“Don’t ban cell phones from schools!”

Earlier this month, the National Association of School Governing bodies (NASGB) called for a ban on children using cell phones in South African schools. In support of this, NASGB secretary Matakanye Matakanye, said that cell phones are a “distraction that results in the disintegration of the teaching environment.”

If the 126 comments on the News24 article to date are anything to go by, it seems that most people agree that cell phones should be banned from schools.

Yet in the face of this, some South African schools are bucking the trend by seeing the cell phone as a valuable learning tool.

Enhanced learning

David Millar, principal of Norman Henshilwood High in Cape Town, is one such advocate:

“Cell phones must not be seen as a curse. They must be seen as an opportunity for improved learning and exploration. Banning them defeats the purpose. Yes, they can be used for nefarious purposes. We need to 'legislate' that as much as we can.  My school sees the cell phone as an amazing opportunity for use in the classroom - to enhance teaching and learning.”

The Wi-Fi school

The entire Norman Henshilwood campus is a Wi-Fi hotspot. Millar believes that cell phones should be seen as mobile learning devices and is creating policy around their use in the school. Learners at the school are being encouraged – in a controlled classroom environment – to use their cell phones to research class topics on the web. Millar predicts that in years to come, it will be an expectation for all learners to have a netbook, cell phone or iPad, and that lessons at the school will become “more IT integrated and interactive.”

Schools all over the world seem to be grappling with this issue. When the web was new and unknown territory, fear prompted US schools to create policy that excluded cell phones from classrooms. Increasingly, though, school districts are re-examining their policies of cell phone exclusion and starting to bring cell phones back into the classroom. In his chemistry class at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, for example, Ramsey Musallam is using cell phones for instantaneous testing and polling. Learners submit their answers via a cell phone app and they are available immediately on a whiteboard for the class to see and discuss.

Opportunity knocks (and rings!)

David Millar isn’t the only educational cell phone use advocate in South Africa. Paddy Attwell, Director of Communication at the Western Cape Education Department, says that the Department is exploring the use of mobile technology to support teaching and learning. “Learners in all communities are gaining access increasingly to smart phones which presents exciting opportunities for teaching and learning.  The WCED plans to issue tablets to all principals in the Western Cape this year to [provide] an opportunity for principals to explore the potential of mobile devices for education.”

In a digital world, where our children are “digital natives”, it seems to make little sense to prohibit the use of cell phones in classrooms and ignore the potential of these devices for teaching and learning. Says Paddy Attwell, “Smart phones and tablets are among a wide range of new technologies now available to education. Our challenge is to realise their potential and to ensure that they make a real difference to learner outcomes.”

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What do you think about cell phones in the classroom? Learning tool or distraction?
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