to be safe and smart in today’s 24/7 media world, worked with the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct over 2,000 interviews with teenagers about cellphone use. What they unearthed is staggering.

More than eight in 10 teenagers have cellphones, and more than half have had them since they were 12 years old or younger. On average, they send 440 text messages a week, 110 of which are sent during class. Restrictive school policies hardly matter, as 65 percent of young people use their phones on campus despite school policies. Parents are in the dark as well. Only 23 percent of those whose kids have cellphones think their children are using them during school, while 65 percent of kids say they use the devices in school.

In the area of cheating, the findings grow more alarming. More than a third of those questioned—35 percent—admit to having cheated at least once with their cellphones. The teenagers appear more likely to say that their friends are cheating than they are, with 65 percent in the survey saying they have seen or heard about other people in their school cheating with cellphones.

How do kids do it? They store information on their phone to look at during a quiz or exam. They text friends about answers during quizzes and tests (a practice that 57 percent of teenagers in the survey said others at their school had done). And they take pictures of test questions with a cellphone to send to friends.

How do they feel about it? Only 41 percent of young people say that storing notes or information on a cellphone to look at during a test is a serious cheating offense. Almost one in four (23 percent) say they don’t think it’s cheating at all. Similarly, only 45 percent say texting friends about answers during tests is cheating and “a serious offense,” while 20 percent say it’s not cheating at all.

Interestingly, kids consider cheating via the Internet to be more of a serious offense than cellphone cheating. But although teenagers in the survey viewed plagiarism more seriously than other types of cheating, a third of them (36 percent) said that downloading a paper from the Internet was not a serious offense, and 42 percent said copying text from Web sites was either a minor offense or not cheating at all.

Based on these findings, educators and parents are in trouble if schools keep doing business as usual. They won’t have control, because they won’t know what’s happening.

A cartoon I saw recently in The New York Times captures their dilemma. A teacher stands in front of a classroom presenting the time-honored assignment of having students write an essay about their summer vacation. One bold student pipes up with, “What, didn’t you follow me on Twitter this summer?” The message is clear: Students are using different tools to learn, and classrooms need to change to catch up with the times.

For teachers, it’s a matter of drastically overhauling the mind-set. In his book The Art of Possibility, Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander offers a wonderful parable to illustrate how a shift in perspective can turn despair to opportunity. Two shoe salesmen head to a part of rural Africa to explore the viability of establishing a new market for their shoes. One writes back to the company: “Situation hopeless. No one wears shoes. Abandon project.” The other sees the flip side and writes, “No one is wearing shoes. Opportunity abounds. Huge market awaits. Send resources immediately.”

This is the situation teachers and schools face with mobile technologies. They can continue to fight a losing battle and draw harsh lines in the sand, confiscating cellphones or banning their use during school hours. Or, they can seize the teachable moment, and shift their approaches to embrace technology and engage students with these devices. One thing is very clear. Schools cannot continue to operate as if nothing is changing, with students or with technology.

Test design has to be reconsidered, of course. But beyond that, teachers need to think about ways to incorporate mobile technologies into their instruction. One creative foreign-languages teacher in California has seen the possibilities. She designs scavenger hunts in which her students need to call a number to get instructions (in Spanish) on where to go. Once there (ideally in a Spanish-speaking environment), they have to complete a task, perhaps buying something, using only Spanish, then call the next number to get further instructions. Each student has slightly different instructions, to differentiate the assignment.

School culture is shifting, and students are dictating the terms of this new culture. Schools need to meet them halfway and acknowledge the ubiquitous use of mobile technologies. Otherwise, students will find new and novel ways to skirt school rules, sneak texts under a desk during a test, and continue to bypass the trust of their teachers and schools.

We educators can alter these terms of engagement, however, by crafting creative uses for mobile devices in learning, and by designing testing situations that lend themselves less to multiple-choice copying and more to intellectual problem-solving.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Cellphones in Schools: Flip ’Em Open


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