Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why Are Schools Holding Technology Hostage?

A few weeks ago, at the family dinner table, the subject of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline came up in conversation. My oldest daughter hadn't heard about the protests or the militarized police presence or the proposed oil pipeline. As I stumbled over the scant details I had picked up from the internet, she finally asked, pulling her phone from her pocket, "Can I just Google it?"

I almost told her no. We have a strict No-Phones-at-the-Dinner-Table rule. Crazy me, I like actually interacting with my family members without having to compete with electronic devices for their attention. But instead of complaining about real-world zombies glued to screens and controlled by electronic leashes, I gave her the green light.

Within a few short minutes, she was up to speed, able to offer relatively informed input, actively engaged in a conversation, that just a few minutes before, she hadn't been able to follow. That quick Google search for background on the Standing Rock protests led to more questions, though.

"What's an 'easement'?"

"What does the Army Corps of Engineers do?"

"What is the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie?"

Instead of having to deal with my awkward (and only marginally informed) answers, my kids had answers within just a few short seconds. Those electronic devices, that so often seem nothing more than a distraction from real life and meaningful human interaction, actually proved to be something else entirely. At that moment, at that dinner table, their phones were windows to real life events and tools that enhanced meaningful conversation.

Everyone walked away from the encounter having learned something. Even me. And I don't even own a phone.

Image Credits: Jon Fingas, Flickr
Meanwhile, I have a friend who is a high school teacher. She was recently complaining about how modern teens are glued to their phones, how they can't seem to function without them, how she has to collect them from her students at the beginning of class, hold their devices like hostages, and then pass them back out when class is over.

I understand the reasoning. Control is difficult to maintain in a classroom of 30 teenagers who really don't want to be there. Getting them to pay attention for a whole hour to a subject they probably care little about, while there are more interesting things just a click away, is a daunting task. And it's super important that they pay attention, because their standardized test scores (and therefore their entire futures) are at stake.

But this is the world we live in now, like it or not. We live in a world of constant connection and instant information. SmartPhones are here to stay. For good.

And maybe it is for good. Used responsibly, those electronic devices provide opportunities for spontaneous research and more thorough understanding. Not just through Google searches, either.

Mobile technology can facilitate collaboration on real-world projects with students on the other side of the planet.

SmartPhone features that help keep adults organized, like calendars, timers, alarms, and reminder apps will work for users under eighteen, too. These useful tools can help students coordinate sports and club activities and keep up with homework and project deadlines.

Online tools enable students to create spreadsheets, forms, slideshows, powerpoint presentations, videos, and word documents. These tools can even be used collaboratively with fellow students. These are the tools that many of them will be using on a daily basis once they are out in the work force. Integration in the classroom just makes sense.

As education budget cuts are limiting classroom technology updates, it seems more important than ever to utilize every technology resource available. Isolating students from their own electronic devices may be doing more harm than good.

Public school already crams children away in classrooms with their peers for hours each day, isolating them from real-world activities and interactions. Confiscating cell phones seems like just another way to isolate kids from real life experience and hinder them in developing real useful life skills.

By having students hand over their electronic devices upon entering the classroom, we are reinforcing the attitude that technology is nothing more than a distraction, when in reality, their phones and tablets can be very useful tools if used responsibly. We need to teach them to use them responsibly. The only way to do that is to have them actually use them, not isolate them or have them sneaking peeks in dark corners like guilty junkies trying not to get caught.

Technology isn't just a great way to waste time. Keeping students from their electronic technology, their own property, is a gross assumption that left to their own devices, students will not be responsible. Technology bans, whether schoolwide or in individual classrooms, prove a blatant lack of trust and rampant suspicion on the part of teachers and administrators. Have we forgotten that school students are human beings? Must they always be treated like criminals?

I get the fear my generation has as we watch the next one basking in the eternal glow of electronic screens, seemingly oblivious to the world around them, but we don't have to technology shame them.

They are natives in this new land of technological advances, even if it still feels foreign to us. Technology is their birthright. This is the new landscape, and like we've locked them behind wooden desks and cinderblock walls away from the real landscape outside, we are now actively isolating them from the cultural landscape. Depriving them of the most useful tools available, is only going to cripple them in the long run. Education is supposed to prepare human beings to function in the adult world, to be productive and well-rounded individuals. An education that neglects the necessary skills for successfully navigating the social landscape isn't much of an education at all. We have to allow them learn to utilize the tools of their culture.

Or we can choose option B and continue to rage against the machines, continuing with education policies that limit and prohibit and postpone encounters with the tools of the future. We could continue to put all of our effort into authoritarian approaches of force and coercion, instead putting it into building responsible, technologically fluent citizens.

I'd like to think we would choose option A. But I've never been very good at multiple choice tests.

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