Parents who've fought a valiant battle to keep their cellphone-savvy kids focused on school may soon have to face a new reality in Ontario: classrooms where students are actively encouraged to use the ubiquitous hand-held devices.
Schools should be open to the idea of allowing students to use cellphones in class, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday.
"Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want our students to do is to be well-informed," Mr. McGuinty said. "And it's something that we should be looking at in our schools."
They can be a major distraction, but there is a "right way" to use them in school, he insists.
"If the teacher says, 'Alright, we're all going to go online right now. We're going to access this information right now.' That's different than this gentleman who's completely ignoring me here and doing his own thing," Mr. McGuinty added, gesturing towards a texting cameraman.
The Toronto District School Board - one of the largest in Canada - is considering a rethink of its cellphone ban.
Students are still required to shut off their phones in school, but the board said it's exploring ways to incorporate them in the classroom.
It's part of a broader discussion about what could be considered acceptable use of technology, from laptops to interactive white boards and projectors, said Andre Patterson, the board's co-ordinating principal of information communications technology.
"The parents may not see a place for, particularly, hand-held devices in the classroom," he said.
"But once we do some research and look really deeply into it, we're going to come up with practical ways so that we can communicate to the public and the parents, teachers as well as students what we want to accomplish."
Other schools have stumbled on new ways to stop students from using their phones in class.
Pope John Paul II Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener, Ont., discovered it had created a cellphone dead zone when it installed new windows.
The school was going green and put in windows that provide better insulation, said John Shewchuk, a spokesman for the Waterloo-Catholic District School Board. The windows not only blocked ultraviolet rays, but cellphone and BlackBerry signals too.
It was a "happy coincidence" in their battle to keep kids off their phones, he said.
"They start earlier and earlier and earlier," Mr. Shewchuk said in a recent interview.
"It's really quite remarkable how many elementary school kids are walking around with cellphones now. Of course, with the texting and all that kind of stuff that's going on, they're a definite distraction."
Cellphones, Facebook and Twitter aren't going away, and educators need to figure out a way to deal with them, said Annie Kidder, executive director of the parent-led group People for Education.
"We have a public health nurse who does sex ed in schools and she uses cellphones all the time, because she says cellphones are how kids access information," she said.
"So there's lots of potential there for the use of technology. And the most important thing we can be doing is teaching kids to use it wisely and using it with them, instead of trying to keep them from it."
But in Ontario, where motorists and even ministers around the cabinet table are banned from using the devices, Mr. McGuinty's comments have raised a few eyebrows.
Two years ago, the self-described "education premier" even advised parents to limit their children's use of cellphones over concerns about the long-term effects of kids' exposure to radio frequency waves.
"This sounds like another example of Dalton McGuinty backtracking," sniffed Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.
"He wanted to pull cellphones out of cars and now he wants to allow them in the classrooms. I just don't see any consistency in that thinking."
The premier's comments also had NDP Leader Andrea Horwath scratching her head.
"I have a son and he's distracted enough already," she said.
"When he's in the classroom, he should be learning. He should be focusing and concentrating on his schoolwork. Not texting, not surfing, not doing any of that stuff."
Now that he's deemed them appropriate for elementary students, will Mr. McGuinty relent and allow BlackBerrys back into cabinet meetings?
"You should ask the premier about that," Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said with a laugh.
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