By: Dawn Casey-Rowe

Want to know what I had for breakfast this morning? Ask Google. It’ll tell you. It’ll also tell you how to fix your car, swear in a foreign language, brew beer, or build a space station. Education’s changing–you can learn anything at the drop of a dime, and schools aren’t even close to catching up. We’re in the beginning of an education revolution. If you think ed reform’s volatile, wait until students realize they have a voice in this system–that they can vote by directing their own learning using only their cell phones, tablets, and laptops and a little ingenuity.

But wait–most of them aren’t allowed. “Put away your cellphone,” is the battle cry, with signs at the door saying, “Cellphone free zone.”

I wonder about this. The kid with the phone out is probably trying to research your assignment, not call his girlfriend, but what do I know? Rules are rules, after all.

Adults and professionals use personal technology to survive–when was the last time I went to the bank? I do everything online or with my phone. Chances are if I’m walking to the bathroom during my very brief lunch, I’m multitasking reading an email from a parent or colleague. But for some reason, many students are stripped clean of technology. What’s left is sanitized beyond usefulness.

There’s a major urban school system not too far from me that blocked Google–students must use another approved search engine. In the 21st century classroom, I’m not sure if this is Shakespearian comedy or tragedy.

Students want technology–it’s the way they learn. It’s the way we operate in society. Often, middle of the road schools suffer. Well-off schools would never stand for subpar technology, and the poorest schools receive money to make sure they’re not lagging behind. This leaves schools in the middle with broken down infrastructures and blocked and banned sites. I say this a lot–broken, blocked, and banned is no way to propel our students to excellence. We should be the road, not the roadblock.

Here are the most common roadblocks we’re fighting in getting tech in the hands of students and teachers where it belongs.

1. “It’s expensive.” Tech isn’t expensive, relatively speaking, if schools get out of the way. There are many apps and platforms that are free or reasonably priced for students and teachers, and mainstream platforms–like blogs and Twitter–that can be repurposed for education. Unblock these things, and you’ll find students and teachers creating and collaborating in no time. Taking baby steps in technology is not expensive. What’s expensive is ignorance. Not allowing teachers–trained professionals–to access and use class-appropriate technology is insulting to our professionalism and creates students who don’t receive an equivalent education compared with students who have technology. Students must navigate tech seamlessly in order to be ready for the best jobs. Any school that willfully prevents teachers from teaching students how to do this is not doing its job and should be held accountable by whatever standards we can. It’s negligent.

2. “You don’t know the bad things they do.” Yes I do, because we did bad things before iPhones and Facebook were invented. For every digital indiscretion, there is an old-school equivalent. Bullying, name calling, inappropriate pictures, unkind behavior–all of these existed when I was in school. They exist today, too. Not just in schools–in life. This is why we need to give students tools they need now, under our supervision, so they can practice kindness and community building.

Some might say “stick to the curriculum,” but I’d disagree. Technology is everywhere and connects us all. Home, school, and community must work together to teach our children not only curricula, but to become independent thinkers, able to make the tough judgment calls when we’re not around. Technology will be a large part of this in their lives. We must teach our students the responsible and visionary use of technology because those are the values we’ve created in our community.

3. “Teachers won’t know how to use student devices and it’ll be confusing.” Heck, I don’t know how to use all the devices in the world. When I don’t, I say, “Who’s my Window’s expert–I’m a Mac girl.” Some kid steps up right away. This promotes an atmosphere of collaboration between my students and I, where I show them I’m willing to learn from their areas of expertise at the same time as I share mine. It’s a good thing. Many educational apps are web-based, so students simply need access to the internet, not a specific device. I’ve never run into a situation where a student couldn’t use his or her own device, but if I did, we’d figure it out. Life would move on.

4. “What about the digital divide? Not all students have access. It’s not fair.” What’s not fair is failing to prepare students for the real world because some kids don’t have as much tech as others. What’s even less fair is school systems creating a new divide–in career readiness–because we refuse to teach progressively with technology that’s already available.

