Technology has irrevocably impacted the 21st century education system. The digital age is, in fact, here to stay. For elementary and secondary-aged school children, the integration of technology into not only their homes, but their classrooms, has brought them great individual and collective benefits. Early introduction and interrogation of technology in school has been instrumental in bridging and maybe even closing the digital divide that puts children of a lower socioeconomic status at a disadvantage.
While many people view technology as an inadequate substitute for more traditional methods of learning and teaching, classrooms are becoming increasingly equipped with computers and other interactive forms of technology as well as with teachers who can provide guidance and encouragement (Cleaver 2014). When it comes to smartphones, however, people remain divided because of their ability to distract when children are not being supervised. Smartphones are just another form of technology like computers and tablets that can be put to productive use and educators are overlooking the power of these devices.
A decade ago, it would make sense as to why educators discouraged students from using smartphones in class from the incessant ringing, the lack of attention and concentration on lessons and of course, the increased ability for students to cheat on tests, quizzes and even exams. Today, due in large part to the versatility of smartphones, educators are coming to realize how much technology has the ability to enhance children’s social and cognitive skills. Today’s children and teenagers grew up in the digital age, making them perhaps the most technologically savvy generations. On average, the American child/preteen receives their first cell phone at just 12 years old, typically middle school age; 73 percent of teens own a smartphone today (Lynch 2016).
Their ubiquitous affinity to use smartphones as easily as they do anything else is not only remarkable, but useful for their lives in the future. The digital revolution has impacted the worlds in ways in which it would be impossible and unheard of to regress back to. Smartphones should be looked to to enhance learning and not dominate it. As smartphones are made to fit in the palm of a hand, it presents a literally smaller obstacle to interpersonal interaction than laptop screens do. Students can engage with information on a creative level with certain apps depending on their class, like Socrative, for inputting answers to questions in the classroom; Quizlet, where they can create study materials; or Duolingo, a language learning and mastery app with daily reminders to practice. Student connectivity with smartphones is easy, especially when dealing with generations who already know what they are doing with their smartphones (Passanisi & Peters 2013).
However, just because children and teenagers have smartphones does not mean that their minds and fingers will not wander, which is one of the greatest fears in educators when introducing such into the classroom. Yet, it is up to teachers to have students learning with continually engaging curriculum. In NPR’s “All Tech Considered,” Sam Evans-Brown speaks of some schools’ efforts to get children to use their smartphones in class. At the time, Oyster River Middle School in Durham, N.C. had been three years into letting children use their touch screen devices in class to make presentations, keep track of their homework and learn social media etiquette. The truth of the matter is that children and teens are carrying a very powerful and compact computer in their back pocket and it can often be their number one source of learning. To address the reality that some students have phones that do not have smartphone capabilities or no phone at all, the school has made an investment in technology by having extra iPads. As for children getting distracted, Evans-Brown, in speaking with an Oyster River science teacher, posits that they will only get distracted if teachers allow them to be distracted, like with non-engaging and boring curriculum.
Finally, children and teens using smartphones, as mentioned, is instrumental in bridging the digital gap. The necessity and popularity of a smartphone is of an entirely different magnitude than computers, laptops and tablets. Phones are easy, compact and highly useful. According to Common Sense, a little more than half of teenagers in low-income families have smartphones, owning them, and 48 percent have their own tablets. In middle-income families, 53 percent of “tweens” have their own tablets and nearly 70 percent own their smartphones, higher, but less than one would imagine. Although there is a small percentage gap in smartphone ownership between socioeconomic class, there is still inequality. Another study by Common Sense showed that in households where annual income was under $30,000, only 27 percent of children had smartphones, compared to 57 percent in a household with income over $75,000 (Cohen 2016). Thankfully, the growth and adaptation curve will improve in the coming years. Programs that reach populations of children with their own devices who can share and collaborate with children who do not have one, or lending programs, make mobile device availability “a bright spot” in bridging the digital divide.
Making technology accessible for all students puts them at an advantage in a digitized world. The earlier that they are introduced to technology, the better. Parents and community members should support the integration of technology in schools as the digital age is not going anywhere. The introduction of smartphones into classrooms can serve children in a multitude of ways, especially those of low-income households with limited access at home. Bridging the digital gap with mobile phone availability and children and teens’ ubiquity in using them will benefit them for years to come.