Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thinking Outside the Ban

By George Engel
Cross Posted at Learning with Mobile Technology
Editor’s note: I’m thrilled that my keynote at #TSETC in part inspired this insightful “Thinking Outside the Ban” post by George Engel who I had the pleasure of meeting and attending one of on using cell phones in the classroom. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this post from an educator who exemplifies the idea of “Thinking Outside the Ban.”

I attended the First Annual Tri-State Technology Conference this weekend and heard Lisa Nielsen’s (writer of the Innovative Educator blog) keynote titled “Thinking outside the ban. Well, that got me thinking outside the ban…

Although her focus was on various bans on technology in public education, social networking, for example, I tend to think of the ban of cell phones in the majority of school districts country wide. While I was presenting on the use of mobile technology for student learning, I was asked about using cell phones in schools with an absolute prohibition against using them in the classroom.

I am fortunate enough to live in a district that had banned cell phones until last year when they agreed to allow a pilot program in one of my classes, but many districts are not so forward thinking as Clarkstown Central Schools. Now, they have even opened a conversation into using Twitter as a learning tool. (YES!)

When I began to think about districts with a prohibition against cell phones in the classroom, I began to think about how to get around the ban, without getting the teacher or students in trouble.
The beauty of using cell phones in education is that they are anytime, anywhere learning tools. Educators in districts with restrictive bans need to “think outside the ban” by thinking outside the school. Most of the activities that I have outlined throughout this blog and my workshops can be done outside of the classroom.

Consider or for a moment. Who says these must be only used in the classroom? Why not embed the screens in a blog or wiki and have students respond to questions on them while at home and then discuss the content of the polls the next day?

Why create projects that can be done with mobile technology that must be done in school? We should be using the devices to their fullest potential, outside of the classroom.
If educators really wish to utilize the near ubiquitous mobile device they need to begin thinking about it at its greatest potential and truly use it as a MOBILE device.

One of my greatest desires is to teach students how to be informal learners, because it is in informal learning that students become lifelong learners. Having students complete work “outside the ban” leads them along the informal path and gives them the tools they need to learn on their own.
Being outside the ban is rewarding for both teachers and students. We all are able to grow and learn when do go beyond the borders placed on us by tradition and fear.


  1. When these technologies are banned, it's just fighting a battle that everyone loses anyway. The teacher loses trying to control the ban, the adminstrators lose trying to enforce the ban, and the students lose by not learning the power and usefulness of the technology they have access to.

    On facebook last night I was looking at a video tagged to a former student, shot from one of her friend's cell phones (banned) of a three and a half minute AP English class creative presentation. This student capturing video sat in full view of the door, directly across from the teacher's desk, and I saw one point when he held up a piece of paper to shield his phone from an administrator passing by the doorway.

    The video was really cute, the project didn't have anything bad that anyone needed to worry about posting, but as I watched it, I was thinking a lot about the fact that I wasn't "friends" with the person who had posted the video, or with the student featured in the video, only with a (former)student who happened to be tagged in the video. Who's controlling all the privacy issues now? The student that recorded the video.

    What if there hadn't been a ban and the teacher had been able to allow the students to openly record and post the video in a place where they could enjoy comments and constructive critiques? Wouldn't a lot more learning have taken place? (Not to say that the comments on fb of "lmao" and "awesome" weren't great feedback.)

  2. We complain about not having the budget to get enough computers to use in a classroom. But, then we have to ignore that almost every single student brings their own computer with them to class every day.

    It is done under the cover of safety and protection. However, these same kids use that technology 24/7, when they are not in school. (To be honest, most of them are probably using them 24/7 while they _are_ in school, as well, just hidden.)

    Would it not be better to bring them out in the open during school and teach them how to responsibly use this technology? We are not talking about drugs. We are not talking about an illegal substance with no benefits. We are talking about a perfectly legal device that students use constantly except under the ban of schools.

    Wouldn't it be more responsible of us to teach them how to correctly use the devices, than for us to pretend they don't exist?

  3. I'm in a school with no ban but mobiles are not to be used in class except if they are part of the lesson. Some issues:

    1.Many students don't have smartphones and therefore all the issues of accessing data from a dozen different OS are raised.To be immediately able to upload and edit video is more of a trial that it appears. (and see costs below)

    2.Most students do not use their phones beyond basic comms and video/mp3 access. Don't delude yourself that that they are busting to use them in class.

