Take off Your Jacket and Sit Back Down

A recent CBC news story regarding the stance taken by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) on the issue of Wi-Fi access and cellphone usage reminds me of the wise but subtle action taken by a colleague, around twenty years ago.

First, a synopsis of the story: the ETFO has voted to ban the use of cellphones and other mobiles in classrooms and also wants school-based Wi-Fi to be treated as a potential health hazard. And no, I got the story from the CBC not The Onion.

Next, the story of my colleague who was, at the time, a senior official with one of our school districts:  owing to declining enrollments, the process related to enacting several school closures was underway. The situation was tense—parents were vehemently against any school closures in their local area. As part of the process school board trustees and district office officials held public meetings. They were, in a word, rancorous with the talking points being based more than anything else, on raw emotion. Feelings ran high. At one particular meeting tension threatened to boil over completely. It was ugly and there were discernible threats of violence in the air.

At one point in the meeting, my colleague, whose overall sense of calmness and rationality was legendary, was clearly starting to be overcome. Everything about the room was hot. He stood; something he never did during meetings and a brief hush fell over the room. What was he about to do? He looked at the crowd, said softly, “I think this would be a good time for me to take my jacket off,” did just that, and then, sat back down.

Upon reading the news story this morning my reaction was a combination of confusion and disbelief. My thoughts:

  • Is this some sort of joke/prank news item? It wasn’t.
  • How does a bargaining unit decide unilaterally on what is really school district policy? The ETFO, after all, is not the employer.
  • How could a group of professionals allow themselves to take such a seemingly wrong-headed course of action? This seemed so backward.

I admit I’m biased. The integration of information, communication and learning technologies (ICLT) has always been a significant part of by job-related duties so my first thoughts went to why this seemed to be an off-base decision. My justifications:

  • Modern mobile devices are already useful tools and are becoming increasingly so. They not only put relevant information right there for the student to read, view or otherwise interact with but also supply the student with powerful tools with which to work with that information. Simply put, they combine just about every educational tool we have ever had (paper, whiteboard, encyclopedia, books of all kinds, film, audio tapes, etc.) into one small affordable package. They offer so much more promise; things we have not even dreamed of yet!
  • They are a part of our young peoples’ everyday lives. Requiring them to be unavailable is the equivalent of telling people of my generation not to speak and surely we have progressed beyond that old nonsense about children being seen and not heard, right? Right… ???

I just finished my 30th year as a practicing k-12 educator in my province and my overall impression of my colleagues has been overwhelmingly positive. As individuals they handle themselves well but, more importantly, the professional organizations to which they belong behave rationally and with good intent. Where was the balance here? Clearly there had to be more to this so I started going through the reasons why the organization may have adopted this stance.

  • Cellphones and Wi-Fi represent a potential health hazard to people in the schools. That was the only significant item stated in the news story. I checked and found that Health Canada, the US CDC and the WHO all seem to be in agreement that, at the moment, there is nothing conclusive that indicates that the type of usage that would occur in classrooms would pose significant health risks. They do, however, caution that further research is necessary as the technology and usage patterns are changing rapidly. The underlying message seems to be that there’s no known critical issue but that we should remain vigilant. I take this to mean that low-power devices such as Wi-Fi access points should be assumed to be relatively safe but higher intensity use such as continued talking on cellphones held to the head should be discouraged. Banning classroom practice does seem somewhat extreme.
  • Mobiles are an unwanted distraction. Recall that these are primary/elementary students. While many are self-disciplined and self-motivated, the majority of them lack the skills and maturity to use the devices effectively. As a result they often disrupt, rather than enhance, the learning environment as students waste time talking and texting on them about off-task topics. One wonders, though, if an outright ban would help matters in this regard. The goal should not be to stop the usage of the devices but, rather, to teach students how to use them effectively as learning tools. How can students be reasonably expected to become effective, disciplined users of ICT if they are forbidden from using it?
  • Mobiles bring unwanted elements in to the class. Cyber-bullying and cheating are prime examples. Once again, though, it has to be admitted that banning the use in class will do little to lessen the overall extent as bullies will still have ample time to do this outside of class and cheaters will always find a way. Granted, a ban would lessen the legal liability for any given teacher if that’s the overall goal, rather than eliminating the problems.
  • Privacy is further reduced. We don’t really want the general public seeing everything that happens in our schools. There are two ways of looking at this:
    • For many students, learning is a risky activity. Mobiles can easily capture anyone’s contribution to any learning activity. We just do not want students sharing video and audio of their classmates’ gaffes with the whole world.
    • Teachers face difficult situations every day in classrooms. Classroom incidents, whether real or orchestrated should not be shared on public locations such as YouTube. The kind of free-for-all that results when audiovisual equipment is used without controls and protocols will ruin lives and careers. I know what you’re thinking: “but with a cellphone I can gather evidence of how the teacher is being mean/abusive to my child. You will not stop me!” Here’s some advice: call the principal, school district CEO or the police if you have those kinds of issues.

