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Friend or foe?

One teaching union has branded mobile phones potential offensive weapons. But there's a growing realisation that, despite their nuisance value, they also represent a huge untapped learning resource - and a cheap one at that

One teaching union has branded mobile phones potential offensive weapons. But there's a growing realisation that, despite their nuisance value, they also represent a huge untapped learning resource - and a cheap one at that

As the best-of lists of cool gadgets for the past decade start to fill Sunday newspaper magazines, all-singing, all-dancing, camera-boasting mobile phones will be up there with the iPod and Google as some of the Noughties' best technological advances. But when it comes to the classroom, the devices are deemed far from desirable.

When Notre Dame High School in Sheffield announced that it was considering using mobile phones and MP3 players in lessons last month, the news was met with shock and indignation from the tabloid press. Notre Dame's assistant headteacher, Paul Haigh, described mobiles as "a huge untapped resource", enabling pupils to get involved in technology without the school buying more hardware.

But the move was blasted by the NASUWT, which called for an ban on mobiles. Chris Keates, its general secretary, branded them a "potentially offensive weapon" and blaming them for a range of offences against teachers, from staged incidents where pupils record teachers' reactions and then post the video on YouTube, to manipulating photos taken in class and posting them online.

Ms Keates is aware her position has been seen as anti-progress, but argues that protecting teachers' privacy doesn't equate with shunning new technological methods.

"I don't subscribe to the view that teachers aren't knowledgeable about technology," says Ms Keates. "This idea that because a teacher says, `I don't find mobile phones useful in my lesson,' they're a technology Luddite, is insulting to the profession. Often the suggestion comes from people who've lost touch with the day-to-day realities of the classroom."

Despite the outcry, increasing numbers of teachers are using their initiative to incorporate mobiles into parts of lessons. Even aside from web capabilities on smart phones, the humblest mobile phone will feature a camera, a voice recorder and text messaging, which can be used across the curriculum. Teachers with experience of using mobile phones in a learning context argue that the debate should shift away from why they should be used to how.

For Ollie Bray, the national adviser for learning and technology futures at Learning and Teaching Scotland and the deputy head at Musselburgh Grammar School, classroom management is key, and the same would apply with any new piece of equipment.

"The teacher and students should establish a set of rules for the use of phones in class," he says. "If someone decides to break these rules or makes a mistake, then this might result in the loss of privilege or some other sanction."

Using a mobile phone doesn't necessarily require the most up-to-date technological knowledge. However, most of the successful, educational examples of mobile phone use in the classroom have been at schools and colleges with a solid grounding and support for ICT, suggesting that it is teachers who are confident in their own understanding and knowledge of technology and its use who are happy to try them out in a learning context.

"Some teachers need to be more confident in asking pupils for help and asking them how they are already using this technology out of school to help them learn," says Mr Bray. "Do some teachers have a problem with pupils using mobile phones, or do they have a problem with classroom management? And how are senior leadership teams tackling this through monitoring supervision?"

Mr Bray, who also happens to be an NASUWT member, acknowledges the risk to teachers, but believes that banning phones won't minimise this risk. Health and safety is already assessed when looking at many aspects of school life, especially outdoor activities, and the same should apply to mobile phone use.

"School trips go ahead because the risk is acceptable, some go ahead after extra control measures have been put in place and some are not allowed to run because the activity is too risky. How much is the use of mobile phones in school `actual risk' or `perceived risk'?" he says. "How many schools have thought about risk-assessing the use of technology in the same way that they would a school trip?"

At Sheffield College, pupils (between 14 and 19) and parents have to sign a contract agreeing to appropriate behaviour before they're allowed to use mobile phones in school. David Pickersgill, the manager of the college's digital centre of vocational excellence, says that giving pupils that responsibility has a positive effect on their behaviour. Of course, there is still a risk that the contract will be broken, but this is something teachers have to take on board. "That doesn't mean that they should be banned for everyone," he says.

Sheffield College is one of 115 colleges and 29 schools working under the MoLeNET programme, part of the Learning and Skills Network's mobile learning initiative. In total, it has provided 21,000 learners (mostly post-14) with mobile phones and other handheld technologies, and is expanding.

Sheffield College received a grant of pound;300,000 to be invested in mobile equipment, including 200 smart phones, and the devices have revolutionised learning even more than anticipated. Hair and beauty students are able to look up hairstyles online when they're in the salon, take photos of their work and then post them online to receive feedback. Animal and husbandry students can take quick notes on their phone while doing fieldwork, or if they want further information about something technical they don't understand, they can look it up online.

