Left to their own devices

16th November 2012 at 00:00

Listen. There is no noise. We are in a classroom, but all that can be heard is the sound of silence. Well, comparatively. What is really absent is the trilling of mobile phones as they sing their plaintive songs of imminent connection.

So does this mean that the problem of the handheld communication device in the classroom has gone away? Sadly, no. Only that the story of technological distraction has moved on a little.

These days most students have got the message that having their phone switched to "audible" is a no-no. Instead they keep it close to their chests - literally close - and run out of the room when it starts to vibrate, indicating that an urgent call of nature (rather than a non- urgent call from mum) is precipitating the exit.

But then, phones nowadays are not only to do with talk. Turn your back for a moment and it will all be happening below the desk line, the frantic fingers texting like there's no tomorrow. And the internet is now freely available on smartphones. If a class lasts for, say, two hours, can we really expect students to be away from their Facebook and Twitter accounts for all that time? Things are happening out there, and they need to know about them and respond.

Maybe you think I am exaggerating. If so, just look at the recent survey commissioned by one of the big electrical goods retailers. Up to half of respondents confessed to using social media during what was described as a "romantic meal out". A third also thought that accessing their Facebook account during a first date was a perfectly reasonable thing to do; apparently it gave them "something to talk about".

I showed a newspaper report on the survey to some of my students. "Not me, guv" was the most common response, with a number expressing horror at the thought of tweeting the night away on that first date. All right, I thought, let's push it a little further. What place did they think the mobile should have in the classroom? In other words, if they were me, what policy would they be putting in place?

"Call me old-fashioned," one 19-year-old wrote, "but when it comes to students having a phone in class, I don't think it's a good idea. Someone texting may not bother me, but it bothers the teacher - meaning that my learning is interrupted."

Of the dozen or so respondents, not one wanted to weaken the no-tolerance rule on mobiles. Rather, they wanted its enforcement beefed up. And while they were not 16, most were still nearer to 20 than 30. Interestingly, some of the toughest responses came from students I had pulled up at one time or another for their own mobile usage in class.

So is the problem getting better or worse? Probably the answer is neither, just that the dimensions of the challenge are changing. To see what it might look like in future, I ask you to consider Alfie. He is the one- year-old son of my niece and the first of the new generation of Joneses. At a recent family gathering Alfie was performing for the cooing relatives. We watched as he played, mildly engaged, with his three-piece jigsaw. But once he had his mother's iPhone in his hands he was a different child: absorbed, alert and sliding his little forefinger across the screen as if this, and only this, was the activity he had been born for.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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