There is little debate that the growing use of smartphones among school students has created a whole new set of challenges for educators looking to keep their classrooms focused on learning. The same mobile gadgets that can be used as instruction and research tools are just as likely to serve as a distraction or a source of conflict when they are confiscated.
Many U.S. schools initially reacted to student cell phone use by banning the devices from classrooms, citing concerns that they could be used to help students cheat on tests as well as engage in cyber bullying and sexting. More recently, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction, with some schools embracing the use of mobile phones as e-readers and convenient ways for students to connect to the Internet. The New York City Department of Education, for example, earlier this year lifted its nine-year-old ban on student cell phone use in public schools.
One Portland, Ore., school is testing an approach that it hopes will minimize digital distractions during class without alienating students whose social lives and identities have become intertwined with their devices. The proposed solution at Sunnyside Environmental School: teachers and students place their phones in a locked pouch that they can carry with them throughout the day. Teachers hold the unlocking mechanism. At the end of the school day, the teacher unlocks the pouches and everyone carries on with their digital lives. Otherwise, they are unable to compulsively check e-mail, text or take photos, unless the teacher gives permission.
San Francisco–based start-up Yondr introduced the pouches last year mostly to music venues looking to get people to unplug during live performances. These spaces issue each concertgoer a Yondr stretchable neoprene case that locks the phone in with a magnetic seal. The case can be opened only if a venue employee activates a special device that emits wireless signal to the lock. “Social etiquette and norms tend to lag behind any new [consumer] technology,” says Yondr founder Graham Dugoni. Rather than trying to slap people on the wrist for being obsessed with their devices, Yondr’s goal is to help people observe better etiquette, he adds.
Sunnyside sustainability coordinator Vinnie Miller saw thepotential for Yondr’s technology at the elementary and middle school, which has an environmental curriculum and an enrollment of about 600 students. “We want to show students that there can be a difference in the way they interact with each other and their teachers when everyone in the classroom is present and engaged in a particular lesson,” says Miller, who is also an undergraduate studying social work at Portland State University. Miller likewise wanted to expose the students to Yondr itself, a start-up that could teach them lessons about entrepreneurship.
Thus far, about 150 Sunnyside middle school students have tried Yondr’s pouches for one school day. That day begins with a discussion of Dugoni’s efforts to help people disconnect from their mobile devices and how he turned that concept into a business. “They are offering feedback on a young idea while at the same time trying it out,” Miller says. The kids who do not want to use the technology typically say their devices will not distract them, do not fit into Yondr’s cases or that they left their phones at home that day, Miller adds.
Once the experiment is explained, the students and their teacher lock their phones in Yondr cases that they carry around all day. Students involved in the experiment tend to be hesitant to admit that the experience was better for them, although some confess that Yondr’s pouch helped them forget about their phones for a while, Miller says. The students also appreciate that the school is not confiscating their phones in order to teach them this particular lesson, he adds.
Sunnyside set up a strict mobile phone policy about two years ago, after a group of students created an Instagram page where they posted jokes and pointed out other students’ flaws, Miller says. “That was when teachers got together and decided to become more firm with the cell phone policy.” The current policy is straightforward: Students cannot use them during school hours unless teachers specifically require them as calculators or tools for online research. If a student must make a phone call, they are required to go to the school’s office or notify a teacher. Students do still exchange digital photos and messages in defiance of the rules, Miller acknowledges.
Sunnyside’s teachers will ultimately decide whether and to what extent they might adopt Yondr’s technology. In the meantime at least they are experimenting with an approach that offers a compromise of sorts between unmitigated mobile phone use and an outright ban.