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.