One Foot in Today and One in Tomorrow

One Foot in Today and One in Tomorrow

Leading Ethically where Education and Technology Meet

When it comes to technology “public education is in catch-up mode,” says Beverley Muir, principal of Humberwood Downs Junior Middle Academy in Toronto.

One of the most ubiquitous forms of technology is the cell phone. These small devices can cause huge distractions in a classroom setting, offering students the possibility of constant social networking, music, texting, surfing the web, and phone calls.

The policy of the Toronto District School Board is to put the final decision regarding the use of cell phones and other devices in the hands of the principal of each school. Muir, a principal for twenty-one years and an adjunct professor in Tyndale’s Bachelor of Education program, has chosen to make her school cell phone free. Her school was named one of forty “Schools on the Move” by the Ontario Ministry of Education in 2008, and in 2010 The Learning Partnership chose her along with several other principals to be among "Canada’s Outstanding Principals." Her school’s policy is presented at the beginning of the school year to both students and parents. “There is no reason a parent needs to contact a child during the day,” says Muir. There are eight phones and two full-time secretaries in the school’s office should there be an emergency. The students aren’t allowed to bring their cell phones to school unless their parents or caregivers have written Muir a letter explaining why it is necessary for their child to have a phone, and permission is granted.

Despite her cell phone policy, Muir’s school is far from a technological wasteland. In partnership with a learning technology manufacturer, Humberwood Downs is a pilot school for testing the use of ten interactive electronic whiteboards. “With no technology there is a lack of engagement,” says Muir. The electronic whiteboard allows teachers, with the use of electronic pens, to write on the whiteboard as well as access the Internet. Every student has a handheld device that enables them to anonymously answer “Yes” or “No” questions that are displayed on the board. The number of “Yes” and “No” answers can be brought up on the whiteboard, making it easy for the teacher to immediately assess the students’ understanding of the material.

These whiteboards represent the “bright side” of the use of technology in Muir’s school. However, other problematic issues around the use of technology still exist. One of the few students who is allowed to have a phone on school property used it during a recess period.  A teacher noticed and asked for the phone as per school protocol. The student refused to give the phone to the teacher who, in turn, called for Muir to whom the student did relinquish the phone. The law doesn’t allow Muir to press any buttons on the phone, look at messages or at the call history but she asked the student to show her what was on her phone. The female student had received sexually explicit messages and pictures from a boy. “What happens in your house is your business,” says Muir, “but when it comes into school, it becomes my responsibility.” Since both the sender and receiver of the messages were over the age of twelve the police had to be called and this led to a full investigation.

“You give plastic scissors—not cutting shears—to a child for cutting paper,” says Muir. It seems that few of us are thinking about age-appropriate applications for technology, so when boys in a Grade 5 class at Humberwood Downs were allowed to bring computer games to school for a project, one brought the new version of Grand Theft Auto. In the game, the players can shoot and kill random pedestrians. Prostitutes can also be “picked up” in the game, and afterwards they can be murdered so that your character can steal back his money. The only “dangers” in the game come from death or imprisonment. The player is permitted, if not encouraged, to kill police officers in order to escape the law.  Muir calls questions “creative acts of intelligence” and she talks openly with her students about technology, constantly asking, “How does this help you learn?” She also asks parents if they have a technology ethic at home. For example, “abortion wasn’t an issue until one could be done safely,” says Muir, “and each new ‘advancement’ is adopted before the time is taken to form an ethic.” There are parents of students in her school who are thrilled that their children are home at night on the computer rather than at the mall or out on the streets.  Often parents assume the child is doing schoolwork. However, Muir describes one student who was spending up to three hours a night on the computer but had low grades. When she went over the student’s report card with the parents, she pointed out that the “work” the student was doing on the computer wasn’t reflected in her grades.

Another student was regularly coming to school an hour late. His excuse was that he didn’t sleep well, but Muir found out that he was often using his cell phone as late as 1:30 a.m.  He may have been in bed, but he wasn’t asleep. Many children have computers, televisions and cell phones in their bedrooms. One couple, the parents of Grade 7 twins, told their children they were going to buy them state of the art computers but that they, the parents, would either know the password to each computer and the computers would stay on the dining room table, or the doors would be removed from their bedrooms. The twins chose the dining room table.

Another ethical dilemma for Muir is one of equity.  Her teachers are tech-savvy and they want their students to produce papers and projects on a computer.  Some parents, though, can’t afford to buy their children computers and this immediately marginalizes them. To compensate for this, Muir has made the decision to make the computer lab at her school accessible from early in the morning to late in the afternoon.

Muir defines leadership as “one foot in today and one in tomorrow.” Her conversations and decisions about the use of today’s technology are building an ethical and practical foundation for the use of tomorrow’s technology for her staff, students, and many parents. The question she leaves us with is: What is our ethical foundation in regards to today’s and tomorrow’s technology? >