Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

“Mobile phones are a way of life for Generation Text.”
–Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a big supporter of digital and multimedia literacies in higher education. Since my postdoctoral work at the Institute of Multimedia Literacy back in the early ’00s, I have been researching and writing about uses of new media and new technologies in the classroom. In each of my academic appointments at Saint Mary’s College and IUPUI, I also have experimented with multimedia literacies in my own pedagogy, frequently putting into practice and evaluating best practices around new technologies and their potential to improve student learning outcomes. And my own courses typically revolve around project-based learning. I prefer (whenever possible) to have my students create multimedia projects as a major learning component. Probably no surprise again, but I’m a big fan of higher order processes in learning (following Bloom’s famous taxonomy) and find project-based learning to yield marvelous moments of synthesis and evaluation.

However, my focus to date has been exclusively on new technologies and their applications in higher education. But that changed earlier this year when I got the opportunity to collaborate with my younger brother on an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant. My brother, Bob Edwards, is a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public School district. Bob has been similarly interested in the role of new technologies in the classroom. I was thrilled to hear that he had won a Teacher Incentive Grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. This grant is designed to support project-based learning in the Chicago Public Schools. My brother’s winning proposal was:

 Revealing Generation Text:
Students will research cell phone usage, investigating how texting is affecting teenagers. They will create a documentary film disclosing their findings.

My brother asked me to be a part of his project, since he knew of my areas of interest and because he was planning on making a documentary film involving teams of his students from his senior-year Creative Writing class. Together we carved out a plan to have his students work in small teams with dedicated assignments. Each team would interview students, teachers, and administrators to hear their thoughts and observations about Generation Text and student texting. Moreover, we decided each team would additionally focus on a different issue related to Generation Text and the cell phone polices of Chicago Public Schools:

  1. What is and what should be the cell phone policy in Chicago Public Schools?
  2. What are the pros and cons of cell phone confiscation by teachers and administrators?
  3. How can cell phones be used as learning tools?
  4. What would a world without cell phones look like?

Using the money from the grant, we were able to purchase four Cisco Flip cams HD. A quick aside about Flipcams: I am aware that Cisco has ceased support for this project in April 2011, but it was a great tool for us, especially for its ease of use, the quality of its picture, and in my opinion, the quality of its small internal microphone. The Flip cams worked easily and flawlessly for our documentary and it’s a shame that this product is no longer going to be on the market.

The students spent several weeks arranging for their interviews and shooting their videos. We got lots of great footage from each team, and then set about assembling the final cut.

You can see the final results for yourself here by watching the video, which we just completed, and was just screened for the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a group of first year students at Phoenix Military Academy.

I want to say a few more words about the documentary and what I learned. Overall, we wanted to have the student voices take center stage and present a balance portrait of the everyday realities of cell phone uses and abuses in Chicago Public Schools. As someone who has worked exclusively in higher education, I can say the video was very illuminating to me. I consider myself up to date on the literature around cell phones in higher education, so I was surprised to learn about some of the very real problems created by cell phone uses in K-12 education.

While I expected to hear about the cell phone as a tool of “distraction” (and this was a major theme echoed by all participants in the video), the cell phone is also a tool for bullying in K-12. I wasn’t aware of this as I began working on the documentary. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted last year,

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%). This trend is more common for those teens whose parents are under 40 and low in educational attainment.

Responses in the focus groups were split with regard to how serious of a problem this is. Some teens clearly believe this is major problem with serious social and psychological consequences, while others feel that it is “not really a big deal.”

Bullying and student fights came up as a big issue in our documentary. One reason for the “zero tolerance” ban in Chicago Public Schools is to stop the problem of bullying by cell phone. Therefore, educators who are trying to experiment with educational uses for cell phones have to be aware of the negative uses of this technology among K-12 students.

On the positive flipside, it was great to see the eagerness with which students embrace the new capabilities of cell phones, especially smart phones. However, there is something of a “cell phone arms race” among high school students with students wanting not just a cell phone, but the “right” cell phone. Clearly there is a digital divide between high school students who have cell phones and those who have smart phones. This divide, especially in terms of social capital among one’s peers, appears to be a much greater gap than the one between students who have laptops and students who have no laptops. The role of texting and mobile communication in student’s everyday lives is primary in this regard. Students see their cell phone as an extension of their identity and life style (many students commented on how confiscation of their phone was literally “the end of their world;” hyperbolic, perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine).

