10 Reasons to Ban Pens and Pencils in the Classroom

With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg finishing his second term in office this year, it looks like one of his more controversial educational decisions may be reversed. In 2006 Bloomberg stepped up enforcement of a policy banning electronic communication devices such as cell phones in public school classrooms.

In light of the debate that is sure to follow in the coming months, I decided to dust off one of the more popular blog posts I wrote for KQED’s Education Technology site MindShift.

Please note, this is a parody meant to address common arguments against using technology in classrooms. I do not actually recommend banning all writing implements.

10 Reasons to Ban Pens and Pencils in the Classroom:

[Originally published in August 2011]

According to a recent MSNBC article, 69% of high school currently ban cell phones. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a school anywhere that has enacted a blanket ban on pens and pencils. Here are 10 reasons to reconsider the widespread acceptance of these distracting and potentially dangerous implements.

  1. Pens and pencils are distracting. The tapping, clicking, flipping and rolling can drive just about any teacher around the bend. I remember a happy indoor recess spent throwing newly sharpened pencils at the classroom ceiling trying to make them stick.
  2. Writing implements are dangerous. I still have a small lump of lead imbedded in the soft, fleshy area between my thumb and pointer finger. It’s a souvenir from a mini-sword fight that occurred between my close friend and I in third grade. She won.
  3. Pens can be used to cheat. Now that I’m at the head of a classroom instead of behind a desk, I’ve seen some ingenious cheating techniques. One student managed to write an entire history of media studies on the bottom of their shoe. I’ve also found forearms covered with vocabulary words, ankles tattooed with definitions, and hands dyed with smeared blue ink.
  4. They are incredibly messy. Dusty pencil shavings litter the floor in many elementary classrooms and pens filled with liquid ink are just disasters waiting to happen. Have you ever tried to clean a child’s backpack after a pen broke at the bottom of the bag? No amount of scrubbing can get the dye completely out.
  5. Pens and pencils can be used to bully kids. Those notes that pass from hand to hand across the rows of desks are often far more sinister than they appear. Thanks to the ubiquitous use of writing implements in schools, kids have free rein to write and distribute messages that use offensive language and hateful speech. Recent high-profile cases of student bullying are just the latest examples of why we must crack down on these communication tools.
  6. Kids will just use them to play games. Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe, word searches, crosswords, and now the latest craze: Sudoku. How can any student be expected to keep their mind on lessons when there are so many tempting distractions just a pen stroke away?
  7. Fancy pens and pencils will cause jealousy and other problems. I remember in fifth grade when the girl who sat across from me came to school with a brand new pack of orange, sparkly pens that wrote in neon ink. Her father had brought them back as a souvenir from a recent trip to Florida. They were the coolest and I wanted them, but they were too expensive for me to just go out and buy. Wouldn’t it be better to nip those kinds of issue in the bud by instituting a widespread ban on pens in schools.
  8. There are health concerns that can lead to bad habits. I think part of the reason I wore braces for six years stemmed from my lifelong habit of chewing pens and pencils. All that chomping in class had to affect my dental hygiene.
  9. They lead to sedentary behavior. Have you ever seen a child running with a sharpened pencil? Or, writing a note while playing kickball? Writing and exercise don’t mix. The obesity crises is reaching epic levels. Let’s get pens and pencils out of our kid’s pudgy hands so they can get moving.
  10. They can be used to embarrass teachers. Sure, no teacher wants to see their goofs show up on YouTube, but a skillfully done caricature can do as much or more damage than photos or video. At least cameras and video capture actual events, when students are given free reign to create images, text or stories about their teachers, there’s no limit to the damage they can do.

Let’s hope this blog post helps open people’s eyes to the danger of pens and pencils in schools. It’s high time someone spoke out in support of a ban on such hazardous tools.

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Online Teaching and Learning

The time has come to end my blogging hiatus. I took a few months off from the online ed tech community to concentrate on settling in to my new position as an assistant professor at the University of Akron.

I’m finishing up my second term now and am looking forward to exploring new ways to reach students using emerging technologies. One of the more exciting projects on my plate is modifying an introductory public relations class so it can be offered entirely online.

