Hang up and learn

After a week with five teens in the mountains of New Hampshire, I sympathize with the Florida teacher who resorted to a cellphone jammer to block students’ phones in class so they’d pay attention. I thought about tossing a phone or two off a cliff when kids were fixed on their beeping screens rather than the sweeping vistas.

The jammer earned high school teacher Dean Liptak a five-day unpaid suspension. It’s illegal to use a jammer, as the teacher learned after Verizon paid a visit to the school. The jammer blocked communication to the cell tower on the high school campus, and the service provider and school officials said safety was jeopardized.

Lipstak said he resorted to the jammer out of frustration with his inability to get kids to put away their phones and listen. School districts are still grappling with how to deal with smartphones and the distractions they pose. Many schools resist outright bans because parents want their children to carry their phones.

Earlier this year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio fulfilled a campaign promise and lifted a 10-year prohibition on phones in the city’s public schools. Put into effect by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the policy was inconsistently enforced and widely reviled by parents.

In a statement, de Blasio said, “Parents should be able to call or text their kids That’s something (my wife) Chirlane and I felt ourselves when (our daughter) Chiara took the subway to high school in another borough each day, and we know it’s a sentiment parents across this city share.”

A parent on my AJC Get Schooled blog defended phones in schools, writing, “I never text them or call my children during the school day, but I have to know they have them for my own peace of mind. Think of me what you will, but no way will I ever agree with them not having their phones.”

A new study out of Great Britain found mobile phones in classrooms undercut learning among lower-achieving students, concluding, “The results suggest that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones, while high achievers can focus in the classroom regardless of the mobile phone policy. Schools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap by prohibiting mobile phone use in schools. … Schools that restrict access to mobile phones subsequently experience an improvement in test scores. However, these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured.”

The challenge is creating the proper structure and keeping it intact. Once phones are pulled out for an academic exercise in class, kids are apt to text, Google and wander. As one teacher said, “This is so hard. I try it in my classroom, but it’s draining to have to constantly redirect.”

For example, an immediate flaw with the ambitious Los Angeles Unified School District program to equip 650,000 students with iPads was older kids quickly bypassed the safety walls. Within a week of receiving iPads in 2013, more than 300 LA high school students outwitted security locks designed to restrict their access to the web. A 2014 review of the $1.3 billion one-to-one iPad program found 59 percent of downloads to the student devices were non-academic applications.

Those breaches may be why teachers resist classroom technology that requires monitoring.

Still, this generation regards cell phones as essential. A report released last week, "Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter and Message Content on Student Learning," notes 95 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds own mobile phones and send and receive more than 100 texts a day, often while in class. A phone is their world in their hand.

The challenge is linking that world to the wider world of education.