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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 4, January/February 2008

Education and technology: Cell phones: to ban or not to ban?

By Larry Kuehn

The ubiquity of cell phones inevitably leads to questions about their use in classrooms and schools. These days, even a ride on the city bus features listening to one side of a conversation, as if the other person was riding on the bus beside the passenger on the phone. Kids of all ages now have them.

So what to do about cell phones at school. Forbid them? Put conditions around their use? Allow texting, but not voice? Forbid photos?

Who should decide? Should the ministry adopt a requirement for districts to have a policy, as they have with bullying? Should it be up to the school to have a common policy? Or is it left to individual teachers defining rules and responsible for enforcing them?

Or should we do nothing, accepting that they are a part of the social environment in which we live?

Good arguments can be made against the do-nothing approach. At the very least, a phone ringing in the middle of a class can be disruptive.

Early reports of problems were about cheating on tests. South Korea is probably the most connected country on the globe and has an end-of-school test that determines not just what university one gets into, but also job prospects afterward. They have been dealing with the use of cell phones to cheat on exams for several years.

High stakes inevitably produce a powerful incentive to ensure a high result. Our students are not immune to pressures to pass or gain a high mark.

In addition to concerns about cheating, cyberbullying has become a significant enough issue for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation to propose policies to address it. The addition of the camera to the cell phone added new dangers and upped the potential for bullying both students and teachers.

The postings of school fights on YouTube have had the most publicity. One BC school found that students had created a "fight club," with scheduled performances shared globally through quick uploads.

An incident with a teacher in Quebec got lots of media coverage last year. Students in a class created chaos as a way of inciting a teacher, then used a phone to video the teacher’s angry response. It was soon posted on YouTube.

Video of teachers in BC hasn’t become a big media story—yet. However, one teacher who dressed in costume on Halloween saw a student recording with a cell phone. She explicitly told the student not to post it on YouTube. When she checked there at the end of the day, the teacher was as a media star.

The local president in Cariboo-Chilcotin, Rob Taylor, suggests doing some active checking. He said "Our high schools didn’t have a cell phone policy until I suggested they search YouTube with the names of the high schools. Surprisingly, two of the three schools had something posted, one a school fight, one a teacher ‘losing it’ in class."

You may want to do a search for your school on a regular basis to see what the situation is. It is possible to get material removed from a website, but it’s not easy. Also, a number of less well-known websites may have material that you don’t find out about easily.

So what should the policy be?

An Ontario school district has adopted a no-cell-after-the-bell policy. A number of BC districts are considering similar approaches. In some districts, it is left up to the school to adopt a policy. In the absence of district or school policies, teachers may set explicit limits in their class.

A no-cell policy may apply to teachers as well as students.

Some policies explicitly prohibit the posting of photos taken at school without the permission of the subject of the photo. However, the lack of boundaries in our digitally saturated society presents new problems. Should students face discipline for actions taken outside of school, such as online bullying, that has a spillover impact on the school?

School and district penalties for ignoring policies are often confiscation of the cell phone. In some cases, the student can pick it up from the office at the end of the day. In others, the phones are only returned when a parent comes to the school to pick it up.

You can join an online discussion about these issues on the BCTF web site at: bctf.ca/forums/IssuesInEducation.aspx.

Larry Kuehn is the director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

What policies have been adopted by your school district or school? What is your view of what policies should be? Should the BCTF propose a policy on cell phone use in schools? Do you have an interesting story to tell about the problem of cell phones in school? Join the discussion, but remember, online space is public space.

We will publish some of the more informative responses.


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