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The case for smartphones in the classroom

There is a spirited debate taking place about the role digital media should have in our nation’s schools. The pro digital media lobby points out that an overwhelming majority of high school kids are already engaged with digital media in the form of social networking sites, video games, and the mobile web. Why not use that engagement as a teaching opportunity, and welcome smartphones and other Internet-enabled devices into our classrooms as educational tools?

Some proponents of harnessing this access to digital media do so for practical reasons. The students are bringing their devices to school anyway, and the level of sophistication of the average smartphone is often superior to the school-based computers. That’s if the computers are available in the first place; in too many schools, it’s a case of sharing one among many.

Others argue purely on the educational benefits. These could be particularly important in low-performing schools or poor urban areas, where traditional teaching methods fail to capture the imagination of the students. If nothing else, the argument goes, digital media can help form a bond between resistant students and reluctant educators.

University of Texas professor and author Craig Watkins and a colleague recently conducted an experiment where they introduced mobile gaming apps to a class of ninth and tenth grade boys. Here was the reaction:

“Immediately, the energy level in the room went up and the emotional intensity increased. The boys were animated, smiling, laughing, and talking together. Teams consulted on the best answer to each question, and then either celebrated their correct response or commiserated after their incorrect answers.”

Other commentators are not so sure. They say that encouraging students to bring their own equipment to school could widen the “digital divide” – not everyone has a cell phone and not everyone’s cell phone has the same capabilities. Incorporating student-owned devices into the curriculum could generate an unhealthy mix of “haves” and “have-nots.”

But above all, those opposed to too much digital media in the classroom argue that it places an unfair burden on the teachers. Many of our most experienced teachers are ill-prepared to adapt their traditional teaching methods for digital media. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the teachers; it’s just a fact of life. Technology is the one area where the vast majority of high school students can be expected to know more about the relevant subject matter than the vast majority of teachers.

We are currently at a crossroads in our educational system and are likely to remain there for quite some time. While schools may no longer fight against Facebook, video games, and the like, most teachers are wary of bringing them any closer than they already are.

Do you think smartphones and the mobile web have a place in our schools? Is your child’s school equipped to embrace all that technology has to offer? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

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