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I read an article by Alyson Klein in Education Week  recently (published 22/03/22) entitled: “Cellphones in Schools: A Huge Nuisance and a Powerful Teaching Tool.” This article is America-based and so they will A.) talk about cellphones instead of smartphones; B.) talk about the American grade system (I struggle with how this correlates to the UK system – which is also slightly different to the Northern Ireland system, just to make it interesting) and C.) use the letter ‘z’ when ‘s’ is clearly the correct spelling. So in true EdTechist fashion, this got me thinking about my own position on this thorny issue that is wrapped in C4 and placed on a minefield. So here goes…

Position: In Favour of Using Smartphones in Class

Given that we are coming out of a pandemic (to whatever degree you agree with that statement), a vast majority of school children have access to mobile technology. There is a level of technical skill that exists among our children before they come to school (thinking about post-primary). Children’s lives are so full of technology that we should be planning to help them live with it in a productive and disciplined manner. They don’t need to be on their phone all the time but teaching them to exist with it nearby, while ignoring it to focus on other things is an important skill that needs to be mastered. I mean, my iPhone has a focus setting on it for a reason, right?

Greater Engagement

So, this is my first point as to why we should look to include smartphones in some lessons – we can achieve a greater engagement and interaction from pupils in aspects of teaching where using a smartphone would enhance the lesson. Presentation apps like Mentimeter have polls and questions etc. for audience participation to increase attention, contration and give teachers insight to how their pupils might think on a subject. Other apps like Kahoot! are setup as interactive quizzes that can assess pupil understanding or recall of facts.

Cost-Effective

Secondly, smartphones can be a cost-effective way to bring technology into the class. Some schools will not have a great access to computer labs or will have to share access to tablets, so each pupil having their own device already in their pocket is a convenient solution to a lack of access to technology. I wouldn’t want pupils to be completing pieces of work on their smartphone (although I did teach a student on the BTEC Level 3 IT course who completed all her assignments on Word on her smartphone) but for small interactions, a smartphone can be a useful tool.

 

smartphone in schools

Apps that Enhance Learning

Smartphones can give pupils access to technology enhanced learning apps. YouTube, Spotify, Anchor, Flipgrid, Canva, OneNote, iBrainstorm, Otter.ai, Padlet, Soundcloud, Sway, Duolingo and Wakelet are just some of the apps that can be used to help students access learning content outside of the classroom.

Teachers are busy people and the classroom can sometimes be a chaotic place. Occasionally teachers get through the lesson by riding the crest of that chaotic wave. Sometimes getting through is all that matters! But as a potential solution to help save time, teachers can use QR codes to allow pupils to access the answers to classwork through their smartphones. This gives the quick finishers the ability to check their own work; allows the teacher to provide solutions individually and allows other students to work at their pace. Moving forward with this idea, the teacher could then set extension work that pushes more capable students in a way that does not publicise it.

Turning Consumers into Creators

My next point is one in which we take advantage of pupils’ mobile phone use. Quite simply, we turn them from consumers into creators.

I want to see my classes have their own YouTube channel, Tiktok channels and social media platforms were they talk about and explore subjects that interest them. How often do we see pupils watch videos on TikTok and wonder why are they creating better? We should be encouraging positive social media use – the type that builds a brand of learning and creating content that shapes their social media experience in a positive manner, rather than as consumers – mindlessly scrolling and consuming content without discernment or conscious thought. This type of content creation can cross curriculum lines – pupils can be presenting sort videos explaining mathematical concepts on YouTube on Monday; publish a podcast on Anchor detailing a period of History on Tuesday; create a Pinterest/Wakelet mood/inspiration board for Art on Wednesday; use OneNote to make a set of collaborative notes discussing a chapter of the book being studied in English Literature on Thursday; and use Duolingo to develop their French/Spanish speaking skills in preparation for taking part in a discussion on Friday.

These tools can be used to incorporate reflective learning – not just on the tools being used, but helping pupils to reflect on the importance of the content being created. This will help move students towards a deeper understanding of the content because they are involved in teaching others about the content.

School Budgets

Lastly, schools are (unfortunately) working on a tight budget. We would love to have something close to an unlimited budget to teach our pupils using the very best tools that are available, but unfortunately that will most likely never be the case. In this context, pupils and their smartphones will almost inevitably possess greater equipment than what schools can afford to buy once. This puts pupils and their smartphones at an advantage. The smartphone possesses all the tools we need in the classroom to make amazing digital content.

Position: Against Using Smartphones in Class

smartphones in class

Let’s call a spade a spade here: using smartphones in class is just a major pain the backside. It leads to loads of issues that are easier to avoid if they’re not present.

Life Skills

We can consider the life skill of being able to work with your phone nearby while ignoring it. Truth by told there are probably many adults who also need this skill. I have experience of a overseeing a student who was an IT apprentice who lost his position in a local company because he couldn’t leave his phone alone. Despite numerous warnings and then proceeding through the company disciplinary process, he did not change his behaviour and was dismissed from what would have been a very secure job – all for not putting his phone away during working hours. Keeping the phone out of sight keeps temptation away and allows teachers to focus on more importatn things.

Teaching this skill is not an easy one and I would be the first to admit that teachers currently have enough to teach (let’s just mention and stop at ‘Covid catch-ups’ and mental health issues in schools as two major aspects of school life that teachers need to deal with). Adding this ‘skill’ into the classroom is simply not a priority and one that teachers should not be forced to incorporate into their classroom practice.

Distractions in the Class

Pupils can be easily distracted at the best of times. Some lessons can be a race against the clock to teach what is needed before the concentration disappears. Introducing smartphones into that scenario will just make life so much more difficult and unnecessarily so for teachers.

