Why we can't dismiss phones as tools for learning

Mobile phones might be distracting but they are young people's go-to device for information, says Mark Dawe

Mark Dawe

The mobile phone is a great learning tool, writes Skills Network chief executive Mark Dawe

It has taken me a few weeks to calm down enough to write, having read the article in Tes recently on the best digital device for home learningFunnily enough, I read the article on my phone and typed my notes for it in bed, so I could calm down and get to sleep!

In the article, we received pearls of wisdom from two university professors. I am in danger of simplifying too much, but, in summary, they were saying that for online learning, you need a laptop, maybe a tablet. Phones and game consoles are of limited use and are in danger of causing distraction. As chief executive of the Skills Network (TSN), which delivers online learning, and with the benefit of three teenagers at home and a son at university, I couldn’t disagree more. This isn’t a case of flipped learning, it is a case of flipping the attitude.

My family are certainly not suffering digital poverty or exclusion and that is a very different and serious debate. It feels like our household has every device that was ever invented and in one bedroom there is a PlayStation, desktop, iPad, phone and access to a laptop. And what would be the last item that I would have to prise out of his hands, and I speak with experience? The phone.


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I am finally typing this on a laptop with a second screen as my wife watches TV on a large other screen. Meanwhile, my children are watching films and learning on TikTok and who knows what else. They could be using one of the other TVs or computer, and the house is wired up like a data centre with cables hanging from the ceiling, thanks to appalling lockdown wi-fi – don’t get me started on that. And what are all the children using? Their phone. OK, I have admitted it. I am typing on my laptop, but that is only because I don’t trust the voice recognition programme I have on my phone.

Harnessing the power of mobile phones for learning

I do see merit in the argument that phones can be distracting. Lockdown learning was a nightmare – the very device they are using for learning is the access to fun and friends across the world. A bit like me being presented with a glass of water and a nice chilled gin and tonic and told I have to drink the water and not touch the gin for three hours. But a phone or console being more distracting than a computer? Really? What do these professors think young people use their computer for? Religious research and ordering their quill pen supplies?

Those who actually work with learners chant the same mantra every morning: put the learner first. It isn’t what us old farts think, it is what the learners want, and actually many of them are as old as I am. The attitude that was portrayed in the article needs to be flipped on its head.

One of the most common questions we get at TSN is: what developments do you have on the availability and use of mobile learning technology – for the electrician on their lunch break in their van or the care worker in their workplace? And internationally, there are countries, even continents, that won't even let you on the starting line in delivering this type of learning without everything being available through a mobile device.

If the resources, systems and the engagement aren't fit for these devices, then it is us that have to change.  What resources we produce, how they are presented, the assessment, the interaction, the evidence – they all have to fit the demand and needs of our learners in this modern society. If not, we might as well get them all to go to buildings with rows of tables where they write everything in exercise books. Hmmm, perhaps we need to start there first.

Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Skills Network

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