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'Having phone access removed dashed all dreams of a Utopian, phone-free classroom'

Having her phone taken from her for a matter of a few hours has cured Sarah Simons of her dream of a college classroom without digital distractions

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Having her phone taken from her for a matter of a few hours has cured Sarah Simons of her dream of a college classroom without digital distractions

I’ve been student wrangling just short of a decade. So I can only imagine what it was like to teach a class without having to gently remind students to “put your phones away” every five minutes.

Yes I know, phones are a solid gold learning resource to harness attention and gallop off to the sacred ground of engagement. With some groups, I have used phones to do just that, however, with others, they are the cause of yet another battle.

On those occasions, there’s a long way to go behaviourally before there’s any chance of perceiving phones as anything other than a distraction. Not to mention the added layer of hostility that asking them to produce and, as a result, compare phones sometimes adds. Some students don't have smartphones, and yes I know, they could work in teams and share someone else’s device, but highlighting what they don’t have, rarely helps.

Though I have a difficult relationship with students’ phones, I love my own. Like most people I use it to communicate, to work and to play. But recently, I had to spend time without it. We all did.

Double-edged sword

When I bought tickets for my husband and me to see US comedian Chris Rock on his arena tour, there was a box to tick, asking us to consent to the use of a "Yondr" pouch to pop phones away at the gig. I naturally assumed this was a commonplace piece of tech etiquette which had passed me by. Apparently not. Apparently, this is a new thing.

From the performer’s point of view, especially a comedian, I can see why this would be a necessity. Having worked with any number of comedians in my pre-FE life, I know that telly – and, more recently, YouTube – is a double-edged sword. Yes, a telly appearance can send an audience flocking to live gigs and the TV performance itself can be well paid, leading to more of the same. However, once that set is filmed, it’s dead. A performer may have been working for years to develop a "tight 10" –  10 minutes of gags that they know work, which they can use and perfect in stage performances around the country over months or even years. Once the routine is filmed and consumed online, it can't be used again in live performances. The audience will clock that the seemingly off-the-cuff chat is, in fact, a precision crafted piece of art.

For Chris Rock to take measures to control the consumption of his work seems sensible, especially since it was reported that there’s a multi-million dollar deal with Netflix in place. But in practice, as an audience member, being made to lock my phone away felt a little bit "police state".  

When we got to the arena, we were searched airport style – common at most arena gigs – then asked to produce our phones. Security people then placed our devices in a snug foam-fabric envelope – a Yondr pouch – and fastened it tightly with a tag similar to the ones they use in clothes shops or on sirloin steak in our Co-op. We were then given our pouched phones back.

Chris Rock and roll with it

The first disconcerting thing about removing the phone from my tight clutch was having no idea what time it was. I rarely wear a watch and neither does my husband. Consequently, in this very specific Lost spin-off, watch wearers became of higher status, repeatedly having to update enquirers. 

Another element of phone-less anxiety was not being able to communicate with our son. We knew we wouldn't be able to, so had asked a few friends and neighbours to be on standby in case of emergency. At nearly 14, he refuses a babysitter on the rare occasions we go out in the evening without him. But I usually phone-stalk him to make sure he is warm enough, has enough to eat, and hasn’t burned the house down.

As the arena filled up, it was strange to see faces. Usually when there’s a gathering waiting for something, glancing around the room you see only a mass of scalp and roots, so many of them are looking down at screens. Uniting in communal weirdness, people began to chat, the main topic of conversation was the communal weirdness.

As we left the arena following an excellent and surprisingly moving performance by Chris Rock, we unlocked our Yondr pouches by tapping them on a bit of kit, and our electronic babies were reborn. 

Interestingly, Yondr, the American phone-free-space merchants, work with schools. Their website says they “work directly with teachers and principals to create custom phone-free learning environments in schools, classrooms and testing centers”. There are quotes from educators trumpeting that "engagement is up", "school culture had transformed" and "students get more done".

My experience of having my phone access removed has dashed my dreams of a Utopian phone-free classroom. Though I would never use my phone in class unless it was part of the session, like a Kate Bush concert goer (and unlike many students) I choose not to use it because it would be disrespectful.

Maybe Yondr-ing would be an interesting experiment in colleges, but the rebellion that an enforced phone-jacking could cause among students may not be worth the hassle. Your call.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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