    3. There is going to be a huge market in educational apps but it's not here yet. Plus unless they are free, who pays. Plus kids are very concious of the cost of calls. So you need wifi access which means a lot of non educational use and pressure on the system. You need to think thru consequences.

    4. Children without phones. Still exist.

    5. Ethic groups ban their children from having phones: girls in particular don't want to draw attention publicly to the fact they do have one (or two)

    So far, having used them, apart from simple photo and filming, they have little other use.Until suitable APPs appear I think this will remain the case.

  4. I'm still on the fence about the 'cell phone in schools' debate. While your article brings to light some good points, I feel like they could still be a nuisance. How do we go about 'regulating' them? I worry about kids sitting in the back row (or even the front) and texting their friends about weekend plans or playing games rather than using them for educational benefit. I know that cell phones are banned in some locker rooms because people were taking inappropriate pictures and sending them to all their friends. And there is always the issue of theft, or kids whose families cant afford them...

    Also, what age is it appropriate to allow children to use them in class?

    It will take a lot of trust and responsibility in the students to see this implemented properly. I'm curious to see where the future will lead this discussion.

  5. @Xerif,

    Thank you for your feedback and arguments against the use of phones until they all have apps. You provide a great opportunity to dispel some myths around each of your points. Below are responses to that address your concerns.

    1) Just because all students don’t have the same technology doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow them to use and/or share what they do have. It can also be supplimented with tech a school or other students have. For instance in your video example, many students/teachers have digital cameras or laptops with video capabilities.
    2) We’re not deluding ourselves that students are busting to use them in class anymore than they’re busting to use pencil/paper, but with either if we provide engaging and relevant activities with the tools available to students everyone wins.
    3) I’m writing an entire books worth of activities that are available for free to anyone who has a texting plan. No paid apps required. You can read my blog for tons of ideas in the meantime.
    4) Yes, children without phones exist as do children without computers or internet, however, we don’t need a 1 to 1 ratio to harness the power of the devices that are available in 94% of American households. For those without access, we figure out accommodations which is a heck of a lot easier to do then when I began teaching and only a small fraction had access to the internet. I still incorporated technology that allowed for global connections and access to information. We wouldn’t stop teaching a class if everyone didn’t have a textbook. We’d have students share, make copies, etc. The same can be done with tech.
    5) You state ethic (or ethnic) groups ban children from having phones and say girls don’t want to draw attention to the fact they have a phone. I’m not sure where you gathered those facts, but since they’re available in most homes, having a phone is not something that stands out and the teachers I know who use them for learning don’t have such issues.

    In summary, there are plenty of free and easy ways to use cell phones and that doesn’t involve using cell phones with apps. This blog will give you lots of ideas to do so.

  6. @stacyast, banning certainly isn’t the answer. Students have always been off-task in class, especially when what they’re learning is not engaging or does not seem relevant. Using technology can combat such issues and help to engage students if its power is properly harnessed. Furthermore, I think the focus in on the wrong thing...the tool rather than the behavior. If a student doodles or passes a note, do we ban paper or pens? No. We address the behavior. Is it easier to teach in an environment that bans everything students use outside of school to communicate and learn? For some yes, but that’s not the point of education is it? The worlds in school need to look like what students encounter outside of school. That means instilling practices of appropriate use, enforcing consequences for misuse, and most importantly helping students harness the power of the technology that is at their fingertips in the real world in which they live.

    You raise concerns about inappropriate use, and, of course students might act inappropriately. However, teaching responsibility is more powerful then providing artificial environments for students. You share that it will take a lot of trust and responsibility in students to implement this properly and you are right! That is exactly what we want to do with students instill an atmosphere of trust and responsibility. When we do you may find students have pretty good ideas for how they may use cell phones appropriately like the teacher in this post discovered

  7. Forget Apps for phones. If you have a web enabled phone, you can access any educational website you want. Study Island, IXL math, Discovery Education, Starfall, wiki's, blogs, you name it. We are going to do a pilot program at my school where every student in 2 classes will get an Android phone with a data plan only. The students will use the phones throughout the school-day and take them home with them. The teacher will be able to assign homework over the phone and assignments will be submitted electronically. Mobile learning devices in classrooms is inevitable. It's is the most cost effective way to achieve 1 to 1 in a school. Most new Smartphones are just as capable as a netbook or laptop.