Most of my students have some type of tech access if I give due dates in advance. If a student has a problem, I let him use class computers or give the weekend to get to the library–it’s Rhode Island. Libraries are two feet away. I say, “Be creative, get the job done.” I’ll give time, resources, and suggestions to do so.

Then, I tell them that in my day, computers weren’t invented, and we had to go to the library and sit there with index cards. If students whine, I tell them video games and microwaves weren’t invented, either, and I remember the first song on MTV back when MTV actually played music. By that time, they’re running to the library or the class computer just to get away from me. The bottom line–life requires an ability to work around problems–thinking outside the box is a marketable skill. They’ll get the job done.

5. “We need professional development.”  We cannot wait for PD to get tech into the hands of our teachers and students. PD, the way it’s done in most places, usually isn’t individualized and helpful anyway. Tech-based PD has to be hands on and appropriate with support and follow up. We’ve done some great stuff at my school, but the bottom line is teachers are supposed to be life-long learners. There are a world of resources out there to help. When I need to learn something, it’s my responsibility to take the initiative and learn it, not wait for my boss to schedule a workshop. That’s not the example I want to set for my students. The other day, I crashed a colleague’s class to see how she was using a platform. I may try what she showed me in my class.

Technology doesn’t have to be threatening. Teachers who are not comfortable with tech can start slowly. The problem with teachers starting on their tech journey is many fear rocking the boat because schools emphasize evaluations and test scores. Teachers don’t want to mess up their numbers. The way to solve this is with supportive administrations and tech savvy teachers willing to encourage. I’ll write more about this in another article, but the bottom line is even my six-year old can pick up new gadgets and figure them out–without PD. PD should be a support, not a crutch, and certainly not an excuse to wait to employ even the most basic technology.

By not allowing students access to technology commonly used in society, we’re saying, “We know you need this to be successful, and we choose not to give it to you.” That’s okay if we admit it. We can’t talk about increasing student performance and simultaneously ignore best practice. Trying to take technology from students who were born with it in their hand is roughly the equivalent of someone making me sit at Bob Cratchit’s desk with a candle, a piece of coal, and a quill pen asking me to do the bookkeeping for the school district, then telling me there’ll be a high-stakes test or evaluation based on my performance.

I want technology in the hands of the students and teachers who want to use it. Sadly, it’s an option for everyone. When some schools give students the green light for technology and others stop them cold in their tracks, it creates a national system of inequity where students given the premiere tech treatment will be ready for the best opportunities, and the others will be trained for minimum wage.

Which one will your child be?

Dawn Casey-Rowe is an educator in Rhode Island who is heavily involved with tech startups focused on educational resources.  She is a regular contributor to ConversationED, Edudemic and TeachThought.  Her blog is

7 Responses

  1. John Harkness

    I tend to agree with allowing technology in the classroom. I was skeptical at first because my experience with students and cellphones was generally bad: They are texting friends or parents. Moms seemed to be notorious for ignoring school rules and contacting their kids rather than the school office. I use my IPhone all the time for spelling or even for looking up words, facts, or people I do not know. The challenge is to take the information that the students are acquiring from their devices and using it, thinking it through, challenging and debating the research they have uncovered. The WHY part of the issue – the compare and contrast part. I am finding more and more that the problem I had with technology was school rules rather than the fact that the technology is with us. We used encyclopedias and research books in the library to gather our information and do our research; the student today has all of that in the palm of their hand. The challenge is figuring out how best to use that technology.

    John Harkness

    • Dawn Casey-Rowe

      A lot of people hesitate at first, John, but the thing is, we did bad things before technology was invented. I remember the first time a kid said, “Miss, we use these to text each other the answers.” I remained unmoved, but the next day I brought in an essay test titled “Text This, Jenkins!” Game, point, match.

      The way to use technology successfully is to be in the mix. When I see Facebook or non-class related Twitter, I say simply, “We’re doing this now,” just like I did when they’d pass notes. They’re usually more engaged in tech-based assignments. That’s how their minds operate. I had kids pick dictionaries off my shelf and laugh, but many of us are forced to teach that way when tech is banned.

