Using smartphones in class smartly is better than a ban

Using smartphones in class smartly is better than a ban

Separating activities inside school from those outside it creates an unnatural separation (Reuters)
Separating activities inside school from those outside it creates an unnatural separation (Reuters)
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A debate about the use of technology in schools — and, in particular, students’ use of smartphones — has been raging in the education system for years. The approaches range from the purists, who see them as the source of all evil in education and reject their use outright, to those who have fallen under their spell and see them as the be all and end all in providing all-embracing education around the clock. Then there is the third, most commonsensical group, which would like to mobilize the benefits and reduce the harmful byproducts that come with the overuse of digital technology, especially in an unregulated manner.

Tilting toward the view of the first school of thought, England’s Department for Education last month issued a new “mobile phones in schools guidance,” which encourages headteachers to prohibit the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, including at break times. This is, in my view, a draconian decision that relinquishes the responsibility of the education system to guide and educate children from a very young age in the best practices for using their mobile phone, from both the pedagogical and social behavioral aspects, instead of banishing them.

It is not only England that bans smartphones in schools, but other countries including France, Finland, the Netherlands and even China, which is the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer. In Italy, for instance, teachers collect students’ smartphones at the beginning of the day to ensure that those itchy fingers deprived of screen time do not cave into temptation.

Completely separating activities inside school from those outside it creates an unnatural separation 

Yossi Mekelberg

Few would dispute that technology, and not only smartphones, has changed the dynamic in the classroom, such as how learners acquire their knowledge, the relationship between teachers and students and the seemingly inexorable shortening of attention spans.

As with all other technologies, there are disadvantages to smartphones that can affect children’s development and make it more difficult for them to become lifelong learners. Their social skills can also be hindered, especially when there is more interaction with technology than with humans, and there are also genuine concerns about the ugly phenomenon of cyberbullying.

However, to ban smartphones outright is to apply the wrong remedy to a genuine problem. The answer is to educate young people in how to use their phones effectively and with due consideration for others, because we do not expect smartphones to disappear from everyday life anytime soon.

For many years, education systems have either avoided social issues or barred them at the school gates, instead of developing programs that help young people from an early age to deal with these issues in a thoughtful and constructive way. This could be about politics, personal relationships, controversial social issues or more generally about growing up into a responsible adult who can make informed judgments without falling into the black hole of excess.

Last year, UNESCO called for a global ban on smartphones in classrooms, even though its own director-general, Audrey Azoulay, admitted that the potential of the digital revolution is immeasurable and the challenge is to regulate its use — and she is right on both accounts.

Do not get me wrong, in all my years of teaching, I have not found that the introduction of technology was the answer to improving the quality of education. At best, it is a partial one. Moreover, there is nothing more irritating in the modern classroom than students obviously using their smartphones and looking at apps or websites, including social media, unrelated to the topic being discussed in class. With time, I have become able to tell when this was the case according to students’ facial expressions and body language. Hence, it would be foolish to argue that smartphones and other online devices are not a distraction.

The answer is to educate young people in how to use their phones effectively and with due consideration for others 

Yossi Mekelberg

Yet there are ways to change the balance between the genuine concerns about their use in class and the opportunities to enhance students’ school experience by making them active and proactive learners while using technology. The days of what, in education theory, was known as “chalk and talk” or “mug and jug” learning, which saw the teacher as the jug standing in front of the class pouring knowledge into students (the mugs), have long gone. This idea of a one-way flow of knowledge and information from the teacher to the students is no longer relevant, especially in a world where learners are exposed to infinite sources of information, some of great value and others baseless and potentially harmful.

It makes the task of the educator complex and more challenging, but a major feature of the digital revolution is its ability to help students of all ages, and according to their developmental level, to harness this vast world of information in the palm of their hands in the best possible way and ensure they take ownership of this process. Completely separating activities inside school from those outside it creates an unnatural separation and distorts the relationship between home and school, teachers and parents and the school and the wider society.

The downside of young learners with their eyes constantly focused on their phones is indisputable. Attention spans shorten, they are easily distracted by notification pings and there is a real danger of them becoming accustomed to abridged explanations and argumentations. In my experience, this does not make them less critical thinkers but more disorganized in their critical thinking, as they find it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff — and there is plenty of chaff in cyberspace — which is where good educational programs should come to the rescue.

Understandably, cyberbullying is also a key concern and should not be tolerated, but for that there are guidelines and policies, as with real-world bullying, and those who are caught engaging in such behavior should be disciplined and, in certain cases, prosecuted.

As always, hard cases make a bad law and, in this case, banning smartphones altogether from the school day is a hard case.

More research is needed to establish the short- and long-term impacts of using smartphones in education. No educator would like to raise a generation that does not interact in person with their peers and teachers and, hence, becomes devoid of social skills and is increasingly solitary, instead of active and interactive members of their societies.

But smartphones are here to stay and, instead of students waiting all day to see what they “missed” in their cyberspace life, it would become an educational moment if they were to have limited time with their smartphones and be guided in how to use them without becoming addicted to them or indulging in antisocial behavior.

Banning smartphones completely from school is just another case of the education system failing to fulfill its duty to deal with knotty issues in society instead of helping young people to develop into mature, constructive and considerate adults and citizens.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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