Still catching students with cellphones in class

It has been about a month since we changed our electronic devices policy at our school but I’m still catching student using their phones in class.

However, I approve of most of the use (as shown below).

Yet, a few students have tried to sneak texting sessions at the wrong time. At first I was disappointed. I thought, “We had an agreement.”

However, I quickly remembered that my students are still getting use to their new found freedoms.

From now on, I plan to give a “gadgets in school” speech every few weeks. Like most rules, we all need reminders from time to time.

My digital textbook wish list

"Principles of Physics" from Kinetic Books

One study suggests that tablets, e-readers, online learning, and pricing are leading a shift that will make one out of five textbooks digital by 2014.

My physics students gave up the old paper books in 2008 when we switch to our new “text” from Kinetic Books. I’ve been quite happy with the product. The new system still provides students with traditional text but it also includes narrated animations, interactive problems, virtual labs and online assessments. Our digital text provides content in a variety of ways by helping each student learn new physics concepts in a style that works best for the individual student.

Even with their multimedia capabilities, digital textbooks have a lot of room to grow. Here are a few things I’d like to see:

  1. A system that starts with an interview of each student. It finds out what the student’s interests are and generates the book’s content around this profile. If the student plays the saxophone, then his unit on waves will feature music. Another student who likes to fish might see ocean waves as the focus of her waves unit.
  2. Open the books up for socializing. The digital books should allow students to see what other students are saying about the material as they move through a unit. Students vote up what they liked and found interesting. A student could highlight parts of her text and leave comments about that section for her teacher, just her friends or study group, her entire class or all the students in the world using the same digital book. No earthquakes in Wisconsin, that’s okay. Your friends in California can give you some perspective.
  3. Allow students to add content. Now your text comes with the stock photo of a hailstone along with the other five that were submitted by students.
  4. Collaboration is a must. Imagine laboratory investigations and projects that allow your students to have partners in another part of the world.
  5. Access the digital book anywhere. The worst thing is five digital books that run on five different platforms. I want a digital textbook that wants to be everywhere- much like magazines that have successfully gone digital. You can get content from Wired magazine via your computer, phone, iPad and TV. Textbooks should offer students the same flexibility.

Right and wrong time to use a cellphone in class

Four out of five teachers know what this student is doing.

Photo from Blaise Alleyne -

After working on a presentation for my students about using mobile devices in school, there are a few things I’ve decided to emphasize when I talk to them at the start of new school year.

  1. Teachers can usually tell when students are sneaking looks at their mobile devices.
  2. When they’re using a mobile device, I’m going to expect students to ask themselves, “Is this really the right time?”
  3. If they have to sneak, it is the wrong time to be using a mobile device in class.

So when is it okay to use mobile devices in class? Simple. Anytime teachers think that it can help students learn.

Mobile devices have quickly become part of our daily life. A quick text message can put sites like Google to work for our students without a trip to the computer lab. More and more students will start the new school year with smart phones that run apps that make text messaging look like a stone tablet when we look at how engaging and functional they are. We need to put these devices to good use.

The trade-off for integrating these tools into the classroom is that we’ll have to teach students when it is and is not appropriate to use mobile devices in class.  I think these lessons are worth it. And who knows, maybe our lessons in restraint will stick with students when they’re at movie theaters, restaurants, dinner tables, or even their own graduation ceremony.

Gadget School: Make Ear Contact

Make Ear Contact

A few weeks ago I went on vacation in New York City. Naturally, I used the subway as my major mode of transportation. There’s an unwritten rule on the subway- no eye contact. I’m not saying New Yorkers are unfriendly but people keep to themselves while in transit by staring off into space or keep their head down in an exhausted stance.

New since my last NYC visit is the increased use of headphones. It looks like the new rule is don’t make ear contact. I suppose it’s good practice if you want a peaceful, uninterrupted commute to your next destination but it’s not a behavior you should employ when interacting with other.

Yet I see more and more students doing this. They’ll come to me before school and try to talk to me with headphones still in their ears. I’ve seen students walking home from school with plugged ears while carrying out a conversation. It’s like telling your friend, “I’m listening to you until my iPod serves up something better.”

We’ll no more. The new Gadget School rule is Make Ear Contact.

