Thursday, 15 October 2009

Are mobile phones good for the classroom?

Liz Lightfoot, writing for the Observer (11 October 2009) reports Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, saying that schools should drop their bans on mobile phones in the classroom. He cites one example of a positive use of the mobile (a child photographing the homework written up on the classroom whiteboard) and uses the general view that “technology is good” to support his thesis.

To give Liz her due, she also quotes an opposing view from Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, who notes that such technology would cause more disruption than support.

So who is right and who is wrong? Well if you read the twenty comments that have been posted (as of 15th October 2009) the vast majority of opinion supports the latter view. And so, I have to concede, do I.

I am far from being a technological Luddite, and if you’ve read my other posts you’ll know I’m a firm believer in the use of social networking technologies.

What Brookes and his followers miss in the seemingly “let’s be modern” approach, is that the most popular technology might not be the best in every context. Here are some of the issues, as I see them…

Behaviour and culture

What do most children and teenagers use their mobile phones for? If you’re a parent or a child/teenager you’ll probably say mostly a mixture of texting and listening to music, oh and throw in the odd photo and ring-tone sharing as well. Thus the mobile is intrinsically part of a communications and entertainment youth culture. Place it in the classroom environment and you’re asking the kids to suddenly start using it in a completely different way. (One of my own admitted the other day that she spent the whole day at school with her earphones plugged in, listening to music. How much of any lesson did she take in, I wonder?).

What to use the technology for

Before deciding on introducing a particular piece of technology you should think about what you want to achieve, and then define the best tools to help.  Brooks appears to have forgotten this. Yes you could use the phone’s camera to take photos of the homework, but as one of the commentators to the article points out, why not use the classroom technology to do this more efficiently and effectively (i.e. the interactive whiteboard uploads the image to Twitter – though I’d adjust this slightly to say it’s uploaded to the school’s VLE (virtual leaning environment) alongside teaching aids and reference materials). And rather than use the texting facilities of the mobile to support collaboration activities (say), use a purpose built collaboration platform (something like Elluminate) where the children can interact and collaborate, guided by the teacher, in a far richer environment than just text. (Elluninate and other similar products support written text, spoken word, video, shared whietboards and remote computer desktop manipulation).

Health and safety

Does anyone remember the scare about microwaves and where radiation from phones will fry your brain? Well maybe those fears were a little over the top, but there is an emerging literature that mobile phones can cause damage if over-used. This ranges from possible brain cell damage to hormone production – see the article from the group. Admittedly this group’s position is basically anti-mobile phone use (or, more accurately, over-use), but their arguments and supporting evidence are quite compelling. At the very least, compelling enough to act on the side of caution and say that use of mobile phones should be kept to a reasonable level rather than increased. However, even if you don’t agree with this research, one factor that is incontrovertible is that having music/audio played too loud can damage the ear. If you’re anything like me (and a parent) you’ll often be telling your children to turn down the sound level because if you can hear it across the room it must be on too loud. And how are schools going to regulate that?


Whilst it doesn’t cost much to text (and many schemes give free texts anyway), using phones for Internet access is not free and can be very costly. I would not be happy, as a parent, to think that schools were encouraging my children to use Internet facilities on their phones. In any case schools are all joined up to the National Grid for Learning so access to the Internet is not only more cost effective that way, it is more productive (higher bandwidth) (NB: the NGfL web site wasn't working when I tried to access it on 15th October 2009).


Liz Lightfoot’s article touches on this topic as well as she mentions lost or stolen phones. And certainly that’s an issue. And there's also the emerging issue of phone bullying. But there’s also safe communications. Schools that use their own Internet connections can build in safety mechanisms and controls: this isn’t possible to the same degree once you start using personally owned devices. One school quoted in the article has given out its own smartphones, and that would certainly get over this issue (but not the rest of the above).

So on balance I’d argue that mobile phones do not have a place in the classroom. The sort of technology they represent can be provided more effectively in other ways, and the risks of disruption and damage to health thus avoided. I’m not a technology Luddite, I’m a proponent of using tools effectively: define your need first and only then decide what tools you need to support delivering that need.

No comments:

Post a Comment