Power Up, Don’t Power Down

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Barring students from usingcell phones, MySpace, andother communication technologiesonce they enter the classroomis the wrong approach. Abetter move would be integratingthose tools into instruction.

Policy & AdvocacyI HATE IT WHEN I discover conflicts within my belief system, especially when they can be used to call me a hypocrite.

One such awakening came about when I found myself spouting off about the ridiculous, albeit well-meaning, Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, or DOPA. Introduced by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the bill would require any school or library that received government funding to block access to any website that “allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users, and offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, e-mail, or instant messenger.” DOPA also wants to make these sites available only to people age 18 and older.

While Fitzpatrick’s intent—to keep online predators from contacting children through social networking sites such as MySpace—is admirable, trying to prohibit the use of these phenomenally popular sites is like using a tank to kill an ant. As someone said at a conference one time, “Culture trumps policy every time.”

The move to ban cell phones in some schools around the country—most notably in New York City schools—is another example of trying to legislate against technology use. The concern of school officials is that the constant text messaging carried on via cell phones distracts students. Another concern is the potential for students to text-message test answers or use their cell phones to take photos of tests and send them to other students, or take other inappropriate photos.

However, many parents have said they want their children to carry cell phones as a safety device, or so they can check up on their kids before and after school.

So, you might ask, where is the conflict in my belief system— the hypocrisy? In these instances, I do not think that banning the technology or legislating its usage is appropriate, nor do I think it will work. Yet in another arena—gun control—I am in favor of outlawing or strictly controlling the technology: guns. If access to guns is made more difficult, I believe the number of accidental and intentional injuries and deaths from guns will diminish. The familiar counterargument is, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” In short, the problem is not the technology, the problem is the user. Therein is my conflict: In some cases, I think legislation is okay; in others, I think it isn’t.

Rather than ban cell phones, MySpace, and other technologies in schools, we need to apply a little judo and use the momentum of our “opponents” to our own advantage. In fact, we shouldn’t look at them as opponents at all. We should view cell phones and social networking sites as just more tools to use in the teaching and learning process. We need to leverage these technologies and applications because they aren’t going away. It has been well-documented that students today have different communication patterns, and that these patterns revolve around cell phone usage.

Vijay Kumar, assistant provost and director of academic computing at MIT, noted recently that in an average two-minute span, 2,100 new cell phones are added across the world. How deeply is this growth affecting collegiate life? So much so that an emerging problem on college campuses is the school phone bill. Faculty and staff no longer can get in touch with students via a phone in the dorm room; they have to call a student’s cell phone, which often is a long-distance call. The good news is that a few brave people in education are experimenting with mobile devices other than laptops, but this is happening more so in higher education. Duke University’s (NC) well-publicized iPod venture (the school distributed iPods free to incoming freshmen in an effort to see to what extent they would be put to use in coursework and lectures) is one example. Another is found at nearby Wake Forest University. Wake Forest has a long history of using technology to enhance the college experience for students, faculty, and staff. In 1996, it became the first US university to provide laptop computers to its students.

For the past four years, Wake Forest has experimented with mobile-computing pilot programs to find out what technology is most useful in an academic environment. In this case, the converged device is a Microsoft Pocket PC phone with a small keyboard attached; the unit is connected to the campus wireless network. Each device is loaded with a combination of custom Wake Forest software, standard software, and applications developed by the university. (For a presentation of the program, visit the website of T.H.E. Journal’s sister publication, Campus Technology. Click on “Conferences.”)

Especially interesting is one Wake Forest professor’s integration of cell phones into an introductory chemistry class, through the creation of practice exercises that require the cell phone to be used as the primary communication tool for students enrolled in the course. The effort will bear watching to see not only how students are affected by a professor’s leveraging the most familiar tool students own, but also how the professor’s approach to teaching chemistry is impacted. My guess is that the results will be constructive for all concerned—certainly more constructive than having the professor constantly trying to catch students texting on their phones rather than concentrating on teaching.

Back to the question of my hypocrisy. Legislating against social networking sites and banning cell phones from schools may not be directly analogous to stiffening up gun registration laws and making automatic weapons difficult for people to acquire, but it is close enough to make me reconsider both issues.

Isaac Asimov, the great scientist and writer, once said the important thing to forecast is not the automobile, but the parking problem; not the television, but the soap opera. In other words, we need to pay attention to technology’s impact on people. We need to figure out how to use technology effectively and responsibly rather than ban it, and put the onus of responsible technology use on the users: teachers, students, and parents. I think that works for cell phones, MySpace, and the like. I still don’t think it works for guns, but I’m now giving it a second thought.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.