  2. JD

    After two years of 1:1 BYOT, these brought back some memories! I think some of them are legitimate concerns asked out of care and some of them are default world-views/mindsets…occasionally they are just roadblocks thrown down to derail a project. The wonderful thing is that there are answers to each of them and the right support structure can bring along all but the few who would never be convinced anyway.

    Great article.

    • Dawn Casey-Rowe

      I’d love to hear how you overcame some of the challenges. We’re working toward getting these structures in place at my school. There are a lot of valid concerns out there, and this transition isn’t intuitive for many. It takes one or two things to blow up before systems get discouraged. Bad things happen in the analog world, though, and I hope all schools can push through–soon, we won’t remember a time when we didn’t have these things.

  3. Annmarie Ferry

    Excellent point about kids doing “bad” things. We spent way more time passing nasty notes than kids do snapchatting! As far as access goes, teachers can help with that by allowing kids to work together with someone who has the technology, providing time at school, or offering product options. Part of our standards and teacher evaluations here in Florida include KIDS using technology (not teachers, KIDS). So, we can continue to teach in an archaic manner or we can get with the program, learn as much of the new stuff as we can, and let the kids teach us the stuff we didn’t know existed. We cannot churn innovators out if we squash their innovative spirits.

  4. Matt

    I wonder how many teachers are intimidated by the idea that these kids have superior skills navigating this world than they do, hence, merely cutting the chord is the de facto solution for them?

    However, just because children can ‘naturally’ navigate the waters, doesn’t mean anything when it comes to managing the sea and the obstacles along the way? Their is a teachable moment for both sides to learn from one another here, which can instantly bridge the gap by producing an environment where everyone is actively learning. You cannot always, all the time, regardless of the circumstance have a captain that knows everything about all adventures; that eradicates adventure, in toto.

    How do kids want to learn…doesn’t mean the instructor has to forfeit what types of learning and information they are exposing their students to; I think those separate ideas are too often made one variable. Extracting the bureaucracy quotient for a moment, I produce the inquiry that is: how many teachers themselves are willing to unlearn what they have learned?

    Like many industries, perhaps education being one of the biggest of them all, the 21st-century is quickly re-calibrating the standards and the calculus. When every child has “all the knowledge”, vis-a-vis, Google, what’s the purpose of a traditional multi-guess test? It puts into question the notion of the value of static information? With automation systems springing up everyday, it puts continued stress on a system that continues to offer DOA skill-sets. Is there a conduit that offers the distinction between passive information and active information, and can each compliment one another – can they be collaborative?
    Finally, a prescient question is born from this cluster: how truly large is the motivation deficit in this system?

  5. Tree Trimmer Jim

    How many students understand basic economic enough to realize that there in no such thing as an effect minimum wage?

    Minimum wage assumes neither party has free will. Government control of free will has been tried repeatedly since history begin. We are still suffering from government’s attempt to control free will that caused the extension of the Great Depression, price controls, production controls, wage controls and productivity controls. Our recent move towards government mandated healthcare insurance found its birth during the Great Depression. Minimum wage is New Deal idea that has yet to find a maximum. Production controls are still subsidizing agriculture nearly a century after the problem was solved.

    How many students learn the regulations that will restrict their adventures into free enterprise while in school? How many will learn the history of those regulations so they can determine for themselves whether the regulation was intended to help or offer a competitive advantage to someone or some business?

    Who doe minimum wage help? How? Who does minimum wage hurt? How?

    If minimum wage is good for everyone why have we waited so long to raise it each time its been raise since the 1930s? Why not just make minimum wage a million an hour so everyone will be rich? Do we teach the basics of economics sufficient for students to understand the fallacies of minimum wage?

    Do students know that the Federal Reserve Note has no redeemable value and what that means? Do students know that every civilization that has tried none redeemable currency has had huge financial problems including the two previous times the United States tried fiat money?


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