Cell phone use in Colorado classrooms calls on new innovations
Colorado school districts have largely ceded the management of student cellphone use to individual schools and classroom teachers, which has led to everything from outright bans of the devices to their use as a powerful, and economical, learning tool.
Matthew Farber understands teachers’ frustrations with cellphones, which seem as attached to a modern teenager as an arm and a leg. In fact, 85 percent of those aged 14 to 17 in the United State have cellphones, as do 69 percent of 11-14 year-olds.
“You don’t want a student with his head down in class, playing Angry Birds on their cellphone and not engaging in the classroom,” Farber, a former middle school teacher, said. “Roman history by itself is no match for World of Warcraft,” added Farber, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Northern Colorado and an expert on melding cellphone use into the classroom.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Farber and others say principals and teachers need to start the school year with clear guidelines on how and when cellphones can be used. In some cases in Colorado, schools and teachers have issued building-wide bans on phones, saying they are too much of a distraction during the school day.
Other schools are using Yondr, a locked bag for cellphones that high profile comedians have used during their live shows to keep people off their phones.
But several other schools have negotiated truces with students over cellphones, allowing their use for specific school projects and assignments. Liz Kolb, a professor of teacher education at the University of Michigan, prefers that approach.
“I have learned that rather than trying to be reactive, the best defense when it comes to cellphones is a well-planned offense,” Kolb said. “Teachers who implement a proactive management plan developed in collaboration with the students at the beginning of the school year may have fewer issues as student cell ownership increases throughout the year.”
At Carmody Middle School in Lakewood, teachers outline their policy on cellphones in their classroom syllabus, so it’s clearly understood by students and parents. “Some teachers are not comfortable with cellphones and that is fine,” Principal Wendy Doran said. “But those that are, try to teach the proper use and decorum of cellphones, just like it would happen in the workplace.”
Some students from low-income families don’t have access to a laptop or other electronic device so they rely on their smartphones for school projects, Doran said. “And they use them for their work, it’s a device that is very important to them,” she said.
Students at Carmody also have to adhere to a “three strikes” policy, which means that after the third confirmed misuse of a cellphone, they have to leave their devices at home, she said.
Like most Colorado school districts, Cherry Creek leaves most decisions about phone use up to teachers. But it comes with a caveat, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said.
“They are to be used in a responsible and meaningful way,” Siegfried said. “It has to be linked to learning that will benefit students in the 21st century. We are well beyond the days of memorizing facts in education.”
Several new innovations are now in classrooms that can harness cellphones and other hand-held devices to make learning more exciting, Farber said.
That includes Flipgrid, a video discussion platform used by more than 20 million teachers and students around the world. It allows students to discuss and reply to topics with video clips at home or in the classroom, Farber said.
He added that many schools allow students to use their cellphones for classroom work because it is a lot cheaper than supplying each kid with an iPad.
“It’s a lot more cost-effective, especially for lower-income districts,” Farber said. “And if its done correctly, with the proper guidelines, it can be a real benefit.”