Please Turn on Your Cell Phone
Mobile devices aren’t distractions in schools; they’re machines for learning.
It might surprise you to learn that students from New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods arrive at school each day with personal computers. The problem is that they deposit these powerful learning tools at the nearby bodega — where they’re held like a coat check service for a dollar a day — because their personal computers are cell phones, and they are banned by New York City’s school chancellor, Joel Klein. Many students will circumvent the ban by blind-texting from their backpacks or from the bathroom. But it’s not that simple for those who have to pass through metal detectors and scanners to gain entry into the school building each day.
The rationale for the cell phone ban will not surprise you: critics claim the phones are distracting, can be used to cheat and add no educational value. In a speech to the National Urban League, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “You come to school to learn, not to play games or send text messages.” Apparently, his words were aimed at students and administrators alike; last month, text-messaging service on all Department of Education issued devices was disabled. Only weeks earlier, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, came out in support of cell phone use saying, “Finding ways to use cell phones to deliver lesson plans to students would improve education and meet federal guidelines.”
Once again the battle rages between technophobes and technophiles. Read the comments to her article. I remember vaguely my school days when in education (that is amongst my teachers) the battle raged about students using ball point pens instead of fountain pens, and earlier, using a fountain pen instead of a dip pen and an ink well. They were machines for learning as well.
The prime argument against cell phones in school is distraction. But that is not something new. I used to goof off for hours in class, playing battleship with pen and paper with my class mates, writing love letters, or reading comic books under the table.
Let them text or hide behind their Facebook screens. I’m happy that they attend my class at all, and quite often they all look up, drop their distractions and we have some cool discussions about some video clip that I show them about a particular topic. It’s my delivery that counts.
But presumably the issues run much deeper. Apart from the student’s Karma running over the teacher’s Dogma we as educators tend to forget one of our prime justifications for our educational existence, namely to discipline. Remember Foucault:
Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons ? (Foucault 1975)
So it may be about the fear of loosing control in the classroom. But, apologies for being sarcastic, we don’t need Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon anymore. We have the iphones and ipads in class, surely allowing any interested party to not only identify location via GPS but also monitor their subversive and not so subversive thoughts as they drill themselves through SMS connections and web URLs.
But there are more interesting considerations.
Contrary to McLuhan, and more in line with Friedrich Kittler, it may be legitimate to see ourselves as extensions of technologies instead of technologies being extensions of ourselves. You don’t need a chip implant to get inside into someone’s head. The Vatican knew that when in 1622 A.D. Pope Gregor IV set up the congregatio de propaganda fidei, the Vatican’s spin doctors (Kittler, Optical Media, 2010, p.76). He was quite ahead of his time.
Kittler quotes McLuhan in his book “Optical Media” on page 29:
McLuhan went so far as to write that under audiovisual conditions our eyes, ears, hands, etc. no longer belong to the bodies they are associated with at all, let alone to the subjects that figure in philosophical theory as the narrators of the afore-mentioned bodies, but rather to the television companies they are connected to.
Replace television companies with the media industrial complex (pun intended!) and you can see that the issue is not the cell phone at all but our understanding of the role of media in society, or as Morpheus in the Matrix would put it, it’s the machine, stupid, turning us into batteries. And here it takes a lot of guts from educators to unplug their students. This of course is impossible. But it may also not be necessary, because the better students learn how to handle the new media, whether in class or outside of classrooms, the better they will learn how to poke holes into the fabric of media reality. The “(wiki) leaks” are (still) easy to find, yet the censors of the inquisition are not sleeping.
P.S. Zéro de conduite (English: Zero for Conduct) is a 1933 film by French film director Jean Vigo. It was first shown on April 7, 1933, and was subsequently banned in France until February 15, 1946. Sarkozy you haven’t got a chance.