So, at the end of all of this, where am I?

I’m back with the jacket. When my colleague calmly stood up, removed the jacket, and sat back down a signal was sent to the whole room that a very difficult issue was being dealt with in a respectful fashion. It was not supposed to be easy. The process required accurate information, valid modes of thought and clear focus on the real goal—namely effective education. The strategy more-or-less worked. The room did settle down somewhat and the discourse became more civil. While simple, easy solutions were not found, good ones were, but only after much thought and constructive debate.

Perhaps that’s the best advice here. Take your collective jackets off, sit back down and reconsider what it is we’re all about.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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24 Responses to Take off Your Jacket and Sit Back Down

  1. Mjollnir says:

    Thought provoking stuff Maurice but I must confess I don’t have enough knowledge of the educational environment anymore to make any informed comment. Technology will continue to advance and will be used in as yet unimaginable ways and we must embrace that change but yes, there will always be dangers of abuse with any new technology so a balance must be struck. Good luck with that! 😀

    • Yes, and in the meantime, bans do nothing to help the process. The world will march on and if we do not work with it we will all become increasingly irrelevant! So, the trick is to adopt what works and to locate what does not and steer clear of it or deal with the problems.

      • Mjollnir says:

        Indeed, but I’m glad it’s not my job to decide. Surely you and your colleagues should be consulted as those best placed to advise the decision-makers though?

  2. I am a complete lay(wo)man on this issue, but from where I sit with my jacket on, the decision seems odd, and if I dare to say, a bit backward. I don’t think anything will be won by outright bans…and as you say, modern mobile devices combine educational tools into one small affordable package. Handled reasonably, they should be increasingly useful in education.

  3. Mary says:

    Really enjoyed reading this – working in a school and library I look for guidance with regard to gradually integrating new technologies – sure it would be safe and easy to do an outright blanket ban but perhaps better to experiment a little to see what works and what does not. ( Perhaps certain times and classes – like IT when devices could be accessed. At the same time I see the total time devourer a cell can be – texting , FB etc etc and see where this decision comes from –
    It is an challenging time for all educators indeed !!

    • Yes, integrating the devices well is not as simple as many believe. It is a valid teaching and learning skill that has received too little attention. What I do hear of the flashy interesting applications and/or hardware and how they can be used. What I hear too little about is how you can sanely get this done in a busy multi-stationed classroom and still keep the learning going smoothly despite the awesome distractions. Yes, it’s possible and when done well it’s amazing but we spend too little time on it. This is where the conversation should be: “Here’s how I made ______ work in my classroom.” and not on “WOW!!! Look at that shiny new ____!”

  4. Johnny says:

    Anecdotal evidence only, but university students have told me that laptops, cellphones, etc., in university classrooms are distractions for those who do NOT use them in class. Candy Crush, Facebook, emails, etc. when viewed over a classmate’s shoulder, are eye-catching (and ad-filled) and attention grabbing, so I’m told. I can see that there would be strong feelings about the potential use/abuse of WI-FI and smartphones in elementary classrooms, without a solid plan for use. Blanket provincial acceptance would assume a blanket “solid plan of use” provincial policy, I would think. With individual schools, often, vastly different in their acceptance, and effective integration of technology, I would think that today’s elementary classroom teachers are more challenged than ever before in their ability to compete for the attention and interest of children. How have university professors fared out? Interesting times.

    • Excellent points. Just a few months back I needed to spend some time at the back of several large lecture theatres and had ample opportunity to view many groups of students as they ‘took-in’ different university classes. I observed that the majority (over 60%) of the screens spend significant–if not all–time on non-educational sites. While social networking certainly was a significant distractor, the one that really stood out was SHOPPING. Yes, a large fraction of students do their on line shopping during class 🙂 How’s that for disciplined usage in fairly mature students?
      And, Johnny, please do not get me started about the usage of mobiles by fellow-adults. How many meetings have I totally wasted my time among colleagues who were clearly more focused on their mobiles than they were on the tasks at-hand. What a profoundly frustrating waste of time!

