I remember strict dress codes under which girls were not able to show even a seductive hint of their shoulders. It was a world of humorous note passing to alleviate math class boredom, watching VHS tapes of mitosis during biology, learning about Microsoft Excel during computer applications and dancing along to Ciara's "1, 2 Step" at birthday parties. When a boy in my senior psychology class brought his brand new iPod with him to class one afternoon, he was the epitome of modernity. I graduated in 2007.
Although it has not been that long in "real time," the world of mobile technology has rocketed ahead in five short years, leaving many in the education business stumbling to keep up. When I returned to my alma mater just two months ago to chat with high school juniors about the college search process, I was amazed at what greeted me in the halls and classrooms. Everyone had a smart phone whereas I had made it through four years of college without one. They were constantly texting and even playing music in the middle of their teachers' opening addresses. I had to stop and do a double-take when I saw a kid composing music on an iPad outside of the chorus room.
While I realize that my old high school is better off than most and that many of its students' families can afford expensive gadgets, that is beside the point. Yes, the world has advanced technologically, and that's great. There is much to be said about the benefits smart phones and the like bring to our daily lives, from instant access to email to the ability to read up-to-the-minute news. But this isn't an issue of accessibility as much as it is one of respect — for education and educators.
My teachers rarely allowed our attention to waver from what they were saying. In fact, they readily confiscated cell phones and ripped ear buds from heads. Yet after spending a day at LNHS, I had the distinct feeling things had changed.
"The kids are supposed to only use (cell phones) in the halls or at lunch," one Spanish teacher says. "I have noticed that half the time it's the parents who are calling the kids in the middle of class for something ridiculous. I don't approve of texting in class, but now it's so prevalent that unless it's all the time instead of work, I just about have to give up. What happened to not allowing them in the building at all?"
Although her students are allowed to listen to music while doing independent work, the Spanish teacher says she believes social media use is out of control and vividly recalls a day she chose to start an ill-fated conversation with a student about it, which only proved how behind the times she was.
"Right before class started this girl was taking a picture, so I said, 'Are you going to put that up on Facebook right now?' And she says, horrified, 'Oh no! Nobody uses Facebook anymore. We all tweet.'"
Of course, there is some irony in the fact that I got in touch with instructors to ask them about this issue via Facebook, and that they all responded fairly rapidly. I was amused — and must admit somewhat gleeful — when our group Facebook message led to some teachers educating others about the ways in which they are combating the rise of disruptive cell phones in the classroom.
"Cell phone use has no purpose in the classroom," a social studies teacher wrote. "I, along with several other teachers on my hall, will be requiring students to place their cell phones in a holder within my classroom next year. If the phone is away from them, they cannot use it. My fear with the phones is using them to cheat on assignments or the increase of teacher sabotage by recording the teacher and using it (against him or her) out of context."
A history teacher chimed in, "Before the iPhone came out, kids could text without looking at their phones. They had the digits' locations memorized. I knew they were texting but couldn't take the phones away because I couldn't see them. Today, girls either leave their purses — the BIG bag is en vogue — on their desk at an angle, so the teacher can't see the phone or cross their legs and place the phone in their lap and pretend to haphazardly look down at the floor."
The history teacher admits that students receive an ultimatum when she sees a phone. The student can either put it away immediately or have it confiscated. School policy states that on the second offense, a parent must pick up the phone. Yet many parents claim they cannot travel to the school to grab their child's phone, so many administrators wind up returning them to the students anyway.
She has also noticed that those who text constantly almost always perform more poorly on tests than those who pay attention in class, explaining "That's common sense. Brains can't perform two tasks at the same time." A scholarly article published in Teaching of Psychology in 2010 upholds this notion. It speaks of a study conducted on college students who were split into two groups. Both watched a video and were told to take notes on it as its material would appear on their next test. Yet a ringing cell phone disrupted one group's movie experience, and those participants performed significantly worse on the part of the exam that included material covered during the phone interruption.
Maya Cohen writes in Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed? that cell phones allow kids to be in touch with their parents in the event of an emergency. Yet she also argues that ring tones and text message alerts can prove highly disruptive during lectures if students forget to silence their phones. Plus, cell phones can be key tools in effective cheating and cyber bullying.
According to David Raths in Revisiting Cell Phone Bans in Schools, 24 percent of K-12 schools in the U.S. ban cell phones altogether, and 62 percent allow phones on their grounds but ban them in the classroom. Nevertheless, organizations are eager to explore the market for mobile educational technology. PBS and the International Society for Technology in Education have created many educational apps geared toward students, while the Princeton Review and Kaplan now offer text-based test preparation for the SAT.
The very recent decision of public schools in Montgomery, Ala., to allow cell phone use in the classroom sparked a debate of its own. Some argue that teachers can walk up and down desk aisles to monitor what their students are searching for online. An English professor at Davidson College, however, made the point that bringing devices such as the iPad, which allow users to flow between Google, a Pages document, Facebook and online shopping with the sweep of a finger, to class would make it incredibly challenging for educators to monitor their usage for academic purposes.
Greg Graham argues in Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention that New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the right idea when he instituted a cell phone ban in 2007 for the city's public school system. He writes that today's teenagers cannot remember a time when we weren't so wired, when life didn't move as quickly and accessing information took longer.
He laments kids sleeping with cell phones beneath their pillows so that the buzzing of incoming messages will startle them from slumber. Neurological research is now confirming that we think and perform best when what we are focusing on has our undivided attention. That means that texting and listening to the teacher discuss the causes of the Civil War is not the best way to ace the next exam.
As Michael Waterson write in The Techno-Brain, there is now little doubt that our love affair with technology is rewiring the very structure of our brains. Mobile devices constantly pinging and buzzing are cultivating a new ability to be drawn to distractions and an inability to switch tasks with ease.
Yet there is still hope for academic America. Students can be trained in the art of "single-tasking" if, as Dr. Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning says, "a classroom (becomes) a room for sharing ideas, a space for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside."
No doubt high school students can belt out the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen's summer smash-hit "Call Me Maybe" or argue about the benefits and drawbacks of Twitter if you give them the opportunity. But whether or not they are allowing themselves unlimited and uninterrupted access to a solid — not to mention free — education is much more difficult to measure now that the rules of communication have changed.
— Lake Norman High School and Davidson College graduate Lauren Odomorik is an intern with the Lake Norman Citizen.