In one segment, a group of students that ran “speed tests” between a laptop and a mobile phone (running Android 2.0). These students were able to demonstrate that they could get faster results from Google through their mobile phone connection than the laptop running on the school’s wireless network. What intrigues me about this is that the students are aware of these speed differences. You get a sense that the mobile generation is deeply savvy about connection speeds – a useful thing to be aware of—especially if your “life” is being conducted through a mobile device.

Most of the other major insights we found are in the final video itself, but I was glad to hear that the students themselves are aware of how the cell phone can be a distraction. There is no doubt that many students are surreptitiously texting each other all day long, and as long as the policy is “zero tolerance,” students will continue to do their best to keep their texting out of sight. But even against the backdrop of “texting as distraction,” many students are keenly interested in exploring how cell phones can be used as educational tools. A good sampling of those possible uses can be found in the Speak Up 2010 Survey, which surveyed high school students on what they would like to use cell phones for during the school day:

  • Check grades
  • Conduct research
  • Take notes in class
  • Collaborate with friends
  • Use the calendar
  • Send an email
  • Access online textbooks
  • Check out school activities
  • Create and share videos

That list is a good starting point for conversation and reminds me of how I use my iPhone professionally. I anticipate that the most common counter-argument among K-12 teachers would be computer labs and laptops can fulfill these functions, but not without some caveats. Certain smart phones are great video tools and are much easier than checking out a video camera from the AV closet. Moreover, in many school districts, students are much more likely to have cell phones rather than laptops (due to the difference in expense, even with having to pay a monthly wireless plan), and we have to be cognizant of this “digital divide” as well. Finally, if we don’t bring cell phones in our classrooms, we run the risk of having students miss opportunities to use a mobile device as a component of a formal learning exercise rather than as a personal texting or game playing tool. As we state in the documentary (quoting Liz Kolb), educators can take a lead role in teaching students how to use cell phones more ethically, a key lesson for preparing them for 21st century learning and professional occupations.

Of course, as the video taught me, we have to tread carefully around the topic of cell phones in high schools. They have many positive uses, but also great potential downsides. My sense  is that what may happen going forward are some small modifications to the current “zero tolerance” policies in many high schools and exploring ways of using cell phones in a limited capacity as educational tools.

Personally I think it is worth the effort to experiment with cell phones due to their popularity and their ability to bring students into the classroom. Revealing Generation Text ends with a student who recalls that the cell phone is a communication tool and wouldn’t it be great if cell phones led towards more communication between students and teachers? That’s a vision I would love to see come to fruition some day.

All in all, I am very thankful my brother invited me to be a part of his grant and documentary video project. Thanks also to the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the musician Moby who gave us permission to use his song “Flying Foxes,” and all the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our project. I learned a lot about cell phones in K-12 education.

I would love to hear feedback on this video and the thoughts of other educators who have been or might be considering using cell phones in their classrooms or schools.

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3 responses to “Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

  1. Dear Richard, I’m taking part with Microcinema (Italy) on a European Project which will produce a methodology focused on the production of social documentaries with low-tech devices and online tools of dissemination/participation. I would like to get in touch to exchange informations; at the moment our activity is still in progress, but all the partners are organizing a training experimentation phase with several target groups. For now, I’d like to insert your weblog in one of our website (still under construction) posts.
    Ciao
    Andrea

    • Hi Andrea,
      I would be happy to get in touch with you to discuss this project and my interest in social documentaries and low-tech devices. I wrote my dissertation on new media activism, and have studied early adoption techniques of new technologies ranging from video in the 1960s to the web-based activism today. An article I wrote that might be of interest to you (from 2004) is entitled “Torrents of Resistance: Online Video Activism in the Anti-globalization movement.” Here’s the citation: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=7435/

      Feel free to include my blog in your website. I look forward to hearing from you again.

      Best, Rich

  2. Dear Richard L. Edwards, my name is Maid Kilic , and I am an eight grade student from Chicago writing an article on teenage cell phone use in school for our school newspaper. I watched your video and I found your blog, and found it really insightful. I was wondering if I could speak to you via telephone or email at your earliest convenience to discuss the place of teenager cell phone usage in schools. Thank you so much, and I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible

    Telephone: 773-717-4908
    Email: mirza3162001@yahoo.com

    Sincerely, Maid Kilic, a student journalist

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