Schools ring the changes

23:44, Jun 12 2010
Shelley Pretorius and Marion Gilroy of Howick College with a range of digital devices.

Cellphone use is so prevalent among teenagers that it would be stupid not to use the devices to engage them in school, a teaching expert says.

But schools are also aware that the technology comes with a downside – bullying.

Students at Auckland's Howick College are already using cellphones in class to store lessons, and digital devices are expected to become the equivalent of pens and paper in schools within five years as education technology advances.

But up to 80% of teenagers have experienced cyber bullying, or text bullying, by age 15, says a psychology student who wrote a thesis on text bullying.

James Sanderson, who graduated with a masters in psychology from Massey University last year, surveyed 209 girls aged 13-14 and found that cellphones were a symbol of social status.

But bullying via cellphones required very little technical skill, and it was harder to detect than cyber-bullying. Adolescent victims were also reluctant to let anyone read their text messages.


Sanderson's research indicated that bullies usually came from the same social group as the victim, although the offender's identity was often unknown.

Text attacks were also tailored to the individual, but the common themes were body shape, sexuality, demeanour and dress style.

"Given that adolescents tend to keep their cellphones with them all the time, this also increases the bully's level of access to the victim," Sanderson wrote.

Professor Noeline Wright, of Waikato University, who is also assessing the cellphone pilot programme at Howick College, says schools need to be extremely vigilant to prevent bullying, theft, and inappropriate texting.

"There need to be really good procedures in a school for managing these."

However, she encouraged the use of digital devices, "or Swiss Army communication knives", to prevent schools becoming "islands" of pen and paper use.

"It seems draconian to keep tapping into 20th century technology if 21st century technology seems to work with these kids," she says.

Psycholinguistics expert David Whitehead of Waikato University says teens were so familiar with digital devices that their brains were hard-wired differently to those of older generations.

"In the past, a lot of learning was repetitive and sequential and we were given the material and we learnt it.

"Now we encourage students to take huge risks in learning."

This aligned well with the use of digital devices, Whitehead says.

The Howick pilot was already showing encouraging results, Wright says. Students could store a classroom lesson on their phone, offering them the flexibility to watch it anywhere, any time, without the internet. Results had improved and student engagement was increasing.

Howick College teacher Nathan Kerr says no problems over cellphone use have emerged so far.

The school has guidelines that ban students from having their cellphones switched on unless they had teacher approval.

They were also banned from texting without permission, and possessing harassing or upsetting texts or images on their phones.

Waikato University is next month holding an "mLearning" workshop for teachers, showing them how to use cellphones in the classroom.

Sunday Star Times