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What Should We Do About Mobile Phones In The Classroom?

Everyone wants to stay constantly connected but at what cost? They're so easy to disguise. Slipping a phone out of a pocket to read a text takes a couple of seconds, but it's a significant distraction. There's the issue of the digital divide.

The world is noisy; the din of voices, the roar of machines and the dull, but incessant background drone that surrounds us. Concentration doesn't come easily to everyone. The ability to focus is a gift for some, a skill to be developed for others. We know how important it is to concentrate on the task at hand and how difficult it is to avoid distraction from all that surrounds us, but arguably, our phones distract us most of all. Whether calling our attention to inform us of a new message or email, an update or newsflash, or providing us with the chance to procrastinate, to avoid whatever we're doing, the ubiquitous smart phone is one of the greatest barriers to concentration. If that's the effect on us, imagine the effect it has on children.

Of course we want our children to have their phones with them. We want to know where they are, how they're getting home, why they're late. We want them to be safe. It's about making sure they have one with them at all times, so they're in reach. We know that this isn't always the case. Phones get lost and stolen. Even more frequently, they're turned off or have run out of battery. But the idea that children are only a phone call away means everyone panics a little less. The problem is that if they are always with their phones, there's the potential to be always on their phones and that can have an effect on their education.

The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach to learning shows us the potential benefits of phones in the classroom. Students can use the phone's calculator, make notes, enjoy podcasts, read books, communicate and collaborate. If this is done within school, students can be shown how to access the internet safely. These advantages are clear and there's no doubt that beyond school, they have the potential to help students deepen their learning of a particular subject. Such independence is important, especially within a system which relies so heavily on learning a set field of information for exams. But so too can phones be disadvantageous. It's easy to support their theoretical use for educational purposes but how often, in reality, is it that phones serve a purpose which can't be served through the use of books and laptops, and, of course, the knowledge of the teachers themselves?

It's a real struggle. Everyone wants to stay constantly connected but at what cost? They're so easy to disguise. Slipping a phone out of a pocket to read a text takes a couple of seconds, but it's a significant distraction. There's the issue of the digital divide. Not all students have access to the same hardware. It's true that not all students have the same range and quality of conventional classroom equipment with them either, but it's easy to lend someone a pen. Ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of technology is much harder to achieve. And there are other practical difficulties to bear in mind. How many plug sockets would a classroom need to ensure everyone had enough battery life to participate in a phone-based task?

For a lesson to work for everyone, all students need to be engaged. The level of distraction caused by mobile phones interrupts that experience. A study of digital device use in US universities by McCoy in 2013 found 80% of respondents thought using their device 'caused them to pay less attention in the classroom and miss instruction'. A further study amongst university students found that 95% of students brought their phones into class, 92% texted during class time and 10% admitted they had 'texted during an exam on at least one occasion'. More worrying still is the role played by mobile phone usage in cyberbullying. According to one study, 41% of young people who committed cyber bullying indicated they used their mobile phones to do so. Of course this can happen both inside and outside of the classroom, but not having phones on in class reduces opportunities for such bullying.

Smart phones have become our indispensable companions. But should we try to make them a bit less so? Young people live with this technology. We can't deny this and should integrate phones when they add value but we can try our best to stop the distractions they bring with them. It isn't the fault of the phones themselves; whether they're a curse or a blessing depends on how we use or abuse them. Schools need clear policies and more importantly, they need to be consistent in applying them. We can't just see phones in classrooms as unavoidable and accept them, not in the spirit of their benefits, but as the path of least resistance. Schools could even use the Faraday cage principle to limit signal strength (blocking electromagnetic signals from the outside whilst allowing Wi-Fi inside). During lesson time, teachers must have control over who can access what and when. Perhaps students could use their phones to register at the beginning of the day, simultaneously locking them into a charging system so they're fully charged for the route home.

I want my students to give themselves the best opportunity they can to succeed. Concentration doesn't come easily to everyone but for those who do find it hard, I want to help them develop skills to avoid the distractions that come with mobile phones. I want them to switch off so they can switch on.