  5. A lesson we should all heed in many of our modern discourses!

  6. Technology is just a tool. Its the content and use of it that matters.

  7. A very measured and rationale response to a seemingly irrational decision. And, you’ve pushed a BUTTON to boot. As a University lecturer I can tell you, from very personal experience, that cell phones in the lecture hall are a very significant distraction indeed – for absolutely everyone. I do not allow students to use them in my lectures … period … if a phone rings in my class, it is agreed that I answer it. But, of course, the larger issue is out there and in need of careful debate. Wi-Fi is a must … especially if we are to compete in a market where nearly all institutions of higher learning have it. And, although I have no experience at either the secondary or elementary level, it seems that it is critical there as well. Regulation of the use of both of these important technologies is the real question – it should not be an issues of prohibition – that’s simply moving backward. D

    • I didn’t put this in but as I see it adverse health effects from Wi-Fi are unlikely. I did a rough calculation and concluded that it would take around 2000 Wi-Fi access points to throw off as much ‘non-ionizing radiation’ as a single standard fluorescent tube 🙂 They are VERY low power emitters. Now cellphones, which generally broadcast with around 20 times the power output of a Wi-Fi access point might be a slightly different case as they are normally used held tight to the head. Even then, at only around 0.1 W output you’d have to have the thing glued to your ear for hours at a time, and over many years.
      That said, inappropriately used (and they usually are), they are very much a disrupter to the learning process. As I see it the real issue is in getting people to drop the annoying, inefficient habits and to learn to use the mobile devices skillfully and in a disciplined fashion.

      • elkement says:

        I like this calculation… I would tackle the issue in the same way. People want to ban anything emitting some sort of radiation that seems to be somewhat mysterious – EM radiation emitted by utility poles (or smart meters) or infrasound emitted by wind turbines… in stark contrast to the radiation and fields they expose themselves voluntarily every day.
        In particular I am baffled by people who fight mobile communications base stations but are annoyed if they don’t get a good signal anywhere in the desert or whose consumption of electricity is increasing every year but who want to be bothered by the respective power plants (or who are terrified by infrasound emitted by wind turbines but ignore the impacts of burning oil or gas). You have pushed a button with your post, Maurice 🙂

        It strikes me odd that health arguments are used together with the distraction argument… if you don’t have any single convincing argument you collect a bunch of unrelated arguments.

        • Elke you are right on all levels. The EM radiation from Wi-Fi is just so…tiny. There’s really no argument there at all.
          On a side-note regarding the wind turbines, earlier this year there was some information from Australia that indicated that it was likely the causes for perceived sicknesses were not physiological in nature at all. A decent new story around that is here:
          And the last this you mentioned is perhaps the most important thing: these arguments are placed out there because there are some real issues that are not being discussed and dealt with. Perhaps everyone would be best served by opening the discussion frankly and with information, not speculation. As I see it right now much of the conversation is very flawed–anecdotes rather than data and opinion rather than fact.

  8. You should have added the numbers … they speak volumes, and more so than any rhetoric could. Don’t you just love the scientific, empirical, approach to things? Also … your last statement is right on the mark … if only students would learn to use all of these technologies wisely. Ah … that statement among all statements … ‘If only.’ D

  9. Dean Cutler says:

    I hate to sound dismissive of the educational ‘system’ that we have (regardless of where we may live), but this cries of yet another example where a decision is being made for the benefit of others and not students. Whether it’s denying the use of technology in the classroom, or insisting on keeping content in the curriculum year after year (the very same content that will only ever be learned once in grade nine or ten and then never again referenced in one’s lifetime), what we are left with is an effort to reject change at all costs, for the benefit of those who drive the system. A simple solution here is to implement standards around wireless device usage.

    And as for the paranoia regarding being video-recorded and placed on YouTube or whatever, bear in mind that for those of us who’ve facilitated adult learners in the non-traditional educational environments (e.g. corporate learning settings), it is not uncommon to have your class video-recorded for the benefit of the facilitator to review their own performance and make adjustments as needed. So too is it common to ask participants for feedback on the sessions and to adjust the curriculum accordingly, and as needed. Hmmm… novel idea I suppose.

    • Hi there Dean, yes, it boils down to a lack of frank and fact-based discussion around the issue. The goal should be for the betterment of education, that is the students and the professionals charged with getting the job done. Open bans and lack of discussion will do nothing to move things along. We do have some concerns and issues and it is my belief that they are all solvable without thrusting us all beck into the 19th century.

  10. seeker says:

    Interesting. So far, I haven’t heard any issue about “intelligent devices” being band. At the school level, the school is actually promoting Readership using e-books and kindles. That means using iPads or whatever gizmo the child or the school has.

  11. Pingback: OTR Links 08/26/2013 | doug --- off the record

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