From the Principal's Office: Let’s End the Administrator War on Mobile Devices

“Mobile phones enable anytime, anyplace, anywhere engagement.” Scott McLeod & Chris Lehmann, What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies

We’ve all worked with them, educators who have made it their mission to rid the classrooms and schools of this world of those infernal, disruptive devices called “cell phones.” Those on the front lines in this battle collect cell phones from students as badges of honor. Their goal is to be ever vigilant for violators who sneak peeks at their iPhones and Galaxy Notes as they sit at desks or stand in hallways between classes. They are a force to reckoned with and feared by any who engage in the unauthorized use of personal devices within the confines of the school building. They believe fiercely that cell phones are nuisances and have no place in education. These individuals are, however, badly misinformed and out-of-touch with realities of 21st century students lives. The days of complete mobile device bans are numbered, and administrators who want students to engage in authentic learning with those devices, are ending the war, and embracing their place as a learning device.

But why should we end this war on mobile devices? Cell phones can be nuisances and disruptive, especially if one rings in the middle of a class. In addition, they can be used to text threats, sext, and access Facebook when students should be otherwise engaged. They can even be used to take unauthorized photos and video and then plastered all over YouTube and the Web. The possibilities and potential for mischief is endless. Yet, it is that same possibility and potential for mischief that make mobile devices powerful tools for learning and powerful tools for the classroom.

Those who embrace banning the devices believe the balance more in favor of nuisance and mischief rather than potential and possibility. Those who argue for allowing mobile devices see only their educational potential. But if we are going to declare a cease fire in the war on mobile devices, we must be prepared to negotiate the terms for their place within our schools and classrooms. We must direct their use from ill to good. To begin the process of declaring our terms in the ending of this war, school leaders might consider the following:

  • Focus on the behavioral issues and how those might be addressed instead the devices. For almost every problem caused by mobile devices, there is a 20th century equivalent behavior. When I started teaching, passing notes was the norm. Now, students text. Once, students were distracted by baseball cards, now they are distracted by watching YouTube videos on their smartphones. The old remedy was not to declare a complete ban on baseball cards, notebook paper, and pencils. We focused on the behavioral issue, not the device. In our 21st century classrooms let’s set expectations for proper use of mobile devices and have students live up to those.
  • Think about devising policies and structures that teach and foster healthy use of the devices that capitalize on their educational potential rather than the potential for mischief. If we want students to learn how to use mobile devices properly, we have to give them the opportunity to do so. Of course, that also means giving them the opportunity to use them for mischief too. But what better place is there for students to learn these things than the school? We must provide students with experiences that ask them to engage in using mobile devices for educational purposes, and we must equally give them the opportunity to make poor choices as well. It is from those poor choices that learning happens.

We can declare an end to the war on mobile devices in our schools and embrace them for their educational potential. But as we do, let’s engage our teachers in conversations on how these devices can enhance teaching and learning. Let’s use them to transform what we do in our classrooms.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.