March 21, 2011

Technology brings positive and negative effects in classroom

Cell phones prove distracting, and hard to police

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

PORTLAND -- Students in Sarah Shmitt's classes take note: If you ignore repeated warnings to stop texting and put away your cell phone, she might toss it in the trash can.

It has happened before. The phone split into pieces. The student was shocked. He put the phone back together and it worked fine, but Shmitt had made her point.

"If they want to get me mad, they know that will do it," said Shmitt, an English and world studies teacher at Portland High School.

Shmitt's frustration reflects the changing atmosphere in schools across the country, where technology is taking hold in ways both positive and negative.

The overall use of technology in Maine classrooms has increased since high schools across the state issued laptop computers to all students last year, building on a middle school laptop program that started in 2002.

Many teachers, like Shmitt, teach lessons using computerized white boards and maintain Internet pages where they post homework assignments and other learning materials.

Students are connecting with an ever-expanding web of information online to get up-to-the-minute data for research papers, take tutorials or courses on special subjects, and form study groups with students who have common interests.

But the greatest contributor to a change in school atmosphere seems to be the proliferation of smartphones among students, giving them constant access to the Web, e-mail, texting and calls from friends and family members.

Teachers, who for centuries have been the center of learning in the classroom, are seeing increasingly distracted students struggle to stay focused and succeed. Some, like Shmitt, are switching up their games to hold students' attention and teach the appropriate use of technology.

That's the proper response, according to media and education experts who believe the benefits of smartphones, other information technology and social media far outweigh the problems they create.

"These are necessary things for learning in the 21st century," said Michael Horn, co-author of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns."

"The golden rule is correct: moderation in everything," Horn said. "And that applies to parents as well. If you're always on the phone when you're with your child, that's not good parenting, either."

While most schools ban or limit phone use on campus and especially in the classroom, many students admit to using cell phones in class. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of teens with cell phones said they had texted in class and 43 percent said they texted in class at least once a day.

The same Pew study found that half of teens send 50 or more text messages per day, or 1,500 per month, and more than one-third of teens send more than 100 texts per day, or 3,000 per month.

Akari Ishii is a Portland High School junior who has sent as many as 8,000 texts in one month. Inevitably, some of that texting happens when she's in class.

"We're so used to doing it all the time, sometimes it happens during class," Ishii said. "Some teachers don't let you do it at all. Others let you do it during down times, when your work is done. It all depends on the teacher."

Ishii and her friends said parents try to limit excessive texting but rarely ban phone use as a form of punishment. In many families, cell phones are tethers that give parents a sense of control.

"My mom wouldn't take my phone away because she likes to be able to reach me wherever I am," said Emily Krauss, also a junior. "I like to have my phone in my hand all the time."

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