Explain to students that it is rude to talk to others with headphones on. When in conversation, they must give others their full attention. Eyes AND ears.

How are college students using Wikipedia?

A recent study took a look at how and why students use Wikipedia. Here’s what they concluded:

Overall, college students use Wikipedia. But, they do so knowing its limitation. They use Wikipedia just as most of us do — because it is a quick way to get started and it has some, but not deep, credibility.

This research suggests that college students are not using Wikipedia as a way out of an assignment but more likely as a way into an assignment.

Why do students use Wikipedia for course–related research?
Why do students use Wikipedia for course–related research?

I would like to see a similar study done at the high school level.

It’s time to teach ‘Gadget School’

It’s not just students, we all need a little Gadget School from time-to-time. I’ve attended several staff meetings where more than one cellphone has been a disruption. (The phones with the most obnoxious Sir Mix-a-Lot inspired ringtones are always at the bottom of the owner’s bag.) Everyone looks at the faux pas with unforgiving disgust until it happens to them. 

Every movie, musical and play starts with a reminder for us to turn off gadgets such as cellphones. I think we should do this in our classrooms too. The gadgets our students carry are not going away. Exclaiming that “they shouldn’t even have them in class” isn’t realistic. We must work with these devices. Schools need to stop the bad technology behavior not the technology. 

Enter Gadget School. If we don’t show students proper gadget etiquette, who will? Just imagine restaurants in the future if we don’t teach tomorrow’s diners that it is not okay to jabber away on your cellphone between the salad and the main course. 

Here are a few simply Gadget School posters to get things start.

Please Silence Your Cellphones

Silencing a cellphone seems like common sense. Or is it? Some students put their phone on vibrate but during a quiz this can still be noisy. Talk to your students. Let them know that you’re trying to ban distractions not devices.

Ask permission to record others

Insist that students ask before they take pictures, record audio or grab a video using their gadget. It’s rude to record others without their knowledge. Students need to learn this or our future will be one giant paparazzi world.

That’s it for Gadget School for now but there will be more to come. Please share your suggests for other Gadget School topics in the comments below.

Students need to learn multi-tasking too

MultitaskingAs we are bombarded with interruptions from cell phone calls, email notifications and instant messaging alerts, we are forced to multi-task. I recently heard this subject discussed on the podcast Quirks and Quarks from the CBC. The show took a scientific, and even playful, look at multi-tasking.

Research has revealed that the average office worker only gets three minutes to focus on a single task before they are interrupted. The research has also shown that multi-tasking allows workers to finish their work in less time and without any affect on the quality. However, these same workers are experiencing higher levels of stress and frustration.

The show also explained that young people may be more successful at multi-tasking since they are getting more practice as they grow up in our digital world. But the researcher worries that people will not be able to think deeply about the work they’re doing.

The show has made me think about some new questions in regards to 21st century learning:

  • If our students will be expected to multi-task when they enter the workforce, how can teachers give them more experience doing this at school?
  • Since multi-tasking is leading to more stress, how can we help student keep their stress levels in check?
  • Should we be concerned about our students’ ability to think deeply about a topic?

When it comes to multi-tasking, I often think we’re giving students too much credit. We hear people describe our students as ‘digital natives’ who just know how to cope in today’s fast-paced and distraction-filled world. Yet, Quirks and Quarks made me question this entire notion. I grew up in a world that has always had cars. Did this make me an ‘automobile native?’ My grandfather was born when the world didn’t have cars. Did this make him an ‘automobile immigrant?’

I think we need to drop these buzzwords and focus on what is certain– new technologies bring new solutions and new problems. Multi-tasking has increased due to new technologies and they have also changed our daily environment. Just because this environment isn’t new to our students doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to live successfully in it.

My experience with an interactive board

Interactive BoardAt the start of the school year I was fortunate to have an Interwrite Board installed in my classroom. The Interwrite Board is an interactive board (IB) that works in concert with an LCD projector. Another well known IB product line is produced by Smart Technologies. Both allow teachers to control a computer by marking on the board. My board uses a pen that doesn’t leave behind real ink but it can allow me to draw, move objects around and control any software on my computer.

