Good to talk. Even better to know how to switch off

4th April 2008 at 01:00

In the days of nine to five, someone else decided when we were at work. Now it's up to us

How can we all have been getting it so wrong for so long on that defining artefact of modern life - the mobile?

Ever since the mobile phone became the must-have accessory, teachers have been treating them the way saloon owners in the old Wild West treated side arms: to be hung up at the door and not - repeat not - brandished inside. But it turns out that, instead of seeing them as monstrous intrusions on the learning process, we should have been embracing them all along.

Students like using their phones. Indeed, they pretty much view it as a denial of their human rights to be told that they can't. So why not harness it to assist, rather than interrupt, their learning?

Some teachers are way ahead of the game on this, forever calling or texting their students. Others have started to use it as a teaching aid, sending text alerts as an adjunct to material covered in class. "It works," one told me recently, "because you're using technology that your students really want to use."

At this point, I must confess that my own love affair with the ubiquitous "moby" is less than all-consuming. All right, I own one. But that's not the same as organising your life around it. And mine's not exactly the most up-to-date model either. If a mugger ran off with it, you can be pretty sure they'd soon come running back to return it.

The mobile phone is one of many pieces of new technology that teachers are coming to terms with. A few weeks back, I wrote about Stephenson College in Leicestershire, which has moved into the cyber world with a vengeance. Every lecturer is issued with their own laptop computer, which they can use to get online anywhere on site. Provided they have an internet broadband connection at home, they can also work there for part of the week. Personal desks, PCs and filing cabinets are things of the past. All information is stored and accessed electronically. Even exam papers are shredded once used.

The rest of us may have to buy our own laptops, but are we really that far behind? The distinction between work, or at least the workplace, and the rest of our lives is rapidly blurring. Most colleges now offer staff the opportunity to pick up their email or access work documents online. Wherever there is a connection, we are - potentially, at least - at work.

This was brought home to me on a recent trip to New York. Saddo that I am, it was scarcely two days before I began to feel out of touch. The comfort blanket - otherwise known as the Jones laptop - was there in the apartment beside me. Intermittently, through the walls, a "zoo" signal from someone else's wi-fi was available. That heady combination of opportunity and inclination was irresistible.

In my inbox I found three emails from students, each with an attachment. Now I had marking to do. Yes, I could have left it until I got back. But that siren voice kept warning me about build up.

Colleagues tell of how they end up making that same calculation every weekend. There's nothing more demoralising than arriving at work on Monday morning to find dozens of messages waiting to be dealt with. But then, you didn't really want to spend that Sunday evening with the family, did you?

Whether by phone or computer, being in the loop 247 brings us great opportunities. In many ways, it is liberating. But it also has considerable drawbacks. In the days of nine to five, someone else decided when we were at work and when we weren't. Now it's up to us. And if we don't draw up our own "rules of engagement" - and make sure we stick to them - those new-found freedoms are likely to catapult us into a prison of our own making.

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