Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why We Need to Think Carefully About Technology in the Classroom

The New York Times has an article up about the latest push for technology in education: the cell phone industry is pushing to put cell phones in classroom, citing research (paid for by Qualcomm) that showed improved learning outcomes in math with the addition of cell phones into the classroom.   The study followed kids in 9th and 10th grade in four N.C. schools in low income neighborhoods.  They were given high-end cell phones with Windows Mobile and "special programs meant to help them with their algebra studies."  

The students also were allowed 900 minutes of talk time and 300 text messages a month to use outside of class. Teachers monitored the messages and reprimanded students if any of the activity violated the school’s standards.

And then from the teacher who administered the program: 
But Ms. Kliewer also said that she spent much of her own time at night, and during weekends and holidays, monitoring the students’ phone use and occasionally disconnecting phones remotely when students broke the rules.
Let me just say that I have serious doubts about the benefits of putting cell phones in the classroom, and think this is a good story that represents the difference between adding technology to classrooms and integrating it.  And, I don't think my own personal time is best spent monitoring text messages and phone use.  When I'm spending personal time outside the classroom working on school-related things, I think it should be about curriculum planning, reading, thinking, learning more, and so on.  

I also don't think research funded by a company that has a vested interest in its outcome is all that convincing.  Certainly, additional research is needed in this, looking at the other variables in the situation (such as teacher knowledge on how to best use them in the classroom), and so on.  

It's unfortunate how politicized education is, from the powerful influence of the textbook lobby and standardized testing companies (Happy coincidence that the big four test producers also happen to be - you guessed it - textbook publishers.) to the influence of the pharmaceutical companies on medical schools.  I hope we can hold off on adding another industry to that list.  At least until there's some more convincing evidence.


  1. Well said, Hillary. I've been in education for many years now, and am committed to the best use of technology in the classroom. I have a very tongue and cheek, slice of life kind of blog which serves to open the walls of my classroom in ways that might shed a bit of light to those who are currently politicizing my job. Yesterday, I jumped on that article in the Times too. I currently sit on a committee that is working to restructure our mission in town with strategies in order to carry it out. Of course, technology, and how service will be delivered into the future is a hot topic. Games and cell phone use came up. I love your thinking about integration vs. add-on. Gadgets should be seamless in their transition, or else they can not be considered best practice designed to further the cause of student learning. Thanks for you thoughts!

  2. Thanks for the kind words Gael. I've been thinking on this more this morning, and I realize my objections from this article stem from a few places - one, I sincerely dislike the influence of lobbying on education, two, the lack of insight into the use of teacher's personal time, and three, the complete absence of discussion on professional development on how to integrate cell phones into the classroom.

    I spent some time looking around the Internet this morning on this topic, and found some really great discussions about ways cell phones can be used as a learning tool. But as with all technology, they have to be used right.

    I try to keep an open mind about all these things, and I think part of my reaction was rather Luddite-ish, stemming from the traditional notion of cell-phones-as -distraction. So I don't dismiss the concept itself of cell phones in the classroom, I just think we need to take a critical eye to exactly how it would all work.

    I've got lots of questions. I'd like to see the original study.

  3. I try to keep my Irish temper at bay each and every time we approach the idea of change in education. It's hard sometimes, though. When you have a passion for teaching, you can't help but take it personally. I do think that we, the educators, much like our counterparts in the health field, have to be careful who we listen to. The bottom line is...you wouldn't want the cafeteria or custodial staff...or even the patient's family to consult on a surgical procedure. While many out there think they know everything about education b/c they were once students. The truth is, we are students of everything we do...every moment, every day, and even in those summer months too! If it makes sense, it has to come from the teachers. We use technology ourselves...so we're not as dumb as we look! Thanks for your response, Hillary. Ironically, we're hometown buds, you know!

  4. And apparently also battling our Irish tempers! Actually, I'm originally from Pittsburgh - but still a small world.

    I just get frustrated when ideas come from on high with little consideration of how they actually work in the classroom. I'm fairly tech-savvy and I had to do a decent amount of research to even begin to understand the uses of cell phones in the classroom - would the introduction come with mandatory (and free, or at least low-cost!) professional development opportunities?

    One of the biggest obstacles for successful tech integration, as I see it, is that it's evolving so quickly, it's a big task to keep up on everything. And the key to integrating it effectively is the knowledge behind it.

  5. I'm a little late checking back here, Hillary, but you are so right all the way!
    I'm sitting on a district committee to re-evaluate our schools' mission. Lots of ideas coming from around the table, with many from the community involved...which is great. But what most come away realizing is that more is not always better, and prudence is still the watchword when it comes to change. You've really added a lot of blogs here, Hillary! I hope you don't mind my stalking around once in a while! We'll have to have a coffee at Starbuck's on Churchill and talk some day! :)

  6. Hey, Hilary, I'm posting my earlier comment here, since it's working for me today:
    From Feb. 17

    Hilary, What a great BLOG! Congratulations. It's really terrific.

    I totally agree with you about his topic. But I have to tell you that I've been in bed for 2 days with the flu and was actually wondering what I will do if I miss another day of school tomorrow. Then I started to fantasize about using my CELL PHONE to listen and give comments on the presentations/performances I'd be missing. Naturally, if we were already set up with the right kind of technology, I could actually teach from my bed.

    Anyway, thought you might get a chuckle out of that.

    When I'm feeling better, I have a very specific question to ask you about students who have trouble keeping journals and what kinds of solutions you might suggest for such folks.

    Best to you!

  7. GFTB, So glad you made it and hope you are feeling better. Can't wait to hear more about that question - what the journals are for and why you think they aren't writing.

    I'm really not opposed to cell phones. I just intensely dislike the cell phone lobby having any real say in it. It's like the pencil lobby putting out a study that says pens are bad for you. Or whatever. And I think they could be used to our advantage (cell phones, not pens) but only if the teacher is knowledgeable about how to do so - and teacher quality and professional development is already a problem, with regards to technology integration in particular, that it's like building an inverse pyramid to just keep stuffing technology in the classroom and expecting it not to fall.

  8. Hi Hilary!
    Re: Journals
    I have strongly suggested to my students that they keep a journal about their practicing. On a couple of occasions, I've had one or two students who have extremely strong negative responses to it. They feel incapable of doing it.

    I guess it just means that we all learn and absorb and keep track of information differently. But this one person said she just couldn't do it physically. She never takes notes. And as a result has failed many classes. I think writing things down just reinforces that she hasn't really absorbed the material and so she doesn't write things down and so the cycle continues. Recently, this student dropped out of a Master's Program. Other issues were part of it, but this was no small one.

    Another student told me she did everything on the computer and broke down into tears at the idea that I would insist that she keep a journal. This student graduated. She's no longer around, but was a real challenge in many different ways.

    Recently, I've asked each student to send me an e-mail letting me know what they accomplished in their lessons. So far, it's worked very well with everyone. Very interesting.....