Earlier this year I was sitting in on an economics class at an innovative high school in the Bronx. Students were working with their teacher to define core concepts in a capitalist system. Private property, economic justice, profit motive and … competition.
“What’s an example of competition that we’ve seen here in the neighborhood,” the teacher asked.
After some guessing the chorus went up. “The bodegas!”
Turns out a few years ago a price war erupted among local bodegas. Not over how much they were charging for a PowerAde or a bag of chips. This was a price war about phones.
When the school banned the possession of cell phones on campus, the surrounding bodegas started charging students $.50 a day to stash their phones. Competition eventually drove the price down to $.25, which is what kids pay today for the privilege of not bringing their phones to school.
The bodegas score points here for innovative business practice, and the teacher for latching onto an economics lesson that is so personally relevant to her students. It’s the students though who are losing. And much more than $.25 a day. They’re losing access to a powerful, free (to the school anyway), and engaging learning tool.
Don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate, important reasons to be cautious about integrating phones in schools. I can’t begin to imagine the challenge that building leaders and educators face trying to design a set of rules that will keep students safe and on-task. Phones can be distracting. Worse, they can be damaging or even deadly if turned into cyber-bullying weapons.
Many schools have taken up these challenges, though, and are – on large and small scale – finding ways to support kids using their phones to learn, collaborate, document and share.
Take this economics class. For kids facing a steep uphill climb to an affordable postsecondary education, learning how to use a phone-based personal finance tool – one that builds from a student’s actual earnings, spending, savings and goals – could be life changing [Econ Ed Live!, Mint Personal Finance]. There’s also free access to stock trading and simulation games [Stock Wars, iTrade, Tap Tap Trader], study aid and flashcard apps [Flashcards+, gFLASH+, Economics AP Free], business simulation games [Coffee Shop, Lemonade Stand, Rags to Riches], and grade-level-appropriate economics quiz games – including ones that will test your ability to define competition [Financial Football, Economics Review, Economics Study Aid and Quiz].
When drawn into other subject areas, students can tweet or backchannel into class discussions ensuring that all voices are active and heard, capture images from a compound microscope to illustrate study notes or a lab report, or … my husband’s personal favorite … take video of a spectacular explosion in chemistry class to enjoy with students (ahem, I mean analyze) over, and over, and over again.
I don’t ever check my phone at the door in the course of my working day. I use it – as I do all of the technology to which I have access – to facilitate my productivity, my curiosity, my professional collaboration, and my progress.
Schools across the country are turning over every funding stone they can find to help give learners more access to technology in the course of their school day. I think it’s up to us to figure out how to make better use of the technology that’s already in their hands.
I’ll keep my $.25 cents, thanks. And my phone.
Lauren A. Curry has been the executive director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.