No Fear

This year, like most, there were lots of sessions at the eTech Ohio Educational Technology Conference about new technologies. There was a definite theme to many of them: overcoming the taboos of technology. In our schools, cell phones have been governed by a variation on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We know that nearly all of our middle- and high-school students have them. They bring them to school. We know that. They know we know that. They’re not allowed to use them. As long as we don’t see them, and they don’t cause a disruption, we don’t care if they have them.

Photo credit: chernobylBob on flickr
Photo credit: chernobylBob on flickr

What can these phones do? They can certainly make phone calls and send and receive text messages. They all have digital cameras. Most of them can record audio and video. A few students have smartphones that can access the web, run applications, and do other amazing things. While they’re not a replacement for a computer, they are capable of doing a lot of useful things. Creating a student response system with them to get immediate feedback would be pretty easy to do. Having students using them for digital storytelling would be possible. And the processing power in even the most basic phone is many times more powerful than even the most advanced scientific (and, perhaps, graphing) calculators that we used when I was in school. In a school / political environment / economic situation where we’re not going to be able to provide laptops for every student in the near future, we should be taking every possible advantage of the technology they already have.

But cell phones have problems. When students send inappropriate pictures of themselves to one another, it’s a cause for concern. When they do it at school, it could be a potential liability. Having the ability to text and access the Internet has to change how we do assessment. And, unlike the school Internet connections, cell phones don’t have filtered Internet access. While the school is only legally required to filter Internet access on devices provided by the school, in practice few administrators and teachers would be happy with a solution that makes it trivial for students to access any online content at any time from school.

Likewise, we have the same problems with social networking tools. We know that it can be valuable for students to build relationships, connections, personal learning networks. We also know that social networks are primarily just that — social. In addition to being a useful communication tool, it can be an excellent time waster. And many school officials point out that they open up new avenues for cyberbullying, further distracting teachers and school leaders with discipline and student management issues that can be avoided by blocking access to such services.

It is possible to set up walled-garden versions of social networks. Both Buddypress and Elgg give students the opportunity to participate in a closed system, where only other people affiliated with the school can participate. This can help, because trying such systems to network accounts ensures accountability, and allows the school to make the students accountable for the choices they make when using such tools. But, again, it’s a path few schools are chosing to follow.

Even cloud computing resources, like web-based email and Google Apps accounts, can raise concerns. Giving students email accounts increases the liklihood that they’ll be accidentally exposed to inappropriate content. Once they start getting on spam lists, it’s almost certain that they’ll receive unsolicited messages, even with the best anti-spam software. Plus, both email and Google Docs give students a way to get inappropriate content into the school. A picture, video, or application could be emailed or uploaded to the Google account, and then accessed from school. I don’t know of any foolproof filtering solutions that would solve this problem.

The sessions at eTech that dealt with these technologies were much more optimistic. It was nice to hear about several schools that have successfully implemented these types of technologies. Mostly, success seems to depend on pre-planning, setting expectations, and enforcing the rules. Rather than relying on the technology to tell the students what they can or cannot do, they have to take a certain sense of responsibility. And there have to be consequences for making poor choices.

Overall, I’m optimistic that these technologies can have a place in the classroom. It’s just a matter of identifying how and where they’ll be most beneficial, and designing an implementation strategy to fit those needs.