Students, Teachers Clash Over Internet in the Classroom

PHOTO: Students want to be able to use their personal mobile devices in class, according to a survey out in June 2013.Mie Ahmt/Getty Images
Students want to be able to use their personal mobile devices in class, according to a survey out in June 2013.

American grade-school students say they’ve had enough: They’re frustrated by rules that prevent them from using their own smartphones and tablets at school, and they want schools to stop limiting the use of “timewaster” social sites like Facebook, too.

The use of new mobile web technology in classrooms, from tablets to smartphones, is increasing rapidly. But there are some growing pains. Most students feel they have access to greater technological capability than ever before, but they’re not being allowed to harness it, according to a recent survey of hundreds of thousands of students, parents, teachers and administrators by Project Tomorrow, a California-based nonprofit focused on math and science education.

Past frustrations with slow Internet have dissipated, but they’ve been replaced by students’ frustration at what they consider unnecessary attempts to limit their use of technology.

“This desire by students to use mobile devices and social media tools to self-direct their learning is often thwarted by school policies and other institutional barriers,” Project Tomorrow wrote in a release.

Should a kid whip out his phone during a math test and text a friend the answers? Definitely not. But in a 20-kid classroom with 10 tablets, should a student with a perfectly good smartphone in his backpack be allowed to use it for specific, course-related research?

The kids think so. Consider this: Just 21 percent of the middle and high school teachers surveyed said they assign web-based homework at least once a week, but nearly 70 percent of high school seniors use the internet on a regular basis to complete their homework.

Some reluctance from teachers to rely on mobile technology is understandable; school-issued tablets generally don’t have a Facebook app installed, since that might invite distraction or academic dishonesty in the form of information-swapping.

But the students argue that they occupy a digital world, and that fact isn’t going away. Their future jobs will require them to look at problems and figure out which tools are best suited to solving that problem, they say. They want to use every tool available to learn -- and when it comes to high-tech, they’re incredibly adept at doing so. By sixth grade, a majority of students have a personal smartphone and a personal laptop, according to Project Tomorrow. Many also have tablets.

The survey, however, cites another reason instructors may be hesitant to open the floodgates of web access: The explosion in new classroom technology intimidates some teachers.

“Many education leaders are valiantly trying to determine the new world order in the modern classroom where students can with a few clicks on a mobile device have access to more information and expertise about any possible topic than their teacher or the school library ever will,” the survey states. “This migration to a new world order, what some called a digital conversion of our classrooms, is not for the faint hearted.”

But faint-hearted instructional staffs may just have to gut it out in this brave new world. A teacher who can help guide students as they learn which tools are best for certain problems will probably get further than one who bans the most useful tools outright.

That’s going to take an acknowledgment from school districts and governments that digital is the way forward, and instructors need adequate training. Teachers can’t guide students unless they know what they’re doing -- and while a tablet might be intuitive for a Kindergartner, that’s not always true for someone who started teaching on a whiteboard.

And the fear of distraction is real, but kids have been distracted since the beginning of time. It doesn’t take the pull of Snapchat for a kid to tune out. Notes folded into paper airplanes have been soaring behind teachers’ backs for decades.

The teachers who lead classrooms where notes don’t fly are the ones who engage with students and help them connect with topics in meaningful ways.

Students say that if they’re allowed to use technology in a way that makes learning accessible and fun, and in a way that allows them to customize how they grasp any given topic, they’ll be interested and eager to learn.

It might be time to start listening and help them engage in positive ways with the ever-expanding digital world around them, instead of throwing up firewalls and rules.

What do you think? Should schools be more open to allowing students to use their personal mobile devices in class?