A change of heart about cell phones

Pabak Sarkar  license
I've written several times about how I use (and encourage) cell phone use in class. You can read old blog posts about it here and here. Generally, in the past, I have been fairly lax about students having cell phones in class. I have treated phones like just another aspect of classroom management, rather than something I have to address explicitly. This has pretty much worked out for me up until this year. However, some things have happened lately that have made me pause and rethink my approach.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a student before class, when suddenly I heard my own voice coming from the other side of the classroom. I realized that a student had recorded me and was playing back the recording on his phone. I was shocked and angered by this, even when I discovered that it had been unintentional (someone had sent the student a Snapchat video that just happened to have my voice in the background). Even though it was done without intention or malice, I still felt violated, and it made me realize that most students have no awareness of how their constant use of their phones' cameras and social media apps can impinge on others' privacy.

I've also observed this year that all of my students, when they enter my classroom, immediately take out their phones and spend those few minutes of downtime before class begins checking email, social media feeds, etc. They don't interact with each other in real time or face-to-face during that time, which means that they miss out on opportunities to connect with each other and with me. I've noticed a shift in the past few years. Let's say that five years ago, students were sneaky about taking out their phones in a classroom. And then that gradually shifted to having their phone in the open but putting it away when class started. And now I have to tell them to put their phones away because class is starting. If I allow them to use phones for a task, they immediately start "multitasking" -- checking email, checking Instagram and Snapchat, texting people, etc.

There is a fascinating and terrifying Radiolab podcast episode called "Shots Fired" in which one police chief expresses dismay and concern about how young new recruits lack face-to-face interpersonal skills. He theorizes that, because teens and young adults spend so much time interacting virtually rather than in person, they lack the ability to "read" nuances of body language, facial expressions and intonation, which leads to the sometimes violent escalation of tense police/civilian interactions.

Finally, the evidence is mounting: technology is addictive, screen time is bad for sleep, multitasking is a myth, our phones might make us less empathetic.

Times have changed since I started this blog in 2012. Back then, I was convinced that technology was going to revolutionize education. Now I think that the revolution is more about how we respond to and prepare for a world where the pace of change is accelerating, and people will interact with each other and with technology in ways that we cannot imagine today.

In the meantime, what does this mean for my classroom?

I'm not totally sure. At least, it means I'm asking my students to put their cell phones in a box before class begins. I'm not dumb -- I know they can still message each other on their computers, but it's much easier to manage laptops than palm-sized smartphones. Plus, I think many students feel some relief about being involuntarily separated from their phones. They can blame me for not replying immediately to a post or a text, and they can actually focus and engage without the distraction/temptation of constant notifications.

What do you see in your classrooms? Do you think cell phones limit or expand your students' learning?