Keep watching this site in the coming weeks for information and resources on teaching with technology!

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The Myth of the Digital Native: Educating Digital Pioneers

Like Gene Marks, the Forbes.com contribute who wrote the much-maligned blog post If I Was A Poor Black Kid yesterday, I am not a poor black kid and I did not grow up in an underprivileged area. Marks’ blog post did, however, cause me to have a visceral negative reaction.

This missive from a middle-aged white man who grew up comfortably middle class, a generally meaningless designation that 90% of American’s consider themselves according to a 2008 Pew poll on the state of the middle class, encourages “young, poor, black youth” to take responsibility for their education by using online education technologies.

My frustration with the article goes beyond the author’s obvious misconception about the availability of high-end computer equipment and broadband access in low-income areas; the ill-informed post enhances the myth of the digital native.

The term “digital native” refers to those who have grown up with 21st century technologies such as high-speed Internet access and mobile phones. Used often in education parlance, today’s college students are the first wave of digital natives to navigate higher education. Digital natives, like the poor kids Marks refers to in his post, are supposed to somehow have intuitive knowledge of existing and emerging technologies.

I teach strategic communication classes to students who have never known what it is like to log on to the web through a landline connection. I had many character building fights with my sisters when someone wanted to check email while someone else was on the phone. My students may be comfortable with emerging technologies, but they are far from the idealized digital native.

The twenty-something communication professionals entering the workforce today tend to be comfortable exploring new technologies, but by and large they lack the critical thinking skills, innovative natures, and experiential expertise to use emerging tools to their full extent. It’s so frustrating to read pieces that extol the free tools of the Web, but make no mention of the enormous commitment of time it takes to learn how to use and apply vast online resources to further strategic goals.

Expecting students to be able to pick up technology tools independently and critically engage with them without guidance is like expecting that because a kid knows how to use a pencil he or she is a great writer.

In an essay on the Internet evolution published in 1999, Douglas Adams, the quirky mind behind The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote:

  1. Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The Internet generation can be intimidating since technologies that seem new to those of us old enough to remember their development are their norm, but just because many are comfortable with recent innovations does not mean they are technology or content experts.

In my opinion, the role of an educator is to guide student exploration. Millenials are naturally excited by the technological changes they are witnessing and I find that incorporating digital methods when teaching core concepts (writing, research, public speaking, ethics) students are better able to apply advanced thinking to online exploration.

I would love to see the term “digital native” changed to something like “digital pioneer.” With guidance and preparation, our students will explore the ever-changing media landscape and push the boundaries of the web in ways we likely cannot yet fathom. But they aren’t going to do it alone; it’s up to educators to help them draw maps, identify true and false landmarks, and prepare them to chart their own path, handle mistakes, and act with reason and maturity.

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Why Should Students Support President Lariviere? Because He Supports Students

This topic is a departure from my usual subject matter, but I need to respond to the recent situation here at the University of Oregon.

Like the other members of the UO community, I received a surprising email from our school president Dr. Richard Lariviere late Tuesday night. Apparently, he had been notified on Monday, November 21 that the Oregon State Board of Higher Education would not be renewing his contract, which is set to expire at the end of June.

Although Matt Donegan, the board president, had hoped the ouster would be a “quiet process,” the candid email from Dr. Lariviere to UO faculty, staff and students squashed that plan. Despite the fact that this announcement came during a holiday week, the news has fired up the campus and spawned an outpouring of support for our embattled leader. Much of this support has come from University faculty and staff however, and several students have questioned why they should care about the issue.

I have met President Lariviere several times and I find him an engaging and interesting man. He and his wife run in the same fly-fishing circles as my husband and Lariviere, with his trademark fedora, is a regular feature at community events. He has spoken at faculty meetings and in both undergraduate and graduate classes where I have been in attendance. He holds open office hours and encourages students to speak with him one on one. He also takes rather unorthodox steps to address common student issues, such as joining police on weekend ride-alongs to observe the aftermath of student binge drinking. I truly believe he is a good man, but that is not why I find his firing so disturbing.

