Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of spending some time in a 9th English classroom again, this time with a group of students from an under achieving, 3,000 pupil high school in midtown Manhattan. Ostensibly, I was there as a tag team with Alan November talking to city technology liasons and support teachers about the changes and challenges we’re facing, so while Alan spoke, I visited kids and vice versa. (I UStreamed the last 20 minutes or so of a Q & A that we did at the end of the day. Not great in terms of audio an video, but some good Alan rants.)
Anyway, the kids were the highlight. We talked about the technologies they used, how they used it, and what they might use it for, and the conversation was fairly predictable. Many of them had a decent Internet connection at home, but many had none. Despite that, they guessed almost 90% of the school had MySpace pages, that they went there every day, that they used it to communicate and get information about homework, and that, of course, it was blocked in school. (MySpace is blocked in NYC schools to everyone, even administrators. Ironically, up until a phone call was made on my behalf yesterday, this blog was also being blocked as a “social networking” site. Oy.) Surprisingly, (or maybe not so surprisingly) they seemed amazed at the idea that their sites would be looked at by employers or by colleges, and they seemed never to have thought about the idea that they would be Googled by their future mates. (And that they would be doing some Googling as well.) Now that was a moment.
Almost all of them had cell phones as well, phones which are banned in school. (The policy is that if you are caught with a cell phone in school, it’s taken away and it can only be returned to a parent who comes to pick it up on a Friday.) I hooked most of them when I took out my phone and had them ask me a question that they thought I wouldn’t know, which after a few more colorful attempts ended up being “What’s the population of Spain?” They watched as I sent a text message “Spain population” to 46645 (GOOGL) and get the answer back about 10 seconds later. Amazement ensued.
I told them I was a cell phone is schools advocate, and we talked about what they might say in making a case for a policy change. (The teacher was very ok with this, btw.) Since many of these kids commuted from over 30 minutes away by subway each day, almost to a person they said they needed their phones in case of an emergency. But when I nudged them past the safety issue, they talked about using the phone to make movies, to do interviews, even to write, (which surprised me until I learned Sidekicks were all the rage.) And, now, they said, for research. We talked about the “appropriate behavior” piece of this, that, just like with MySpace, there is an appropriateness issue here, that they would have some real responsibility on their shoulders should the phones ever be allowed. By and large, I was impressed by the way they made the case.
But here was the moment that floored me. Obviously, these kids don’t leave their cell phones at home. They are too important as a communications tool for safety’s sake and for social connections. Yet they can’t get these phones through the airport like scanners at the front of the building. So what do they do? Seems a little cottage industry as sprung up at the delis and bodegas around the school so that kids can check their phones in for the day at $3 a pop. They get a ticket, just like a coat check, on their way into school, and they pick it up on the way out.
So, the cell phone ban not only denies students the opportunity to use the device in all sorts of ways that are relevant to learning, it also costs them real money. Start doing some math, and it’s not hard to get to the answer that this high school’s kids are out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to check their phones. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.
To me, this is the vision thing again. In a school where there are about 300 computers for 3,000 students, doesn’t it make more sense to get creative about not only how we might use phones in the classroom but teach phones and phone use in the curriculum? I mean, are the economies worth working toward a solution of the “disruption” problem? And I’m sorry, but I just believe that if we show kids from an early age the appropriate and effective use of the technology, if we make it a valuable and necessary part of the way they do their school business, the widespread disruptions will abate.
End of rant. (Doing a lot of that lately.)
I do want to end this on a positive note. I started a UStream show with them, and thanks to Twitter, within a few minutes had about 20 folks from around the world (Canada, Romania, across America). They were blown away. I asked them what they thought they could do with UStream for themselves, and immediately they were talking about cooking shows, news broadcasts, and much more. They. Were. Engaged.