Banning Biros

As most people are no doubt aware, the New York City Department of Education has this year banned students from bringing mobile phones to any government public school.  That decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court last month.  This has got me thinking a lot about the items that we ban our students from using.  While the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) has not banned mobile phones (actually I think we are blessed to have a Department that by world standards promotes and fosters innovation), I have been to many schools lately that have bans of one sort or another on mobile phones, iPods, and even laptop computers!

I think there is mounting evidence that mobile phones, iPods, and other mobile learning devices have potential to be significant learning tools.  In my own classes I am tinkering with mobile phones (too early yet for me to start blogging about) but in my class the iPod has become a central teaching and learning tool – as important, I’d argue, as a text book or biro.

I see a wonderful irony in the fact that many (most?) schools ban phones and iPods.  Our profession revolves around the sharing of information, ideas and content.  Mobile phones and iPods have become phenomenally popular among our students because they are very efficient and effective ways of sharing information, ideas and content. So how did we get to a point where we ban the very tools that pave the path to the destination we are ultimately trying to reach?  

One reason that is often given is that students may use them inappropriately.  That is a legitimate concern.  There are lots of inappropriate things they might do with them.  They might take inappropriate video and send it to YouTube, they might use it to bully other students.  They might send text messages during valuable class time, or worse, their phone might ring during class and cause a disruption. They might get stolen.  I don’t want to downplay those issues.  They are real and important issues.  But rather than ban the TOOLS, I’d like to see us address the ISSUES (more on this in future posts).

Students use biros inappropriately too!  Some students make them into pea-shooters to fire spit balls , some students use them to write on each others arms and legs.   Some students use them to write notes which they pass during valuable class time.  They get stolen, too.  But we don’t ban biros.  Why not?  Because we know that if we did we would be compromising our students’ ability to communicate their learning.  Indeed we would be compromising our students’ learning itself.  Is it possible we are doing the same thing by banning personal mobile electronic devices? 

I don’t think the only issue is our fear of disruptions, or cyberbullying or inappropriate YouTube postings (as real as those issues are). I think it is that use of these tools does not fit with our current teaching practices.  It’s easier to just ban them and pretend things are the way they used to be, than to change our pedagogy to take advantage of these new communication conduits.

If a teacher confiscates an iPod from a student who was eagerly listening to an educational podcast, claiming that the iPod was disrupting “their” classroom – who, do you think,  is interrupting whom?  Now, I am not advocating anarchy – or suggesting that teachers should not have control of their classrooms – but I am advocating for teachers to question the reasons why they say ‘I don’t want to see iPods or mobile phones in class’ and to ask – “What if….”

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2 thoughts on “Banning Biros

  1. though I agree with the wonderful benefits of mobiles and other devices, I do ask who is responsible if a student ‘misuses’ these devices? For example if the student makes an inappropriate video at school and this is put on You Tube… who will be prosecuted? Litigation is alive and well in Australia… sorry to sound so negative about it, however in this wonderful climate of many people suing for ‘justice’ then one must look very carefully how this may affect using mobile phones etc. I have no real issues with Ipods as such… mobile phones (hey we have to turn them off at meetings/conferences etc) are not really necessary in the school. I feel that we try to ‘justify’ mobile phones and how we could use them in class… hmmmm lets leave them out of class and focus on other more beneficial devices.
    Lets first use all the other wonderful devices at hand and leave the mobile phone as a phone… turn them off!

  2. I agree the fear of litigation is a real issue. Schools certainly need to be clear that inappropriate use of mobile phones (or any equipment) will not be tolerated. I have to disagree however with the suggestion that a mobile phone is just a phone… I don’t think we will be able to think of them as ‘just a phone’ for very much longer. You only have to look at the iPhone or the Nokia N series phones to see where this technology is going. Even cheap phones nowadays are also video cameras, still cameras, calendars, and the more advanced mobile phones (which soon will be standard) are more like pocket computers than “just phones”. You can search the internet with them, update a blog, listen to podcasts…

    Steve Hargadon (UK) drew a parallel recently between the RIAA and schools. The RIAA was set up to promote the easy distribution of affordable music to the masses. Nowadays, their major roll is to prevent the (illegal) distribution of music. They have become the exact opposite of what they were originally set up to do. (There are obviously good reasons for that – and he is NOT arguing in favor of music piracy)…. But Hargadon argues that schools need to be careful that we don’t end up in a similar position – standing in the way, blocking the very thing we used to promote.

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