Dalton McGuinty ignites debate over BlackBerrys in the classroom

Posted: September 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

If he were in the Alberta Legislature, he’d just be following the rules. But in the House of Commons, Tony Clement’s decision to turn off his BlackBerry and iPhone during Question Period makes him a rare case among his colleagues.

“I’m a bit old-school that way,” said Mr. Clement, the federal Industry Minister and among Parliament’s most prolific Twitter users. “I just find it distracting otherwise, and probably a little bit rude.”

BlackBerry etiquette is a fickle thing. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who banned use of the devices while driving in the province and inside his own cabinet meetings, made waves Wednesday when he said he was open to a move being informally considered by the Toronto District School Board – to lift its ban on cellphones in classrooms. Mr. McGuinty’s comments suggested he thought what’s distracting for adults may be educational for students, and critics slammed it as a double standard.

But across Canada, contradictions abound concerning the rules of using BlackBerrys, iPhones or other smart phones – whether in legislatures or schools, by adults or children.

The Calgary Board of Education encourages their use as a learning tool, even though the same phones are discouraged in the province’s legislature. Inversely, smart phones are banned in public classrooms in Ottawa and Toronto – as well as in Mr. McGuinty’s meetings – but fair game in the House of Commons.

“Clearly, as a society we’re not perfect with this yet,” said Anna Post, an author and etiquette expert. “It’s in the details.”

The Toronto school board is considering rolling back a policy that bans the use of cellphones in class, to use smart phones as part of a lesson plan. How it plans to stop students from text-messaging during class is unclear (“I don’t know how you get around that problem,” said Doug Jolliffe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation’s Toronto chapter). Nevertheless, Mr. McGuinty was asked about the possibility.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to use these things,” he said, adding: “The fact of the matter is, telephones, BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information and one of the things we want our students to be is well informed.”

Although hardly a ringing endorsement, his comments were viewed as a vote of support. The opposition boldly predicted “it’s only a matter of time until we have ‘sexting’ in our schools.” As such, the story was “blown out of proportion,” a Toronto board spokeswoman said.

Similar cellphone bans are in place at a host of school boards nationwide, including public boards in Ottawa and Halifax (though officials there say they’re also warming to allowing cellphones). Other school boards, such as those in Vancouver and Edmonton, leave it up to principals.

If they’re anything like premiers, that means students face different rules. Mr. McGuinty isn’t the only legislator in the country looking to limit BlackBerry use in government. Alberta is among the strictest, led by long-time Speaker Ken Kowalski who last year admonished members for using phones during Question Period.

“Come on now. We agreed on certain things, certain decorum. I’ve even noticed today that prior to this point in time several members had BlackBerrys out. Please,” Mr. Kowalski pleaded 18 months ago.

Etiquette professionals praise the strict likes of Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Kowalski and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who insists that urgent messages be passed by handwritten note during cabinet meetings. Experts say such bans, as with those in schools, teach manners.

“It’s all in how they choose to use it – the teachers and the kids – that’s going to make or break the program. As for the Premier not having phones in his meetings, I’m all for that. That’s great. Keep it up. And it’s not necessarily a double standard,” said Ms. Post, who is the great-great-granddaughter of the late American etiquette guru Emily Post.

In Saskatchewan, Premier Brad Wall is a frequent BlackBerry and iPad user, but his cabinet faces no such ban. Instead, in caucus meetings, an errant phone ring is penalized by a $5 fine to the BlackBerry equivalent of a swear jar. Reading a BlackBerry is fair game.

Mr. Jolliffe, of the teachers’ union, says he doesn’t know “why he [Mr. McGuinty] came into this,” saying such stories have a tendency to become overblown. He’s not opposed to phones in schools, but suspects students would abuse the privilege and that most teachers support a cellphone ban.

“I have a son and he’s distracted enough already,” Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told The Canadian Press. “When he’s in the classroom, he should be learning. He should be focusing and concentrating on his schoolwork. Not texting, not surfing, not doing any of that stuff.”

Late Wednesday, the Ontario Premier tried to calm the storm.

“BB’s/cell phones in classrooms: if they’re used to help kids learn, great. If not, they’re a distraction and don’t belong,” the Premier said in a Twitter message, which he wrote from his computer – not his BlackBerry.

With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto

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