ICT - Ringing the changes

9th July 2010 at 01:00
Traditionally regarded as a classroom menace, mobile phones are now being recognised as a learning aid with immense potential, as Sara Parker reports

Mobile phones in classrooms have had such a bad press that many teachers find it hard to think of them as a valuable educational resource. So when Lilian Soon runs a training session, she always starts by getting teachers to text comments including their "fears and cynicism" to a dedicated website and creates a "text wall" to share with the group.

"Comments like 'over my dead body' or 'it won't work' are classics," says Ms Soon, a consultant with e-training providers xlearn. "But when they see the comments projected on the 'text wall', the first barrier comes down."

She believes mobile technology is "the biggest catalyst to change in teaching practice since the ballpoint pen, giving good teachers the opportunity to spot the gap in their teaching which they didn't even know existed"

She says that by the time even the most technophobic among them have completed tasks using their phones, such as posting a picture on the photo-sharing website Flickr, www.flickr.com, creating a podcast using http:ipadio.com, or seeing how a Jpeg quiz on even the most basic mobile can work as a revision aid, they are won over. "They realise that it is not such a big learning curve and laugh at their original comments."

But she recognises the enduring nature of many of these fears. She says a starting point for using mobile phones in class is to agree a set of rules. "We need to educate young people to be responsible with technology, to learn to see the dangers and not be a bully," she says.

It is hardly surprising that there is still much scepticism over the use of phones in the classroom. Peter Harvey, the science teacher who was cleared of attempted murder in May after bludgeoning a 14-year-old with a dumbbell, was said to have been goaded by pupils who wanted to film his reaction on their phones.

In response to these and other issues, including surreptitious texting or bullying, some schools have imposed a total ban on mobiles or insisted they are switched off during school hours. But it is the camera facility that is of particular concern to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teacher union.

She is concerned that pupils will "act up" if they are being filmed. "Suggestions that mobile phones can be a valuable aid to teaching are ill-conceived and a distraction from the real issues," she says.

But English teacher Rachel Johnson says strict rules outlawing misuse encourage pupils to see mobile phones as a learning tool rather than a symbol of rebellion. After recognising the value of a large proportion of her class having video capacity on their phones, Mrs Johnson, who teaches at Sandon Business and Enterprise College in Stoke, asked some of her more able pupils to make 60-second videos of A Midsummer Night's Dream. To her surprise, she found pupils who were normally less than enthusiastic about written homework chose to edit the videos at home before playing them to the class for discussion and evaluation.

"Shakespeare is something which pupils, particularly older boys, often find boring, but this is a way of engaging with them, using a technology they understand," she explains.

She has since expanded this early success to mixed-ability groups, filming role-plays and scenes from plays to promote discussion and understanding of characters and plot while at the same time developing the confidence of shy or less able pupils.

The Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET) has been at the forefront of developing the use of mobile phones in schools. The project, funded by the Learning and Skills Council and further education colleges, has invested some #163;16 million in mobile technology in schools and colleges over the past three years, but Jill Attewell, programme manager, believes mobiles are still a largely untapped resource.

"Imaginative teachers can use even the most basic phones to enhance learning experiences with text-message quizzes and text walls in whole-class groups," she says. "Beyond that, almost all phones have cameras and can play simple games, 'smarter' phones include video cameras, audio recording, MP3 players, internet browsers and office software, while top-of-the-range phones such as the iPhone have a large number of apps, including many specifically designed to be educational."

Sharon Tonner, now a lecturer in primary education at Dundee University, picked up on the value of mobile technology a few years ago while using Bluetooth to share audio files to help her class of 11 and 12-year-olds at Dundee High School with their French pronunciation.

She believes that mobiles offer pupils the opportunity to take control of their education from any age. Even very young children unable to read or write can keep a record of their learning through photos and audio, she says. One example that can be used with young children is Lifecasting, an iPhone app that creates a short "movie" by binding images to sound in sequence.

When Notre Dame High School in Sheffield decided to let pupils use their mobiles in class, the school faced a barrage of criticism from anxious parents and some teaching unions. But Paul Haigh, assistant headteacher, says banning phones could end up being counterproductive.

"If a school bans phones, they are immediately making them cool to a certain type of child," he says. "Lots of kids use phones and don't know how powerful they are."

Mr Haigh believes that the focus on mobile phones ignores the range of mobile devices that could also be used in schools, such as the iPod touch (which doesn't have a phone), games and MP3 players. He says the school is now developing a policy that allows pupils to use their own mobile devices around school, and is reconfiguring the school network so that they can log on securely in a monitored environment. "The school network will become a Wi-Fi hotspot for pupils and their mobile devices," he says.

Mobile devices also have an application outside school. Field trips can be transformed by an iPhone's GPS navigation system or the free mapping software available on some mobiles, Mr Haigh says. Photographs can be tagged to a map location, so instead of making a field sketch, pupils can spend more time on researching an area or identifying natural features and wildlife.

These kinds of projects are made easier by the increasingly wide range of educational apps coming on to the market. For example, www.wildknowledge.co.uk offers access to the same map, survey and wildlife identification tools as those used to survey wildlife on the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya.

Ms Tonner is involved in a research project with Stockton-on-Tees City Learning Centre, which provides ICT facilities to schools, to evaluate the use of iPhones in gathering data and making observations about a local RSPB site for a Year 45 science project. One group of nine-year-olds will use iPhones, while others will use traditional clip boards and paper or cameras and voice recorders.

Val Brookes, deputy director of the learning centre, says the idea is to work out whether using the iPhones makes it easier, or whether it means pupils spend more time on technical issues, such as struggling to upload photos because the signal is not strong enough. "Until there has been proper evaluation, teachers may wonder if it is worth it," she says.

But Ms Attewell believes the increasing power of mobile phones means it is "bizarre" that some schools still compel pupils to turn them off while in class. She says the possibility that they will cause disruption is no argument for missing out on a potentially powerful educational tool.

"When I was at school, some kids discovered that highly sharpened pencils could be painful weapons, but I don't recall anyone arguing that pencils should be banned from schools," she says.

The damage that phones can do is less physical than a sharp pencil, but there are still barriers to overcome before many teachers are ready to accept that mobiles can be as useful in the classroom.

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