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Elementary teachers shun smartphone use

Richmond Hill Liberal by Kim Zarzour (with commentary by IO Grad Barb Payne) 21 August 2013

A push by Ontario’s public elementary teachers to keep student cellphones switched off and stored away during school is getting mixed reviews by parents, students and educators.

Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario voted at its annual meeting last week for restrictions on use of digital devices on school property with a requirement that they only be allowed with direct authorization by staff.

The union also opposed unauthorized electronic or digital recording of its members.

Both public and Catholic school board spokespeople in York said the resolution matches what is already happening in York Region.

“Teachers use professional judgment in determining when mobile devices are appropriate tools in the classroom,” said Todd Wright, curriculum administrator ICT with the public board.

While student texting can be problematic and may be happening “under the radar”, in an increasingly multi-tasking world and evolving 21st century learning, its classroom use is a learning process, he said.

Meantime, he said, students may be able to use their phones between classes, at lunch and before and after school, and in classrooms with teachers who use the devices as part of their lessons.

Royan Lee, Richmond Hill teacher and technology integration leader with the public board, has allowed handheld devices in his classroom for several years, making use of educational apps and cloud services, and, because it’s embedded in the classroom, students use the devices appropriately.

“Because it’s a relatively new concept, we tend to put it under the magnifying glass. It’s a bit of a double standard. Potentially everything is a distraction … even a novelty pencil sharpener.”

Michael Nasello, with York Catholic school board, said the use of handheld devices in school is allowed with teacher supervision, “just as we wouldn’t let students go off and use the computer without teacher permission”.

Andrew Campbell, a teacher and blogger about 21st century learning, suggested the union’s resolution has more to do with workplace safety.

There are lots of examples of teachers being “punked” by students, he said, and situations where students have videotaped staff members without permission and posted online, damaging teachers’ reputations.

“We know that kids with electronic devices in their hands sometimes make bad decisions,” he said. “Cyberstalking and sexting top parents’ nightmare list. Sometimes those bad decisions affect people who are working in schools and there needs to be structures in place to protect them.”

Students interviewed at Canada’s Wonderland agreed there should be rules, but many also believe cellphones should be allowed.

Grade 11 student Matteo Caprio said cheating and “vigorously texting” can be a problem, but a quick glance at texts should be permitted and cellphones are essential for emergencies.

He learned that firsthand when his grandmother suffered a cardiac arrest and he was not allowed to use his phone to contact her.

James Hack believes smartphones have other benefits.

“If you have a test next period, you can ask your friend what’s on it. Or if you’re done an assignment or test and are waiting, you could go on it.”

Isabella Carelli, in Grade 12 at St. Elizabeth Catholic in Thornhill, said she has texted in class and her teacher has used a smartphone, too, because she has a six-year-old child with health issues. But generally, they are a distraction and “a lot of students cheat and don’t use [their devices] the way they’re supposed to”.

Sharnae Lingham, a Grade 12 student in Stouffville suggested cellphones be reserved for outside school.

“There’s a time for work and a time for play.”

That’s the attitude Thornhill student Rachel Rueda experienced in Spain, where she participated in an exchange program.

Students who are caught with a cellphone in Spanish schools must leave it in the office overnight and can only get it back with a “lecture” and visit by their parents to the school, she said.

It was difficult for her, she said, because she needed her phone to help translate and she believes devices should be allowed for students with similar special requirements,

A second motion by the teachers union demands that school boards stop hiding Wi-Fi transmitters in the ceiling and label them as part of a hazard control program.

The World Health Organization has declared wireless radiation from cellphones and WiFi to be a possible carcinogen.

The teachers’ resolution was applauded by the Citizens for Safe Technology representative Barb Payne.

Concerns about distraction, “digital dementia” and Wi-Fi health effects are growing, she said.

There is a place for technology in school, said Malini Menon, with a parents group fighting Wi-Fi in schools, but “there are potentially serious health risks associated with short and long-term exposure to microwave radiation and this invisible substance needs to be treated as a workplace/schoolplace hazard. It should certainly not be forced on students or teachers without their informed consent.”

Public school board spokesperson Licinio Miguelo said Wi-Fi is ubiquitous throughout the system, but studies show emissions are well within Health Canada regulations.

Almost all schools have Wi-Fi in the Catholic system, too, said Mr. Nasello.

In the past, the terminals were hidden because they were subject to vandalism, but now that antennas are embedded in the units, they are within view. They are not labelled as a workplace hazard, he said, because there is no evidence that they are hazardous.

Student Rachel Rueda is OK with that.

“If you’re going to be paranoid over that, you could be paranoid over everything … It doesn’t make sense to me. There’s so much more to worry about.”