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Teachers typically ban cellphone use in class, but some innovative educators are adopting a different approach

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      Back in Grade 9, Danielle Sherwood used to sit in science class with her cellphone hidden under her desk, texting up to four conversations at a time with friends. If she’d paid attention, she would have encountered optics, atoms, and nebulae. Instead, she chatted—incessantly—about unrelated teenage minutiae.

      She doesn’t do it anymore. In fact, unlike almost all of her classmates, she says, she doesn’t bring a phone to class. Grade 9 was her “aha” moment. Although she was usually an A student, her average fell a full letter grade in one semester due to tech distraction. That may not seem like much, but Bs won’t get her into psychology at UBC, her goal.

      Though cellphones are banned from classrooms at Vancouver’s Sir Winston Churchill secondary, where she is a Grade 11 student, Sherwood says they are everywhere.

      “Some people hide phones in their shoes,” Sherwood told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her South Vancouver home. Her classmates will actually reach into their footwear to text and Facebook. “The teachers don’t often catch them, but sometimes they do. It’s pretty obvious you’re texting if you’re looking down all the time.”

      The teachers, Sherwood said, are clearly frustrated. She’s seen several teachers grab cellphones out of students’ hands and slam laptop covers. It’s a constant conflict, she said.

      Walk into just about any B.C. classroom this semester—in high school or postsecondary—and you’ll see the vast majority of students are carrying some kind of electronic entertainment or communication device: a cell, smartphone, MP3 player, laptop, or combination of these. For many instructors, the answer is to slam and ban.

      But some cutting-edge educators are using their students’ obsession to redirect attention back into the classroom—with impressive results. Platforms such as Moodle and tools like Blackboard are already moving work online and engaging students in a 24-7 relationship with their classes. Early-adopting educators have used the i>clicker student-feedback device since 2006—a veritable eon in Web 2.0 years. And some teachers are simply harnessing the Web’s novelty to make assignments more fun for students—as when Sherwood made a Facebook page for Albert Einstein.

      More enticingly, at Pennsylvania State University, PhD candidate Honglu Du is massaging an interactive video-commenting system for large classrooms that he calls ClassCommons. Similar to the backchannels (real-time online conversations and tweet-reading during live presentations) becoming popular at conferences, it features a screen set up behind the instructor. As he or she lectures, students can make comments, ask questions, and discuss ideas by texting, and the messages scroll behind the instructor in real time.

      Then the instructor can respond verbally to the written comments, students can converse through texting, and a teaching assistant can text answers and moderate the discussion. It’s a lot to focus on, but tech-assisted multitasking is nothing new to Gen Y.

      “When a teacher tells you a fact and you write it down, they’re just pouring knowledge into a hat. Students are functioning at a very low cognitive level,” Du told the Straight in a phone interview from Penn State, where he is completing his degree in information sciences and technology. “What I’m trying to promote with this system is facilitating a much higher level of cognitive engagement in class.”

      The promise is heroic. But many educators are wary.

      Innovative associate professor Glen Lowry isn’t one of them. He has experimented with versions of a projected backchannel for about a decade in his English lectures and culture-and-community classes at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He sees distracted students futzing with cells and laptops, so he aims to reinvigorate the “sage on the stage” lecture through technology.

      When he was an undergrad at Trent University, he took a mesmerizing class in the literature of the First World War; it was taught by “a little elven man” who sat at a piano and smoked and accompanied his lectures with music from the era. In the same vein, Lowry wants to grab a new generation through technology.

      Yet for Gen Y students, in Lowry’s experience, tweeting their class discussion is not as instinctive as Du argues.

      “All this stuff about youth being digital natives—it’s not true,” Lowry told the Straight in a phone interview from Emily Carr. “The students like to look at Facebook but, by and large, it’s a passive exercise, just seeing what stupid photos have appeared.

      “They are not good communicators. It’s not their fault. That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching them. And the level of communication needed to use Twitter is quite high, which is why it’s so popular among 35- to 50-year-olds.”¦So when a student goes on the backchannel and it’s projected, their stupid comments are going up on the board as well as their insightful [ones].”

      Still, there’s a bevy of benefits to an in-class backchannel, he explained. First, shy students who would never speak up in a 200-person lecture hall will participate in a texted discussion. Second, students are texting anyway, so the backchannel redirects their compulsive behaviour back into the material. Third, students who don’t have the skills to listen to an hour-long lecture are engaged by their own texted participation.

      “Ultimately, I want students to spend more time in quiet contemplation,” Lowry said. “But I don’t think we can get there by just asking them to turn it [electronic media] off.”

      Psychology professor Tim Pychyl strongly disagrees; students, he believes, must learn how to turn this stuff off.

      He experienced cell-induced rage earlier this week. In a senior seminar class he teaches at Carleton University, a student had just finished her oral presentation. As he started to offer her verbal feedback, she pulled out her phone and texted a friend—while he was speaking to her.

      “I grabbed her phone,” Pychyl admitted in a phone interview from his home outside Ottawa. “What in the world was she thinking? You’d have to be so rude—or so addicted—to do that kind of thing.”

