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Advice, Teaching Tech

The Cellular Classroom: A Re-Examination of Media Policies


It is safe to say that as long as there have been cell phones, there have been policies against their use in the classroom. When I began my undergraduate career, cell phones were a few years away from ubiquity and yet I struggle to recall a syllabus that didn’t include a line stating that they were to be kept off and out of reach. When I became a teacher, I took on a rigid approach to “media” use in my classroom without critically examining how I truly felt about students using cell phones in class. It was only after I began teaching English 1010 that I truly confronted the politics and potential of cell phones as a pedagogical tool.

It wasn’t the students, the curriculum or the learning objectives of English 1010 that prompted me to re-think the word “media” in terms of my teaching practices. Rather, it was the atmosphere in which English 1010 is typically taught here at WSU that had me leveling a hefty amount of scrutiny onto my “borrowed” policies. Unlike many English 1020 classrooms, 1010 classrooms do not come equipped with computers and much of the practice that I received before becoming a teacher involved the use of technology and assumed the presence of computers. Oddly enough, I never really thought about a time when I would have to teach my lessons without guaranteed student access to computers in the classroom. I never found myself in a situation to imagine a classroom without technology – I didn’t even confront the Xerox machine for almost two years.  No tangible document or assignment existed in my classroom – everything digital, everything in the cloud. Computers lined the walls of the classroom that ushered me into my teaching career.

When I think back on it now, I wonder why I never imagined nor prepared myself for a time when I wouldn’t be given a computer room for teaching. I knew very well that those rooms were reserved primarily for the intro and intermediate composition classes and I was also aware that I would not be teaching those courses for the entirely of my time at the University – but for some strange reason, I never put the proverbial two and two together.

But this is only a problem insofar as our definition of “technology”  in the classroom is limited to computers. And it’s understandable that we equate classroom technology with computers – in education, computers have been synonymous with technology.  As a result, several questions arise including but not limited to: “are we ok with this?” “What benefits or detriments might occur if we expand our vision of teaching with technology?” “If we expand our view of what ‘teaching with technology’ means, do we risk classroom practices? And if so, is this for the better?”

And it was the desire to expand my own vision of “teaching with technology”  that had me consider encouraging students to use their cell phones to access the internet, post to a class Twitter thread as a writing activity and send text messages to online polling software for instant, anonymous feedback.  Of course there were anxieties about allowing students the use of their cell phones – most notably the concern about classroom distraction. I wondered, “if students are given the freedom, will they exercise restraint and respect?” The answer to that question, in my limited two-semester informal experiment, is yes. I’ve found that not only are cell phones an excellent way to create diverse, engaging writing exercises, but their overt presence in the classroom also provides an opportunity for my freshmen students to learn the degree of responsibility required in a college classroom. For most instructors, the latter opportunity is not much of a concern: after all, we are teachers – not parents. But I would encourage instructors to welcome the idea that “atypical” classroom technologies afford for unique learning experiences that have the potential to stick with our students as they progress throughout their undergraduate career.

Of course people will be nervous and skeptical. Concerns about student and instructor distractions will remain but those very anxieties are the ones that set the stage for the all-important and timely discussion of risk – the risk of placing such a varied technology full of potential into a student’s hands as well as the risk an instructor takes in order to imagine and develop ways to harness cell phone (or “atypical”) technology while simultaneously achieving the goals of the composition classroom.

Amy Metcalf is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at WSU where she researches New Media and Composition history. She has taught ENG 1020 for several semesters and currently teaches ENG 1010.

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