Opinion: ‘If personal devices are too distracting, a technical solution must exist so we can have our cake and eat it, too’

Former schools minister, and TES Global's chief education adviser, Lord Jim Knight has always been an advocate for the learning opportunities of mobile technology – but now he’s spending six productive hours a week in a wi-fi black spot, he’s not so sure…

Jim Knight

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I am writing this on the train. The London to Weymouth service now offers free wi-fi but it is so unreliable I turn it off. I go almost three hours without being connected to the internet. There and back means I spend close to six hours each week in this cut-off state, relying on the occasional bit of phone signal.

This is my most productive period of the week. Free from the distractions of social media and new emails, it is my best hope of clearing out old messages and getting work done that needs concentration.

I read two related articles this week. This one from New York magazine makes the case against laptops in the classroom.

I was particularly struck that fellow tech evangelist Clay Shirky has banned devices from his lectures. “Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting,” he writes, “especially compared with the hard slog of coursework.”

If Clay is banning smartphones and laptops then I have to take notice.

second piece then appeared in the Boston Globe. This points to some of the great educational uses of personal devices while reminding us of the recent LSE study that shows higher test scores in schools where phones are banned.

I have for some time been an advocate for mobile phones in school. Have I got it wrong, especially as I now experience the benefit of time uninterrupted by connected services?

My argument has been that these are really powerful computers that can aid research, presentation and even assessment. They are ubiquitous and trying to ban them is fighting a losing battle, so why not turn that around and use them for learning?

If behaviour problems are associated with mobiles then it seems to me they should be addressed by schools’ behaviour policies. When I was at school we abused the technology that was available to us – we wrote nasty things about each other and our teachers on the toilet walls – but no one suggested banning pens.

I also don’t believe that many employers would ban personal phones from the office, despite the distractions. Shouldn’t we just include education about when to turn off social media notification and give young people valuable digital skills for future work?

Ultimately this is down to headteachers and their staff to navigate. I am certainly less clear in my own mind about what is best. But I do have one more thought before I try to get a signal on the train to see if I can get a lift home in the rain. If personal devices are potentially powerful learning tools but are being banned because they are too distracting, a technical solution must exist so we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Is there an app I could put on my phone to turn off all social media notifications during school time? Could we deal with the distraction that way and keep the power of the device for learning when appropriate?

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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