      Flashing in his mind, though, was the March 25 arrest of a Valdosta State University assistant professor who allegedly shut a laptop on a student’s fingers and is being charged with battery. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” he thought.

      Pychyl is an expert on procrastination, so you’d think he’d be sour on distraction-causing computers, phones, and social media. In fact, the Psychology Today blogger has won awards for his use of tech in the classroom; he podcasts every lecture, in part because he knows that many students tune out in favour of texting, Facebooking, and cruising YouTube during class, and he wants the forum to be available to them on their terms.

      Social media satiate students’ basic need for human social interaction, Pychyl said, so he understands why students are so drawn to them. If instructors use high-tech methods to engage students who would otherwise tune out in favour of Facebook, Twitter, or texting, he applauds them for trying.

      He doesn’t, however, believe that a backchannel can sustain students’ attention.

      “Students compulsively check their phones,” he said, noting that many are truly addicted. “You’ve got their attention for the 15 seconds for them to put up a question. But you’ve not got their attention beyond that, even to wait for an answer.”¦In a class, you’ve only got 90 minutes together. It’s sacred time, a place to promote human skills.

      “I’m not being old-fashioned about this. Students need to pay sustained attention to an argument. They need to learn how to speak out.”

      Classroom use of social media can’t solve education’s greatest challenge, Pychyl said: creating self-motivated learners.

      “There’s a lot of benefits [to using high tech in class], but the potholes are so huge, and a lot of students are falling through the cracks,” he said. “We don’t pay enough attention to the potholes”¦.We know that the more you use these things [as a distraction], the lower your GPA. So let’s not be Pollyannaish about this.”

      In January, the Vancouver school board hired its first district principal of learning technologies, in part to help educators integrate technology and social media into their classrooms. Kids love the immediacy of it, Audrey Van Alstyne told the Straight in a phone interview. And some really cool projects are possible because of it, she noted. For example, a Sir Matthew Begbie elementary class is using Global Partners Junior, an e–pen pal networking program, to connect and work with a class in New York City on a project about street food vendors.

      “What I see with social media is real-world engagement,” Van Alstyne said, excitedly. “We’re dabbling with this still, trying to be not cautious but thoughtful”¦.Where technology can add value, I say, ”˜Let’s use it.’ I want the engagement factor.”

      The VSB lets individual schools decide how to regulate social-media use, Van Alstyne said. To that end, each school is updating its code of conduct to address concerns.

      Provincially, Mike Silverton tries to sway teachers away from the slam-and-ban approach to classroom laptops and phones. He is the president of Computer Using Educators of B.C., a provincial specialist association of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

      “Technology is disruptive,” he acknowledged in a phone interview with the Straight from Nanaimo, where he teaches Grade 6. “Our first thought as educators is to restrict use. Then we realize there is educational value to it. Several places [school districts] banned Facebook when it first came out. Now they’re starting to step back a bit. Some even banned Hotmail when it came out. Every new technology has a disruptive element.”

      With his class of preteens, he uses Moodle to host literature circles online. For his students, it’s a password-protected forum to discuss books, 24 hours a day. Putting the traditional lit group online captures his students’ attention, he said. And those who don’t talk in class will participate online, just as Emily Carr’s Lowry reports.

      But according to Christopher Brin, a Grade 12 student at Apex secondary in Langley, educators are fooling themselves if they think they can control online discussions, especially in real time.

      “Allowing social media in class can easily lead to cyber-bullying,” he told the Straight in a phone interview from his home. “Anything you put online becomes really public. The teachers don’t have control over that, nor should we expect them to.”

      Brin noted that in his math classes there is a no-electronics policy. That’s because his teacher believes a student can’t pay attention to more than one thing at a time, particularly when that thing is higher mathematics.

      And Brin agrees.

      However, for Grade 11 student Sian Weaver-Jones, social media would be a welcome addition to her classes at Kwantlen Park secondary. So far, she says, none of her teachers has embraced them as in-class teaching tools.

      “Visual representation helps, because students learn in different ways—kinetically, through audio,” she told the Straight in a phone interview from her home in Surrey. “A lot of people use it as a distraction, though, so they eventually start freaking out and failing”¦.In one class, people actually talk to each other [out loud] on phones, and our teacher lets them get away with it because if we don’t want to learn, that’s our choice. I think it’s a personal choice too.”

      At Churchill, Sherwood’s 2.0 self-discipline is unusual. Not only does she keep her cellphone out of class, she has deleted her Facebook account to reduce distractions during her senior-high years. She knows that stuff isn’t good for her academically.

      Yet, her decision is costing her. Even school dances, she said, are organized through Facebook. Most of her friends wouldn’t dream of cutting themselves off completely that way, although some might be cutting back.

      “People still do it, but I don’t see them texting in class nearly as much as I used to,” she said. “I guess it’s because we’re in Grade 11. We’re trying to focus and get good grades.”

      Is it a good idea to use social media and other high-tech agents as teaching tools? Lowry thinks it’s too early to tell. It took 400 years to get from Gutenberg to pulp fiction, he pointed out. In the long history of public education, Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media platforms are just toddlers.




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