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Cellphones in schools? There's an app for that Add to ...

The buzz around Dalton McGuinty these days is electronic. The Ontario Premier set off a heated national debate this week with comments that seemed to support the presence of cellphones in classrooms. And yet he was simply acknowledging the inevitable. One day, every student may very likely carry a smart phone to class.

Asked for his comments on the Toronto District School Board's plans to rethink a policy that restricts cellphones to lockers during the school day, Mr. McGuinty observed that there is a "right way and a wrong way" to use technology in schools. "Telephones and BlackBerrys … are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want our students to be is to be well-informed." To paraphrase the Premier: Given the ubiquity of wireless technology, we might as well figure out how to use it effectively in schools.

Reaction to this reasonable position has been strong. One newspaper equated relaxation of the ban with permitting a "classroom role for cigarettes and sharp objects." While cellphones do present a potential distraction during class time that must be dealt with (text messaging friends, making social plans, etc.), hand-held wireless devices have already established an important role in schools across the country. Trying to reverse this trend would make about as much sense as trying to ban calculators from science class.

Clickers - small portable devices that allow students to answer in-class quizzes - became a fixture in universities about four years ago. This technology is now filtering down to secondary and elementary schools with considerable success, as laptops once did.

And it will likely occur again with smart phones. Last year, Wilfrid Laurier University's School of Business and Economics became the first institution in the country to provide all incoming MBA students with BlackBerrys. The devices have since become an integral part of the pedagogical process, with lectures and other teaching material beamed directly to students. It may only be a matter of time before this practice receives widespread acceptance at other universities - and eventually migrates down to senior grades in public schools as well.

While the dynamic of a teacher who teaches and students who learn has not changed over the centuries, the supporting role played by technology is always evolving. Today's students aren't frightened by the presence of technology in the classroom; everyone else should remain calm as well.

As with all innovations, there will inevitably be growing pains. In this case we must be mindful to keep the teacher at the centre of students' attention. But we need not ban cellphones outright or ignore technological progress to achieve this. As Mr. McGuinty observes, we simply need to find "the right way" to use technology in the classroom.

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