Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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New year renews the ban-smartphone debate

According to many comments posted to an op-ed in the Washington Post about the need to ban cellphone use in class, teachers are struggling in many schools to move kids’ attention away from their phones and toward their lessons.

Programs like Snapchat on phones are being used for improper (and definitely not educational) purposes just too often, writes Brooke Olsen Romney, a speaker and writer who lives outside Salt Lake City, who says kids at her own daughter’s school are airdropping nude photos during class. The school, though, can’t allow phones to be confiscated, since parents have apparently forgotten how to call the school office if they need to get a hold of their kids in an emergency.

And therein lies the problem: Parents are usually just as addicted to their smartphones as their kids are. Leading by example has, in that sense, completely lost its meaning. That’s why Ms Romney turns to France, where the government has just outright banned the use of smartphones by students under 15 during school hours. While this makes it easy for teachers to enforce a “no smartphone” policy in their individual classrooms, many readers point out why such a government-imposed ban wouldn’t work in the US.

The addiction to smartphones has been well documented, but what we don’t have is 10 years of data showing what the educational effects might be. So if we’re waiting for an “opioid crisis-like” revelation, it may be long in coming, and several kids’ minds will have already been dulled by their smartphone addiction. Perhaps another generation will be lost to a world in which some programmer decides what information they are fed, not their teachers.

Programmers like me know that smartphones are designed for the purpose of being addictive. We have very little need for maps anymore or for gas station attendants to know the roads in the local area—just pull out your smartphone. But we also have less need for printed textbooks, which may not be a bad thing, provided kids know how to distinguish good information from bad, reliable from unreliable, real from fake. Some of those textbooks weren’t any good, either, but at least there was an approval process that came to a conclusion at a school board meeting, where our elected representatives could decide what information kids should be taught.

But until the day comes when local educators or elected officials can control smartphone use more effectively, they’ll be nothing more in our classrooms than a convenience: they can take attendance pretty quickly, as opposed to the old days of putting punch cards outside the door for a student to pick them up and take them to the attendance office; they can be used as clickers to take a quiz and have the results displayed instantaneously; etc., etc.

What matters is not so much the method but the quality of the quiz itself, which has become limited not by a teacher’s creativity but by the apps used (and the mind of programmers who never heard of the school where their apps are being deployed to educate our students). But teachers, like many parents and other adults, have accepted this loss of creativity, this complete shattering of innovation in our schools, in order to gain a little convenience in taking attendance and the need not to use a ditto machine.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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