Lariviere has faced massive challenges during his short tenure at the University of Oregon. The state economy has taken a nosedive since 2009 when Lariviere took over as president and it’s clear that funding higher education is not a state priority. The University of Oregon educates roughly 24% of students in the Oregon University System (OUS), but we receive only 20.5% of the OUS budget. The State of Oregon funds 7% of the University of Oregon’s $305 million operating budget. That comes out to about $21.35 million this year. To put that in perspective, Nike founder Phil Knight, who by the way is majorly pissed off about the Lariviere decision, has donated an estimated $230 million to UO in recent years.

One of the great things about being at a public university is that there is lots of information available on funding both here in Oregon and on a national level. Funding for higher education in this state has decreased dramatically over the last five years, and the University of Oregon currently receives less support per student than any other public institution in the Association of American Universities. Faculty salaries at UO (and OSU for that matter) are lower than those at the vast majority of our peer institutions. If you’re interested, you can find out much more about our dwindling state financial support by reading the State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) report.

He has been criticized for giving faculty and administrative raises to bring them closer to the rates of our peer institutions and because those salaries are controlled by the UO. He could not raise salaries of the hourly (ie classified staff) employees because that contract is controlled by the OUS via a union contract. So, it’s actually the OUS agreements that prevent much needed raises for classified staff.

President Lariviere has doggedly fought for increased financial support. He has repeatedly put his career on the line to secure a stronger future for the University of Oregon. Our school thrives today because of our strong donor-relations program and growing student body. The question should not be “why should students support Lariviere?”, but rather “why isn’t the state supporting students?”.

Ducks flock together. Students should have President Lariviere’s back because he has shown time and again that he has ours. When I worked corporate communications I learned an important lesson: if you want to make money you support your bosses, if you want to make a difference you support your staff. I certainly don’t remember the State Board of Higher Ed asking students (or faculty or staff for that matter) about their decision to give our president the boot. The OSU may be President Lariviere’s boss, but he works for the University of Oregon community.

For information on how you can support President Lariviere, check out the WeLoveOurPres blog.

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Why Bother Blogging: Using Blogs as Learning Tools

The afternoon #edchat topic a few weeks ago was “How does blogging fit into the education system of the 21st Century?” As usual, the discussion was spirited and included a wide variety of views. The topic was particularly timely this week as I’m in the process of reviewing and grading my students’ final collection of blog posts.

Over the course of our 10-week term, my advanced PR writing students are required to produce at least 12 blog posts. To ensure that no one produced a dozen slapdash posts during the last week of term, only two blog posts per week could count toward their assignment. As usual, most students produced far more than the required 12 posts. In fact, several students told me that the blog assignment was their favorite aspect of this advanced writing class.

The first three weeks of the term are devoted to teaching responsible social media use. Ethical issues related to posting writings in a public venue are discussed at length, each students is required to produce a blog code of conduct and comment policy, and I bring in a guest to speak about media law.

Although students are encouraged to develop their own blog topics, they do need to hand in a proposal before they jump into the writing process. The preparation that goes into producing student blogs goes far beyond teaching the basics of WordPress or Tumbler. Students need to understand the responsibility they accept when they start a blog. The process is not just about learning to write using multi-media and understanding the basics of search engine optimization, becoming a blogger is about joining and contributing to a larger community.

The greatest value of blogging, particularly for the college students I teach who are about to enter the professional world, is that they are introduced to vibrant, interest-based communities online. Personal and professional connections are forged through virtual interactions. Ideas are cheered and challenged and conversations emerge across platforms.

I ask my students to blog because it helps to show them how very large the online community is and also how rewarding it is to connect with others who share your passions.

Do you use blogging as a learning tool for students? If so, why?

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Siri and Education: A Personal Assistant for Fact Finding

On the last day of ISTE 2011 I dropped my iPhone 3S on the floor of the convention center. Although it was snugly encased in its plastic protective cover, the phone hit the floor at the improbable angle necessary to break the screen. Although the phone looked pretty bad, it was still completely functional and I spent the last four months working around a growing web of spiderweb cracks taking over my phone’s screen. All this so I could wait to upgrade until the iPhone 4S was released.