Following on from being easily distracted, and in many ways it’s related, pupils may not always stay on task while using their phone. There are no mechanisms to stop pupils from opening other apps and abusing the time given to use their phone. This distracts them from being on task and encourages an inappropriate use of their phone, which is tantamount to sneaking snacks and can lead to the creation of addiction issues (social media addiction is now acknowledged as a thing and you can read about it here, here, and here).

Following on from being easily distracted, opening other apps, we can then arrive at the ability, potential and issue of pupils then recording what happens in the classroom or taking photographs. This presents a security and privacy issue which can easily become a bullying and/or police issue. Many teachers have a fear of being recorded by pupils and their professional activity being ridculed in the court of social media. Even taking photos and recording other students can result in accusations of cyberbullying and so it’s an easy solution to simply not have smartphones in class to avoid any of these issues happening.

Digital Divide – What Version is Your Smartphone?

Then we must consider the students. Already in the last year we have seen the rise of the need for the state to step in to provide financial aid to low-income families to help feed students who would normally have been in receipt of free school meals (UK). I don’t want to make a generalisation, but rather ask: do all students have a smartphone? From that: what type of smartphone does each child own? I have noticed in one of my year 9 classes, pupils wearingApple watches. Is introducing the use of smartphones in class introducing another digital divide or type of division among the haves and have nots? As professionals we need to be very careful about moving down this path as it may lead to a destination that none of us planned for and could create many negative issues for students.

My Position

To start with the headline, my position is in favour of using smartphones, but in a way that can utilise the best of the positives, while protecting those with concerns. A bit like the Hovis bread: Best of Both.

We cannot shy away from teaching pupils to regulate themselves. It doesn’t matter which aspect of their life it involves, it is our job to help our students and in a way that is meaningful to them. After all, do we shy away from mental health issues because it’s difficult?

I remember from my Education degree (one of the few things) that education is meant to be holisitic. That means we focus on the following areas:

  1. Cognitive development
  2. Emotional development
  3. Cognitive development
  4. Physical development
  5. Social development

We cannot ignore the social aspect of the child, any more that we can ignore emotional or cognitive aspects of the child. I will admit that what our students face today in terms of social media, technology and 24/7 connectivity is different to what many of us had growing up, but once again, we cannot shy away from it, simply because it’s difficult.

Discipline

We need to teach discipline. This is a contentious issue, particularly if you follow Katharine Barbalsingh (@Miss_Snuffy) on Twitter. In school this is not simply about wearing uniform a certain way, or not talking in the corridors. It is about preparation for a successful and productive life in society. The lessons learned as a young person can reach far into their lives – for good and bad. By teaching discipline, we can instill in them the need for a healthy lifestyle – this will hopefully remove potential health threats that obesity can bring. We can instill a work ethic – removing/reducing procrastination will lead to better and earlier completion of academic/work project tasks which will amek their life a little less stressful. How many of us have pulled all nighters before an assignment was due in university? If we had a better work schedule/discipline would this have happened? I can honestly say yes, those all-nighters would have been avoided.

Privilege of Use

Using smartphones in class should be viewed as a privilege. And privileges can be removed. If a student cannot regulate themselves, then simply remove permission of their access and get them to complete the task using pen/paper. They will learn this lesson the hard way and hopefully do better next time. We teach pupils in so many differnet ways: sometimes we will use the carrot and sometimes the stick is needed (not a literal stick of course). On occasion pupils will require corrective instruction and it would need to be clearly thought out what the whole school approach to using mobile technology will look like and what restrictions/penalties would be introduced.

Enlist the Pupils

Part of me really likes the potential of this next point, but it works best in certain subjects: help pupils to capture the learning themselves. For example, in a science experiment, get the students to record what they are doing (or record the teacher) so that they have a visual record of what they did. In getting the student to act as cameraman/camerawoman it gets them involved in the activity and the multiple  versions could allow the teacher to knit them all together to make one definitive version with multiple camera angles (whichh would look pretty spectacular) and save time from having to teach the experiment and then record it themselves at a second date – having to set it all up twice would be a pain, so anything to avoid duplication of work would be of great benefit.

Sporadic but Intentional Use

This might be an obvious point, but we won’t need to include mobile technology in every lesson. I could never advocate using technology for the sake of it – it must always be intentional and with a purpose, in order for it to ehance the learning that is happening. Be selective about the lessons in which you think would be best suited to the use of technology.

Outside of the Classroom

The solution for teachers who would be fearful of unleashing the technological beast in their classroom due to the recording and photographical elements can simply set these tasks as homework activities. If the homework is to create a presentation on the rise of Hitler (one for the History teachers) then instead of getting your class to submit the presentation, have them record their own presentation, upload the video to YouTube or Vimeo and assess their understanding of the topic through what they discuss and not just their content.

Get pupils to create a podcast to explain topics in your subject – this will be their record and an audio record of their notes which can be used for revision when exam time comes around. This would be a nightmare in class with close to 30 different voices trying to record at the same time, so this would naturally fit to be completed at home. This would also work as a repeated homework as students could make new episodes as they progress through your course.

What About the Pupils?

Lastly, listen to pupil’s ideas. What do they think about this? Some will be against it as they will be aware of their own limitations and recognise they might not be able to withstand the temptation to use their phone for non-educational purposes. But their ideas might take you on a journey that you didn’t intend on and might turn out to be the best educational decision you ever made.

Conclusion

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic – it can be pretty difficult to consider every point of view. I’m a Digital Technology teacher and while I try to think from the point of view of other subject teachers, I can never do as good a job as what you will do – because you are the expert in your subject area, not me!

Do you have any experience of having put this into practice? Then let us know what happened in the comments!

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