Do cell phones belong in high school classrooms? 

For the past decade, the answer to that question has been an almost unequivocal “no.” Ever since cell phones became teens’ accessory of choice in the late 1990s, teachers and administrators alike have considered them a distraction — their beeping, ringing and pinging pulling students’ attention away from their teachers and interfering with the learning process.  

In the wake of tragedies such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most high schools did begin allowing cell phones on school grounds — a concession to parents anxious that their teens have some means of contacting them during emergencies. But the consensus was that cell phones should remain off and in students’ lockers during the school day.  

Educational aids? 

With the advent of “smart phones,” however, that consensus is beginning to change. In July, “Dumb Phones, Smart Lessons,” an article in the Harvard Education Review, chronicled the educational experiment taking place in one California high school. In Santa Ana’s Valley High, students are encouraged to use their cell phones during class to text questions to their teachers, view interactive material and contribute to classroom discussions.  

The Santa Ana school is just one of a growing number of schools from rural Pennsylvania to Omaha, Neb., who have green-lighted such policies. According to the article, these schools have concluded that smart phones’ expanding capabilities make them, in effect, the cheapest personal computers on the market. And since virtually all students already possess one, schools don’t have to invest scant funds in purchasing them. They can use what the students already own to encourage interactive learning, gauge student comprehension as lectures progress, and even give and grade quizzes.

“Handheld devices like cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and the [iPod] Touch are beginning to offer applications that enhance classroom learning by engaging kids to use tools they are constantly using anyway,” summed up Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association for School Administrators, in an essay he wrote supporting the practice for the association’s magazine last fall. 

Staying connected 

Despite arguments such as those, most U.S. high schools have yet to embrace the idea of cell phones in the classroom. Many, however, are slowly working their way there. One such school is Knoxville Catholic High School, in Knoxville, Tenn. 

Until this fall, Knoxville Catholic, like most Catholic high schools, banned cell phones from classrooms and mandated they could only be used outside school hours. This year, however, they began allowing cell-phone use between classes and during lunch hour. 

Part of the reason, explained principal Dickie Sompayrac, was that “almost half the time, students were using their phones to communicate with their parents, to tell them how they did on their chemistry test or coordinate rides. We decided we didn’t want to discourage communication between parents and kids.” 

Right now, parents (and the school office, which no longer has to field messages between parents and students during the school day) are the main beneficiaries of the policy change. But Sompayrac foresees Knoxville eventually encouraging students and teachers to use the phones for more than just relaying car pool messages. 

“Not many schools can afford to have 25 computers in every classroom,” he said. “But iPhones and BlackBerrys are essentially minicomputers. That opens up a lot of possibilities for teachers.” 

“I think we’ll eventually get to that point,” he continued. “I can see down the road how that could be good.” 

The reason Knoxville isn’t currently pursuing that kind of policy comes down to the difference between theory and reality. In theory, smart phones open up a world of possibilities. In reality, they also open up a world of problems. 

One of the primary problems for Knoxville is cost. 

“We can’t integrate phones into the classroom unless we’re prepared to help students out who don’t have phones,” Sompayrac told OSV.  

Impersonal touch 

There also are other obvious concerns, such as how to prevent students from using their phones to cheat or abusing their phones’ picture-taking abilities. 

Those reasons and more account for why most Catholic high schools aren’t buying into the trend to allow cell phone use in between classes, let alone in classes. 

At Aquinas Academy in Gibsonia, Pa., cell phones are treated the old-fashioned way. They’re expected to remain off and in students’ lockers from the first bell of the day to the last. 

If a student breaks the rule, the phone is confiscated for the remainder of the day. Cell phone use and iPod use are also prohibited (with a few exceptions) during school-sponsored trips. 

Like Knoxville, Aquinas teachers and administrators are concerned about cheating, unrestricted Internet access and inappropriate picture taking. But, according to principal Leslie Mitros, they’re also concerned about students’ social skills. 

“Over the years, we’ve noticed that kids are increasingly forgetting how to talk with one another and have meaningful communication,” she said. “There is an art of verbal communication, and students need to interact with one another face to face — not through an artificial medium — to learn it.” 

Similar concerns explain why St. Joseph Catholic High School in Greenville, S.C., has adopted a policy even stricter than Aquinas Academy’s. A one-time violation of the school’s cell phone policy — which, like Aquinas’, prohibits all use during school hours — costs students their phone for the remainder of the day and earns them an afternoon in detention. A second violation means a week without their phone and additional disciplinary measures. After a third violation, their phone is taken for the remainder of the semester. 

“We want our students to interact with each other and their teachers on a personal level,” said St. Joseph’s Academic Dean Viri Lashley. “Too many rely on technology to communicate. We fear they’re going to forget that they’re human beings, made by God, who need to be there for each other, bodily, as whole persons.”

Teaching self-control

It’s possible, of course, that schools like Aquinas and St. Joseph’s are fighting a losing battle. 

As one Knoxville Catholic teacher, Tammy Walden, admitted: “When they get out of school, from 3:05 for the rest of the day, they’re either on their cell phone or computer. I don’t think it’s going away, so we might as well embrace it and go with it.” 

But Eugene Gan, who teaches multimedia classes at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is the author of the forthcoming book “Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media” (Emmaus Road, $11.95), thinks that’s exactly why schools need to be cautious about allowing cell phones in both their classrooms and halls.  

Although Gan acknowledged that there are some advantages to allowing cell phone use in classrooms, he doesn’t think those advantages outweigh the damage caused by unchecked cell phone use or the potential problems that can arise from their misuse. 

“Technology is good,” Gan stressed. “The Church calls it a gift from God. But, precisely because it is good, we need to learn how to use it wisely.” 

For young people, he continued, learning that lesson involves learning how to “unplug.” And the only place most of them learn that lesson is in school. 

“We want to teach the next generation self-control,” Gan said. “As it stands, the culture is not teaching them how to exercise self-control when it comes to media. Technology is misused and becomes a distraction. If we reject policies which teach them how to unplug and practice contemplation, we’re just setting them up for more abuse and misuse.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Teens and Cell Phones (sidebar)

Despite the ban on cell phones instituted in the majority of U.S. high schools, cell phone use during school hours is actually quite common … and so are the problems that result. 

According to two recent surveys, one by Common Sense Media and the other by Pew Research Center:

70 percent of high school students carry a cell phone 

65 percent of high school students use their phone in school 

69 percent of high schools ban the possession or use of cell phones during school hours  

63 percent of students who attend schools that ban cell phone use, use their phones anyway 

High school students send 440 text messages per week; one-quarter of those are sent during class sessions 

2/3 of all students say their classmates use their cell phones to cheat 

1/3 of all students themselves admit to using their cell phone to cheat