I’ve had my new phone for a little over a week now and I think the wait was worth it. It’s faster than my old phone, the picture quality on the camera is amazing, and it syncs seamlessly with iCloud. I’ve also enjoyed getting to know my new personal assistant, Siri.

Probably the most touted new feature of the iPhone 4S, Siri is a speech-recognition software program designed to answer user questions by tapping into databases such as Yelp and Google Maps. It can also be used for web searches, adding appointments to a calendar, text messaging and phone calls. What Siri can’t do right now, is sync with most of the other apps on your phone. However, as Apple Inc. is expected to open Siri for app developers, that may change in the near future.

Although Siri makes for a great procrastination tool (try asking her “What’s the meaning of life?” – my favorite answer so far is “all evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”), playing around with the software got me thinking about ways Siri might change education.

Siri will improve. It will become compatible with other apps and the voice recognition quality will get better. At the moment, it’s fairly easy to stump Siri. However, ask the program a factual question such as “Who was the 20th president of the United States” or “How high is Mount Everest?” and Siri turns to the WolframAlpha search engine to provide amazingly fast and accurate answers.

Easy and quick access to data has been heralded as the most pressing change the Web has brought to education. Instead of pulling facts from the depths of memory, information can easily be called up using a device thinner and just a little wider than a pack of playing cards. The voice recognition features of Siri aren’t new; Apple is just making it easier to use and a bit flashier than its competitors.

The voice search function shaves off a few extra seconds during the search process. It also prevents the frustration of typing on the tiny iPhone screen and breaks down a wall between the phone user and the technology. Siri is designed to recognize colloquialisms and typical human speech patterns and users are encouraged to speak to the phone as they would to a person. If we thought students had a difficult time making the conceptual leap between mediated and interpersonal communication before, it’s nothing compared to what will happen with it becomes commonplace to literally talk to our machines.

The interest in and potential of Siri only underscores the importance of embracing new technologies in education. New media has changed much more than how we access facts; it changes how we communicate. As a new tool, Siri will not broadly impact our education system, but as a concept it may have broad reaching changes for teachers and learners.

*This post was originally published on ISTE Connects

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Internet Research 2012: Intercultural, Interdisciplinary and Interactive

I spent the early part of this week at IR12, the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) in Seattle. Although I’ve been a member of AoIR for a few years now, this was my first time attending the conference. Grad student positions are not exactly financially lucrative so I need to watch my travel funding pretty closely. I go to AEJMC for the strong public relations focus, NCA for the great health communication work being shared and one or two interest-specific conferences each year.

More so than any other academic conference I’ve attended, AoIR is focused on international and interdisciplinary interactions. I participated in the doctoral colloquium program and my small group of co-PhD candidates consisted of students attending programs in Italy, Singapore and Sweden. Our mentor was Dr. Klaus Bruhn Jensen from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. For any other graduate students out there attempting to scale down their gigantic ideas into a manageable dissertation project, I can assure you this is a global concern.

While the interaction with researchers from all over the world (Northern Europe and Australia are particularly well represented), I’ve engaged in several conversations about research practices and norms in areas outside the United States. However, the real value of this conference has been the interdisciplinary interactions.

The structure of the University system lends itself to differentiation of scholars by a set range of subjects. In the last couple of days I’ve spoken with researchers from sociology, marketing, anthropology, psychology, library science and informatics programs. Learning about the different research trends in such a wide variety of disciplines was highly illuminating. For example, while online network analysis is fairly uncommon in public relations research, it is de rigueur among Internet scholars. By communicating cross-discipline I learned about challenges and successes others have had using similar techniques and platforms.

Next year AoIR will take place in the United Kingdom and I’m not sure my travel budget is robust enough to allow me to make the trip, but I’ll continue to seek out forums for interdisciplinary collaborations. Thanks to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Reader I have plenty of ways to stay in touch with the contacts I made over the last week and reach out to find new researchers working in complimentary subject areas.

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