A headteacher recently took a phone call from a disgruntled parent. “Why is my daughter’s class sitting in a room with no teacher and no work to do?” the parent enquired. “When was this?” the headteacher asked. “Right now,” the parent replied.
A work-conscious pupil had texted her mother to say that her teacher had failed to show up, yet again, for the class. The harassed teacher had been sidetracked by his pupil-support duties. The headteacher, annoyed that a parent knew more about what was going on in his school than he did, intervened and made sure no future classes would be neglected.
This is just one of the ways that smartphones are having an impact on what happens in our schools.
When I recently asked a class of 30 pupils to put their phones on my desk, there was about £10,000 worth of hardware and sufficient computing power to govern an entire country.
A smartphone is the shrewdest investment of our pupils’ lives (and yes, I was tempted to abscond with the lot). These phones provide intelligent knowledge navigators, which can give answers to all their queries. When my daughter is doing homework, I often hear her talking to Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition service.
If a pupil gets stuck on a maths problem, they can scan their working into their phone and an app will attempt to recognise it, solve it and explain what they are doing wrong.
Voice-recognition apps are being used to produce short answers without pens or keyboards, while spelling and grammar checkers make sure pupils’ texts are free from errors. New creative-writing apps can even compose stories and essays using the keywords and commands provided.
Schools, too, must work smarter. I know of one that still sends out printed newsletters to the homes of all pupils. The cost of postage and photocopying is £2,600 and someone has to stick thousands of stamps and address labels on to envelopes. The same newsletter could be emailed or posted on the school’s website to save money and time. (Subject teachers struggling to develop better courses with minuscule budgets would certainly appreciate the additional funds.)
One pupil calculated that his school could significantly reduce its carbon footprint and make an annual saving of 13,352 sheets of paper (and nearly three big cartridges of toner) if it switched to dispatching school reports by electronic means. The school responded positively, saving money at the same time as becoming more environmentally friendly.
There are so many other ways that technology could be better exploited by schools, not only to cut costs but also to provide a better service and improve the standard of learning and teaching. Just ask the pupils – they’ve already worked it out.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland