Mobile Phones, They Just Won't Go Away

For the last few days, I have been party to three separate conversations about mobile phones and schools, and in the conversations, the only common denominators have been the shoulder shrugs that each conversation has ended in.

The use, or in some cases the possession of, a cellular phone in a classroom is often times a material disruption to the learning process. Let's face that right off the bat. Yes, we can do some truly amazing things with any cellular phone within the classroom, but from a management situation, even those teachers who truly get it when it comes to relevance and utility of mobile computing are irked by students constantly turning their wrists or sliding their keypads out to check for texts. And we cannot blame students for that either; what do most of us do at the precise moment our phone either rings, dings, buzzes or whispers? We reach for it. We are overridden with curiosity, not to answer it, but just to see who it trying to capture our attention. Imagine what that feels like to an adolescent struggling with identity, peer acceptance, and societal norms? Yeah, I am reaching for that phone too.

Those that I work with, a group of very forward thinking educators, often struggle with the use of mobile phones in the classroom for different reasons. They tend to see it as a situation where there are other solutions that work better or just as good as would the use of a cellular device. My thinking in these situations is always centered on trying to find that sweet spot, that activity or learning experience that could not be done better than if everyone was using their mobile device. I don't do this because I am some crusader for cell phones, but rather because I think they have leverage. Paul Allison tweeted about writing with cell phones tonight after asking students to do some independent reading for thirty minutes and then check in via their cell phones:

I just love stopping and asking students to write with their phones. They have such a warm response, like "Oh, of course I can do that!"

For me then, it becomes clear where they have their use, and not for everyone, nor every situation. But think about what Paul did with his students. He didn't ask them to interrupt the flow of their reading to take out pencil and paper and craft a response to a packet question, and he didn't ask them to open up a laptop or move to a computer and find the discussion page on the wiki for that book and add an entry. He asked them to do what they probably wanted to do anyway: send someone a text about what they were doing.

Flow. Sense.

I don't have the full details of what Paul was trying to carry out with his lesson, but if his intent was to engage students in reading and then have them reflect, then re-engage with the reading, doing it through that medium makes sense.
Our mindsets, our infrastructure, and out pedagogy have a long way to move before we massively adapt to the use of cellular phones in classrooms, and I am beginning to see that its due mainly to our adult sensibilities about usage. Our habits speak a different language, as we have very similar habits to our students, but our grip on how we should behave with cell phones is still strong. Renny Gleeson, in his brief TED Talk, shows how we as a society have not yet normed our usages with our phones:

As we look at the inclusion (or as some would say, intrusion) of cell phones into our classrooms, we have to center on Gleeson's point: are they making us more human? Or, as Allison's example more aptly shows, are they becoming invisible?