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     April 2006

Education Up Close

Cell Phones: Nuisance or Necessity

Cell phones have become a ubiquitous accessory of high school students since the late 1990s. Initially banned by schools as an unnecessary distraction, events such as the Columbine tragedy and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have made most districts reconsider the place of cell phones in middle and high schools.

Although many districts have struggled with these policies, most have removed the bans at the behest of students and parents alike. Parents want to be able to reach their children before and after school hours. Students use phones to call parents and schedule rides and extracurricular activities. Administrators also maintain that in an emergency, students could contact family members—or even the police—quicker.

Improved Technology—Increased Distraction
Although the bans have largely been removed, the problems—or distractions—of cell phone technology have only increased.

Cell phones today allow users to do so much more than just three years ago. Students can use their cell phones to write and send text messages, take and send digital photos, and even take and send short digital video clips, in addition to making phone calls. Nearly all of the uses can become inappropriate and undesirable in middle and high school classrooms.

For this reason, while most schools have lifted bans on carrying cell phones, many require students to keep them off during school hours, unless a real emergency occurs. Unfortunately, this rule is often broken, as students find that they can easily elude detection by using increasingly more compact cell phones.

The key problems teachers have with unsanctioned cell phone use in schools include:
  • Sending friends text messages during class time.
  • Sending or receiving test answers.
  • Bullying or harassment via unwanted text messaging.
  • Taking and distributing inappropriate digital photos of students.
Some schools are questioning whether the policy is truly serving to make the school a more secure environment, or whether they simply make it easier for high jinks and inappropriate behaviors to go unnoticed.

Instituting Rules to Combat Cell Phone Misuse
If your school does not already have rules in place to regulate cell phone use, consider implementing the following in your classroom.
  • If found with a cell phone turned on during a test, students receive an automatic two grade deduction from the test scores. Be prepared to give everyone the chance to turn their phones off prior to the test.

  • If found using cell phone during class, automatic deduction from their participation score. Make the deduction appropriately severe to be a deterrent.

  • Have students label their cell phones and place them in a basket at the beginning of class. Return them to students at the end of class.
Cell Phones as Teaching Tools
As the old adage says, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The cell phone is a tool with an ever increasing range of functions. Can students use them for educational purposes? Consider the following functionalities that a cell phone might bring to a school that lacks a wide range of technology tools:
  • Calculators. Although most schools have them in math class, other classes that don't have them on hand for students can benefit from number crunching. For example, social studies students studying elections can quickly determine percentages of electoral votes or other scenarios. Science classrooms can use them to perform calculations related to fieldwork.

  • Digital cameras. Not all schools or classrooms are outfitted with digital cameras, although many can benefit from them. For example, students can use them to document a variety of things for multimedia presentations or reports. Fieldtrips can be documented and incorporated into digital travelogues.

  • Internet access. Some phones have wireless Internet access, thus opening up a world of possibilities for class use. Science students might conduct fieldwork and submit their observations or data to either an internal or external data gathering site.

  • Dictionaries. Students in literature and language arts classes can benefit from being able to quickly query the definition of a word. Additionally, students who are English learners especially can benefit from translation dictionaries which are becoming available on cell phones.
Recent Developments
Some schools are starting to refine their use policies to include a ban on camera phones, at least for now. Because these hold the greatest potential for inappropriate use and abuse of access to lockers rooms, rest rooms, etc, the ban may actually stick.

Although many teachers will be able to avoid making policies regarding cell phone use, they will not avoid having to cope with their persistent appearance in purses, desks, and backpacks. Teachers can help set the tone by explaining to students early in the year class and school policies regarding their use.

This article was contributed by Elizabeth Melville, an educational consultant and editor with Teaching Today.

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