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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cellphones the New Calculators?

Dear ---,

As I understand your research proposal, it sounds like you are collecting an anthology of ways to use the IPhone as an instructional instrument.

The current cell-phone-as-tool-of-instruction discussion reminds me very much of similar discussions when calculators became ubiquitous.  Oh, lookie, lookie, we can play games and we can make upside-down words. First graders will learn place value and regrouping as they do +1 over and over watching the changes in display. We will even be able to teach chaos theory in the fourth grade.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics went so far as to recommend calculator use with first graders as part of their standards, but later qualified the recommendation with the words "under the guidance of a skilled math teacher."

I have compiled an extensive review of the literature on calculator use with our youngest students. The most generous conclusion is that at best calculators do no harm.  "At best" is not good enough.  The games, clever tricks and so on have not lived up to the claims. 

I am concerned we are repeating the same mistake with cellphones.  It seems you have already decided cellphones have educational potential.  Researchers are not supposed to pre-decide.  If you are assuming that cellphones will be of positive use in the classroom, then you might be laboring under an unexamined assumption.  Unexamined assumptions are often fatal flaws in research. Even professional researchers are not immune.   Another unexamined assumption I often encounter regarding cellphones is the idea that since the kids have them anyway, we might as well figure how to make use of them. However, some schools require the students to check their cell phones at the door. Or some parents exercise their parental right to deny cellphones to their children. Schools even now experience difficulty when they assume that each and every child has independent internet access at home.

It seems to me that your research topic is a worthy one, but that perhaps you should focus on designing a research study that may contribute the necessary knowledge preliminary to collecting ideas such as the one about ELL students animating their vocabulary words.

As a college professor, I do not worry too much about students having cell phones except that I expect them to be turned off in class.  If they are surreptitiously texting or playing games in their laps, and miss stuff that might show up, oh I don't know, on the midterm, that is their responsibility and they must face their own consequences.  After all, they are adults. But I worry about our responsibility to minor students.

I just finished teaching in a summer program for 4-8 grades.  They all had cell phones.  The program director had told them to turn off their cell phones during "class" but most ignored his request.  After all this wasn't school they reasoned, sometimes out loud.  They were constantly texting and playing games in their laps, and then complained that they did not get very much out of the summer program.  Parents were not happy either and thought we teachers should have disciplined their children more strictly.  Some teachers actually did discipline children, but those children often dropped the "class" of the "mean" teacher the very next day, and transferred to another "class."  Some classes escaped this problem entirely.  I mean, it is pretty hard to text and do woodworking, karate, or swimming at the same time. :-)

Good luck with your thesis.

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