For a vocational, ICT specialist college, using mobile phones is seen as a pragmatic, common-sense approach. "Whether they can or can't be trusted (to use phones), when they get into the real world, they'll need it," says Mr Pickersgill. Ideally, he would like pupils to be able to access the internet all over the school "just like we would if we want to work in Starbucks or even McDonald's", in order to give them a sense of the real, working world.

The government technology agency, Becta, seems to agree. It recommends a "gradual adoption" of mobiles until their use is "as natural as any other technology" employed in lessons. According to a report the agency published at the start of this year, secondary schools only have on average a laptop for every 61.4 pupils and a desktop computer for every 4.3 pupils. As phones become an essential piece of kit for young people, and as the technological capabilities of phones expand, why wouldn't schools take advantage of free resources?

At King James's School in Knaresborough, Paul Walters, the school's ICT development manager, decided to capitalise on the resources that pupils were carrying around with them everyday. "The last poll I did, 98 per cent of our pupils had a mobile phone anyway, so it seemed to me ridiculous to try and ban them," he says. "It's a piece of technology that kids live by - they're never without it - so it feels artificial to prevent them from having it. It's just a part of their life."

In Mr Walters's opinion, the last thing schools want is for the "rabble- rousers" to be in command of the technology. "At our school, it's not a case that every kid is walking around with a phone doing what they like with it. For a lot of the time, they'll be switched off and put away."

Three years ago, mobile phones had been banned and they were causing disruption. Now that they are permitted, the phones hold less of an attraction to the pupils, and it has proved easier to regulate. "A better argument would be about appropriate use, asking, `Why are you doing that with your phone?' rather than `Why do you have your phone?' I think it depends on your own school circumstances, though. You've got to look at your relationship with the kids."

Teachers have used mobile phones as an aid to take photos of English texts or the whiteboard for future review; timing experiments; downloading and listening to foreign-language podcasts; and recording someone reading a poem for revision. A research report into the MoLeNET programme also noted that a further advantage of mobile phone use in schools is increased communication between teachers and pupils regardless of location, or if pupils can't attend school for whatever reason.

Yet developing a school culture that encourages pupils to communicate with teachers via mobile phones also has its risks: communicating one-on-one, out of school hours, means that the boundary between teachers and pupils becomes blurred.

When details surrounding the affair between Christopher Reen of Headlands School and one of his pupils became public in September, it emerged that he had sent hundreds of text messages to the schoolgirl, who was not yet 16. In the same month, Helen Goddard, a music teacher, was charged with having a relationship with a pupil during which she had communicated with her regularly via text message. Back in February, James Davies, a Welsh TA, was sentenced to 12 months in prison after sending suggestive text messages and engaging in sexual activity with two schoolgirls.

There is genuine concern that wireless communication can quickly become informal and breach formal rules of interaction between pupils and teachers. But there are ways for this to be avoided while still using mobile phones for learning. The NASUWT, NUT and Becta all advise a whole- school approach to safeguarding teachers' privacy. For a start, schools should have a system that prevents teachers giving out personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers.

With effective ICT support in schools, these risks can be minimised. At King James's School, pupils text and Bluetooth the school's wireless system, so there is no direct pupil-teacher communication. Some schools provide standard phones for teachers' professional use, so pupils know that any teacher could access it, and individual teachers are unlikely to use it from home.

Bringing mobile phones into the school environment does present a risk, but it is one that has to be tackled and managed, rather than brushed under the carpet. They are here to stay and will only become a more prevalent part of our lives. "Schools are no longer just a building, and learning no longer just takes place between 9am and 3.30pm," concludes Mr Bray.

Finding comfortable ground between the mobile phone being an essential classroom tool and an offensive weapon, however, may still take some time

Using mobiles for learning

  • Identify and support champions - volunteer teachers who are prepared to take some risks.
  • Initiate discussions about using mobile phones for learning (perhaps using pupil voice work) and survey ownership, device capability and the ways mobile phones are already being used in the school.
  • Involve those who have responsibility for curriculum, student management and technical support to plan how they will be used.
  • Provide hands-on, small-scale opportunities for teachers to try out appropriate uses for mobile phones.
  • Encourage teachers to design activities that make the learning purpose clear and to anticipate management issues at the classroom level (such as rules and etiquette).
  • Inform parents of the learning purposes for mobile phones and involve them in establishing appropriate ownership, management and ethical arrangements.
  • Anticipate and address technical issues ranging from battery-charging to network access, security and data protection.
  • Develop new school policies that shift the focus of attention away from the device to the uses, security and behavioural issues that are the real concern.

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