How one former educator views new technology in schools

How one former educator views new technology in schools

By Brent Reid

While teaching journalism and information technology for several years in a networked computer environment with Internet and email access at every workstation, I learned a lot about how to use powerful, but potentially distracting, electronic devices to increase students’ learning and productivity. Please note, though, that I last taught a high school class in 2000 and since then digital technology, and the opportunities and dangers it presents, have evolved greatly.

Many educators now believe that thousands of hours of screen time have altered the cognitive functioning and attention spans of today’s students significantly, necessitating new approaches if we are to educate humanity’s first connected generation successfully.

A contemporary smartphone provides its owner with more computing power and data storage than all those banks of computers and their lab-coated operators we saw on TV when NASA first put astronauts on the moon. Combined with continually improving connectivity, that handful of technology enables a skilled user to connect with spectacular amounts of knowledge, and offers audio recording, photographic, and video capabilities that enable users to broadcast what they learn widely, quickly, and creatively.

Surely it’s time to explore and define the role that such a powerful tool could play in secondary education.

With power comes risk, though, and a smartphone can place a young person in the crosshairs of bullies, identity thieves, petty fraudsters and, in some communities, recruiters for evil causes. Will we leave it to chance for students to gain the ability to use their phones ethically and safely, or will we help them learn to act responsibly and avoid threats? For openers it seems essential to me that students and staff work together in the establishment of policies for the proper use of personally-owned smartphones—and notebooks, iPads, and laptops—in the classroom and around the school.

Others on this forum can address the advisability of cellphone use in middle school and elementary grades. I’ll refer only to the level at which I taught, Grades 10 through 12, where I think smartphones — if integrated purposefully with clear policies for their use — could broaden and accelerate learning, and better prepare students for post-secondary studies and careers in which the smartphone is an essential tool.

I’m mindful, though, of how budgets and staffing levels in BC’s schools have been cut since 2000, and how an ever-increasing number of tasks—some of them trivial— now make demands on teachers’ time and energy.

The majority of the computers in many high schools are concentrated in a few rooms, sometimes reserved for specific courses or purposes. Students bringing digital devices from home to tap into the school’s wi-fi or wired network would enable any classroom to become a temporary computer lab.

This doesn’t mean that schools should cut their technology budgets; on the contrary, they should increase their investment in the hardware, software, and networking systems that are standard in technology companies, mainstream businesses, government, and higher education so that students will arrive at their post-secondary institution or their first job with relevant, marketable knowledge and skills.

Help in planning is available from the growing community of educators online who have embarked on BYOD projects. (The acronym is the same as the one on party invitations except that “D” stands for “device”). Here’s a typical article that summarizes the pros and cons of BYOD and contains links to articles covering other aspects of getting started.

A quick online search can provide a wealth of information to help a teacher determine where and how to begin. It could well be sensible to start BYOD education on a small scale, perhaps with one short-term project with one class, and evaluate the results carefully before expanding the initiative.

If I was still teaching and had a timetable and student load that permitted enough space and time to restructure courses to create optimal challenges and opportunities, I would base the integration of smartphones into my secondary classes on the answers to these questions:

  1. What are the desired outcomes of each course in terms of student awareness, knowledge, personal competencies, and marketable skills?
  2. What role could smartphones play in enabling students to achieve those outcomes more thoroughly, quickly, and enjoyably than they could without smartphones?
  3. Looking ahead–preferably in consultation with local employers, the corporate sector, the trades, higher education, and government–in what ways does each course need to be structured and updated to become optimally relevant to students’ success in transitioning to university, college, apprenticeships, entry-level employment, or entrepreneurship?
  4. What behaviours and responsibilities regarding cellphone use do employers and post-secondary educators expect on the job, in class, and on campuses?
  5. Would a smartphone be a tool that was utilized every day in a particular course, like a graphing calculator in a senior math class, or would students blend technology with different approaches—including intensive reading, print-based research, personal interviews, oral presentations, and other screen-free methodologies–for certain projects?
  6. How could smartphone use enable students to gain sophisticated research skills for distinguishing between factual data, bias, and falsehoods in online content?
  7. How best could students learn how cellular and wi-fi networks operate, and the ways each user bears part of the collective responsibility to protect their devices and the network from privacy invasions, viruses, malware, phishing, scams, and hacking?
  8. What about students whose families cannot afford to equip them with a smartphone? Could community support, help from industry, or a school-funded initiative be set up and operate discretely to enable all students to participate? (Also, students could bring an iPad, tablet, or laptop instead for projects that are not smartphone-specific).

The networked computers in my classroom back in the 1990’s were tremendously empowering for students, as many of them indicated at the time or have told me over the years since they graduated. I’m delighted that they become more skilled, knowledgeable, productive, and clear about their career goals sooner through the opportunity to use industry-grade software, hardware, and connectivity to take on meaningful, real-world challenges under time pressure and for a large audience.

Similarly, allowing focused, inventive, and ethical use of smartphones in appropriate classes for upper-grade students today could accelerate their technical savvy, ability to learn, career goal setting, and eventual success in the job market.

Brent Reid is a former teacher in School District 71 whose students published the award-winning Breezeway newspaper for 22 years. He lives in the Comox Valley.