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Dear NYC School Principals: Let Cell Phones Be Used for Learning

Last week, we learned that the New York City Department of Education will be lifting its long-time ban on cell phones in the schools. Kudos to the teams of educators who worked to make this happen!

Much of the reporting on the lifting of the cell phone ban has focused on Mayor de Blasio’s comments on the issue, mainly around fairness and parental access. Many people criticized the ban as unfairly implemented and particularly harsh on students from low-income communities. In these areas, because of metal detectors in use, students needed to store phones outside of school, often paying $1 a day to businesses that cropped up to meet that need. In terms of access, the mayor was not alone in feeling that parents should be able to stay in touch with their kids throughout the day. It’s significant that removing the ban can address the issues of inequity and lack of access. The way the regulations are written, though, it’s up to the principals (with the attendant teacher and parent input) to determine how cell phones are handled once they are officially allowed in the buildings.

From a learning design perspective, the main issue is whether or not lifting the ban will increase opportunities for mobile and personalized learning in the schools. Now that cell phones have made it into the buildings, will they make it out of the lockers and into the classrooms? How will they be used once they get there?

The importance of cellphones as part of the whole BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement correlates to many of the issues we’ve discussed before:

  1. Meeting our children where they live. Our children live in a digital world. While much of their interaction can be considered social, much of that can also be part of the learning process. We need to harness the facility that our kids have developed in communicating with one another and apply that to the learning process. Many of them do this already themselves, and have added their phones to their learning toolbox in ways that can now be incorporated into classroom best practices.

  2. Connecting the world of learning outside the classroom to work inside the classroom. We’ve talked in this space before about going out into the community to learn. With cell phones, students can capture interviews, take pictures, do fact-checking and additional research, and compile data for projects that can continue inside the classroom with the support of their teachers. Then there’s also the ability to expand the students’ network and engage on projects with students in other schools, other neighborhoods. Each student on his/her own device can make such activities more engaging.

  3. Personalizing instruction. Using cellphones inside the classroom, teachers and students can work together to ensure that everyone in the classroom is getting the most out of each day’s material. Whether accessing an existing blended learning program, or doing further research on a classroom topic, students’ access to a cellphone can provide that extra boost that makes learning all the more meaningful on an individual level.

  4. Improved digital citizenship. By officially sanctioning the use of mobile devices in the classroom, teachers can now participate more actively in the modeling and monitoring of our growing digital citizenry. Supporting the safe and appropriate behaviors while the devices are in hand makes much more sense than speaking in the abstract.

  5. Preparation for the workplace. Most jobs today require knowledge of and ability to use online resources effectively. The more we incorporate these tools into the school environment, the better equipped our kids will be to use them effectively on the job.

Perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of this move by the New York City Board of Education is one that we can’t even predict right now. In one of my favorite essays on technology and innovation, Stephen Shapin wrote “ . . . users can acquire knowledge that would never have occurred to the innovators.” Today’s students will find uses for the cellphone as part of the learning process that none of us has thought of just yet. That’s why I think it’s so important to make sure that now that cellphones will be allowed into the schools, they get to stay out of the lockers and in the hands of our learners. New York City has an opportunity to lead the BYOD movement. Let’s do it, folks!

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on how we can partner with you for more impactful learning design. Click here to participate in our Educational State of the State Survey, now open until the end of January.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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