Ring in the changes

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Like them or not, mobile phones are a fact of life in schools, and for teachers that means a rethink for lessons and exams, writes George Cole.

Don't own a mobile phone? Then you're in a minority. More than 50 per cent of the UK population now own a mobile phone and surveys suggest that in a few years almost everyone will have at least one.

One reason for the boom has been the rise of pre-pay phones. While owning a mobile phone once meant taking out a contract with a network provider like Vodafone or Orange and paying a monthly subscription, pre-pay phones let users buy a mobile handset then use top-up vouchers to make calls. When the voucher is used up, another one is purchased - simple.

Pre-pay phones are popular with students because they let them keep a tight control on spending on calls. And many parents have bought pre-pay phones for their children as a means of keeping in touch.

But mobiles are not only used for making calls. A popular feature is the Short Message Service (SMS), a sort of email for sending text messages from one mobile to another. The messages, which can be up to 160 characters long, are typed on the mobile handset's keypad and displayed on a phone's LCD screen. SMS is popular with young users mainly because it is cheap to use - SMS calls typically cost around 5-10p a minute - but also because, like email, it delivers quick messages without full conversation.

The Mobile Data Association (MDA) says 560 million chargeable SMS messages were sent last August alone, 50 million more than the previous month, and suggests this increase is partly due to A-level students swapping results with friends over their mobile phones. Some people are even listening to music thanks to phones that can double up as MP3 players.

Last year saw the arrival of the first WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones, which allow phone users to access areas of the Internet. WAP handsets have a built-i Web browser that can access specially developed Web pages and Net information can be downloaded and displayed on a handset's LCD. However, WAP's claim to be "the Internet in your pocket" is somewhat overhyped. WAP phones cannot access most websites, can only display text and simple black-and-white graphics, offer download speeds about five times slower than a telephone modem, can only display several lines of text at a time and use fiddly keypads to create emails (although many mobiles use predictive text systems which guess the words. Using a WAP phone was a disappointing experience and there was talk of Wapathy and a Waplash!

But WAP phones should improve with the arrival of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) early next year. This technology will offer faster data download speeds and a permanent Net connection - users will not have to dial up an Internet connection before going online. In a few years, third generation (3G) phones will offer even faster connections and true Web browsing on a mobile phone.


* Some schools ban mobiles altogether, but this means pupils can't contact their parents outside of school hours. A better policy would be to ban the use of phones during school hours or to restrict their use to free times such as lunch breaks.

* Mobile handsets should be switched off in lessons.

* During tests or examinations, mobile phones should be handed to the supervising teacher or put inside a bag out of the student's reach.

* During school hours, parents should make any emergency calls via the school office and not directly to the pupil's mobile phone.

* Mobile phones brought into schools should be the sole responsibility of the student, although some schools do look after handsets owned by younger pupils until the end of the school day.

* Don't forget that mobiles can be used for sending silent text messages as well as for speech calls.

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