I think that there’s no doubt that the increasingly rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICT) is one of the most significant factors driving change in education today. This is evident, not only in the many attempts to find ways to integrate technology in education, but also in the many ways that educational systems battle against technology, ex. banning students’ cell phones and other personal devices. Donald Schön coined a term to describe how systems resist change that I think aptly describes how technology is viewed in educational systems – educational systems are “dynamically conservative” when it comes to technology. Dynamic conservatism describes the way that a system resists change. Schön’s point is that systems do not passively resist change; they don’t just sit back and pretend that the change isn’t happening. They actively resist change, or to use Schön’s words, they “fight like mad to remain the same”. One of the ways they do this is by creating contexts and meanings that minimize the apparent significance of the forces driving change or, in extreme cases, render them absurd. I think that this is exactly what educational systems have done in regards to personal ICT devices, such as cell phones, iPods, etc. Educational systems have singled them out and labeled them “distractive” to avoid having to change to accommodate them. This becomes apparent when we consider how technologies in general are viewed in educational systems compared to how personal ICT devices are viewed.
Any educational environment is full of technology – all sorts of technology. The classroom itself is a technology that was created to facilitate education. Pens, pencils, paper, and books are all technologies. Even the furniture in a classroom is a technology. Any of these technologies has the potential to be distractive to a learner, depending on circumstances, context, and personality. For a learner given to doodling, a pencil and paper can be considerably distractive. A chair can easily become an object of fascination that distracts the learner from what is happening in the classroom. I remember sitting in the back of a classroom in my youth tilting my chair back, trying to find the point at which it would be balanced on only two legs; completely oblivious to anything the teacher was doing.
Despite their potential to be distractive, most technologies are not labeled “distractive” in and of themselves. Rather, we recognize that there are uses of technologies that are potentially distractive, i.e. the distraction is in the way that an individual chooses to use the technology; it is not a property of the technology itself. This has not been the case with many ICTs, in particular personal ICTs popular amongst learners. Technologies like cell phones and iPods have been labeled as distractive in and of themselves. In an NEA Online article published several years ago (seems to be no longer online), instructors were asked about their opinions on learners’ use of cell phones in school. One teacher responded, “[cell phones should] absolutely be banned from school … [they] are nothing but a disruption to class instruction.” This is a very common view – I would even suggest that it is the default view (ex. I googled ‘cell phones school distraction’ and got “about 1,510,000 results”). And, indeed, cell phones are for the most part banned in most schools in the US and many other countries.
Several years ago I wrote a paper on policies regarding ICTs in education at the national, regional and institutional level. At that time, Edison High School in Minneapolis had its policy on students’ personal ICT devices very prominently displayed at the top of its web site, in bold red type (the web site has since been changed):
Students are NOT allowed to use cell phones, IPODs, mp3 players, cameras, CD players and other electronic devices from the time they enter the school building until 3:00 pm.
Here’s what the Student Handbook for South Minneapolis High School has to say about cell phones, citing school district policy:
High School students may possess personal electronic devices at school, or at school events off campus. Unless the device is being appropriately used as outlined below, the student shall secure the personal electronic device either out of sight or holstered and turned off. (pg. 25)
Appropriate uses include things like, before and after the scheduled school day and during lunch. Also, tucked in among the “appropriate” uses that have nothing to do with school, is this one: “During class time when the classroom teacher permits the use for educational purposes only.” How often this happens is anyone’s guess, especially when teachers are inclined to view personal ICTs in the manner expressed by the teacher I cited earlier.
Labeling personal ICTs as distractive is a very practical strategy for dynamically conservative educational systems. It effectively allows them to avoid having to formulate any concise policy or regulations regarding learners’ ICTs: basically, they simply say it’s all banned and that’s it (I actually had an assistant principal once say to me that cyberbullying was not a concern for her school because they have a blanket ban on all student cell phone use). Now, compare that to the typical expanse of rules regarding doodling, passing notes, making paper airplanes, etc. that govern the use of paper in the classroom. It’s obviously far more efficient to simply label a technology distractive, in and of itself, to justify a blanket ban rather than having to think up all the myriad of potentially distractive uses for that technology.
There is a growing body of evidence that youth and adults alike use personal ICTs to engage in all sorts of learning activities. Furthermore, personal ICTs and the modes of communication that they enable have quickly become an integral part of youths’ social and cultural fabric. Without their personal ICTs, they are discluded from a range of social interactions among their peers. Educational systems’ labeling of personal ICTs as “distractive”, in and of themselves, contributes to unsustainable policy solutions. Firstly, many opportunities to engage learners in culturally and contextually relevant, meaningful learning experiences are lost. Secondly, it reinforces the perception that formal educational institutions are losing their relevance in increasingly information- and communication-driven societies. There are some hints of change on the horizon. Some schools and school districts are choosing to allow limited use of personal ICTs in schools but these are still few and far between. It is time (some would say way past time) for educational systems to abandon their dynamic conservatism regarding personal ICTs and shed the “distractive” label that has been stamped on them. Educators need to really start looking at how personal ICTs do, and can, influence learning. If there are potentially distractive uses, those need to be identified and addressed in a reasonable manner. An entire class of technologies should not be dismissed based on a few potentially inappropriate uses.