Here’s how I’ve been using it so far:

  1. demonstrating software: Teaching science demands the use of software for data collection, data analysis, graphical analysis, and video analysis. The IB has helped students become familiar with new software. They seem to pick up new software much faster once they had a chance to manipulate and control it with the interactive pen.
  2. practice problems go digital: My students in physics often work in small groups to solve and then present assigned problems using a white board and dry erase markers. This process has always had tremendous pedagogical advantages. Now the process has improved even more because I take pictures of their white boards and project them onto the IB for discussion.
    There are several advantages to this process:

    • the white board is bigger
    • the work is saved for continuing the next day, an absent student or review at a later date
    • while the students can annotate their white board in front of class with the interactive pens, I can interact from the back with mine (I also have the AirLiner from Smart Technologies)
  3. Create Podcasts: Work done on the IB can be recorded (audio and video) and posted to the web for further discussion and review. You can see examples of my videos here.

Here are a few reasons I like using the interactive board:

  1. I can look at my audience when using it. In the past, when I needed to demonstrate software for example, I was forced to look at the computer screen. I wasn’t looking where the students were looking. There is a disconnect here that is similar to the one when you are staring at the top of an overhead projector while your students eyes are focused behind you. Now all of us are looking at the same thing.
  2. The ability to save, go back and start over. I save so much time with the IB because I don’t have to erase things. If problem seven brings up new questions in problem one I can pull up question one in a flash. New questions come up? Click new page and off we go. It’s like an endless chalkboard that doesn’t show the faint, half-erased work of the hours before. I still have a chalkboard- over twice the area of the IB. I use this for things I want to keep up long-term, quick calculations for students in lab, and of course the “please see me” notes.
  3. It is a better drawer than me. I use the lines, shapes, clip art and endless colors to drive home our discussions. When I teach vectors, the colored arrows can be copied and slid around to explain things like vector addition. This is a huge time saver and something I never could have done with chalk.
  4. Students are eager to use the interactive board and feel privileged to have it in their classroom. I know that these sensations will probably subside as the technology becomes more commonplace but right now I have students asking to use it. Having students proud of what their school is providing is a good thing.

Those who stutter start calls with Audacity

AudacityA few days ago I saw a woman on television that has cerebral palsy which causes her to have a serious stutter. One thing the program showed was the difficultly those who stutter experience when they are making phone calls. On the show, the woman was trying to call tech support. Unfortunately, the people on the other line kept hanging up on her because they thought her stutter was either a joke or they just didn’t want to take the extra time necessary.

If only she could get an initial introduction out to explain the stutter, maybe the call would be completed. I think Audacity could help here.  With this free and easy audio editing program, callers could record a brief introductory message that would ask the listener for their patience. Using Audacity, the caller can snip out the pauses and then play the message that would start the call.

Abstinence Only? Not for my TV (or computer)

April 23rd marks the start of Turn off TV Week. Children across the nation will be pledging to abstain from viewing television for one week.The project is lead by TV-Turnoff Network, a non-profit organization with the goal of reducing the amount of TV children and adults watch.

Here is how they described themselves at their website:

TV-Turnoff Network is dedicated to the belief that we all have the power to determine the role that television plays in our own lives. Rather than waiting for others to make “better” TV, we can turn it off and reclaim time for our families, our friends, and for ourselves.

The site also provides many pages that vilify TV. Some pages claim TV causes violence, obesity, and ADD in today’s society.

TV-Turnoff Network doesn’t seem to have anything good to say about TV. How can a technology that inspired young scientists during the moon landings, made us laugh with Johnny Carson and helped us grieve during the September 11th attacks be so evil?

Like anything, TV has its problems when it is overused or misused but let’s not forget that it is a remarkable invention. TV is also a great educational tool. Growing up I watched many NOVA specials on PBS with my Dad. (As a matter of fact, there will be a brand new episode during Turn of TV Week.)

TV-Turnoff Network’s approach is all wrong. Simply pressing the off switch is not enough. TV is an important and powerful force in our society. You cannot turn your back on it. You must take it in warts and all. Set limits for children. Know what they’re watching. Know what lessons they’re learning.

TV is no longer the only important screen in our life. The status of computers has been elevated by the Internet. It won’t stop with computers. My new cell phone can display pictures, the Internet, TV shows, movies and more. Media will become ubiquitous. We will need to teach our children how to live in this world. I don’t believe slogans that basically tell you to close your eyes will help.