As we are coming up to the end of the year, I thought I might write about my observations over the last year with the use of mobile phones by students in schools. There is a review going on right now (edit: the results are in. Phones banned in NSW primary schools, with an opt in strategy for high schools) about the non educational use of mobile digital devices in NSW Schools. The review is examining the policies, practices and views of both government and non-government schools in NSW, including schools for specific purposes and central schools. The review will include evidence related to the benefits and risks of mobile digital devices, primarily smartphones, in schools for children and young people and approaches and practices to support students’ use of such devices in safe, responsible, and informed ways. France have banned use of mobile phones this year by students in all schools to help with socialisation, online safety and bullying and theft.
Many schools in NSW already have their own bans in place. Some schools ban all phone use on school grounds, some have a partial ban, or ban younger students only.
Every school I visit, I always ask what their mobile phone and Laptop policies are, this helps me to understand what sort of issues students, teachers and parents might be having, and it also helps me understand how each system is working for each school. So over the last 8 years I’ve built up quite a bit of my own data on how different schools are managing device use.
Primary Schools and Phones
I have yet to come across a primary school in Australia who allows students to take phones into class rooms or use them in playgrounds. Each school generally has its own policy. Some schools require all students to hand them into the main office before school and pick them up after school classes end. Some require students to keep them switched off and in bags, some primary schools have lockers where they are kept, or a basket where they are stored by the class teacher. I haven’t received any negative feedback from teachers in the primary schools I have visited in regards to banning mobile phones during class times.
I am also hearing about issues around smart watches. One primary school principle told me this week, that smart watch use by children to text or receive texts is also a problem, and he is extending the phone ban to smart watches. I’ve certainly seen quite an uptake of smart watches both in primary school and high school, and the tricky bit is firstly identifying a smart watch…some look like regular watches. Spotting a phone is fairly easy, but a smart watch….much more difficult. If the only watch a child had was a smart watch, then putting it in airplane mode or switching the companion phone off so it couldn’t be called or texted is still risky and may rely on the child to comply. Some parents are giving young students smart watches with calling or texting ability because they actually want their child to be able to contact them during the school day. This is leading to all sorts of issues with students calling parents to complain about teachers, or requesting left behind lunches and homework, or even requesting to be picked up early from school because they are upset about something. Smart watches are really taking off. I’m asked about them at every parent talk I give. Some reviews Here:
Spacewatch is an Australian watch with some parental controls and no camera.
Most primary schools teach digital skills and use internet connected devices either in Libraries, or they may have a trolly full of iPads or other tablets. Some primary schools are introducing BYOD (bring your own device) laptops or iPads in year 6 or even younger years.
High School And Phones
Highschools in Australia all have different rules around the use of smart phones during school hours. I have visited many high schools both public and private that already have a full ban on the use of phones during school hours, some have had a phone ban in place for as long as mobile phones have been around!
Full School Ban
The feedback I get from teachers, students and parents in schools that have a phone ban is overall positive. Staff at these schools all tell me that that whilst sometimes there might be a student who breaks the rules, it is usually only a few that do, and the consequence is usually confiscating the phone for a short time, it might be over a day or so. Parents generally support the ban and find other ways to communicate with their child, usually by contacting the school office. These schools generally don’t see a ban as a big issue at all. Most schools have alternative computers or tablets for looking things up online, or taking photos of projects. One school I visited doesn’t allow personal laptops either, students have access to computers in computer rooms or the library, where ever they have classes requiring computers they attend them in the computer rooms. There are of course still issues on mobile phones after school that these schools have to deal with. But these schools feel that they have fewer overall negative incidents involving digital devices, less distracted students at school, and more positive outcomes for socialisation and learning.
Schools which allow BYOD devices or school issued devices normally connect to the filtered school Wi Fi system, and they can’t be easily “Hotspotted” by phones if the phones are left in lockers. Some schools have implemented software to supervise what students are doing on their laptops or tablets during class. BYOD devices can of course bring apps and content that would not normally be allowed in schools, without needing any internet connection to use it or show content to others. I recommend that schools be sure that all parents of students with BYOD are highly educated on filtering options at home for these devices in order to limit the inappropriate material being brought into schools. Some schools have control software installed on BYOD devices to block access to inappropriate content.
Some schools have designated areas that students can use their own internet connected devices during lunch and recess times. They may also ban phones.
Some schools only allow senior students to have access to their phones during school, but they still have to respect use in class and will be told to put them away at times. Even in some senior classes I have met teachers who insist students put phones in a basket during class. In some schools each individual teacher has their own way of dealing with mobile phone use in the classroom, some incorporate it, and some ban it.
Some schools allow students to be on their phones at anytime, except for during class, unless specifically asked to look something up on their phone, or use their phone for recording. In some schools where students don’t have their own laptop, then some teachers will rely on students to find things on their phone, teachers report this can work well, but will admit that there is often a student who doesn’t respect the rules and does something else. I visited a school where some teachers allowed a 5 min social media check during class, to answer texts and check up on Facebook or Instagram. This, they felt was one way of making sure that students didn’t need to sneak a look.
Feedback from Teaching Staff
Overall I found there was less support for allowing students to have phones during class times in schools. The reasons that teachers gave for supporting a ban were:
- Mobile phones can be a distraction for students at school.
- The social culture at the school was difficult, less friendly and more tribal.
- New students struggled to “join” in and make new friends in year 7 as they were constantly in contact with their old friends via phones.
- Teachers found it very difficult to police and keep kids on track, the phones were a constant issue of contention
- Even asking students to put them in a basket was hard work with some students having a “second phone” or hiding a phone
- Phones can be used to take inappropriate invasive photos and videos in schools – which may open schools to litigation in the future if there is harm done via a video or photo taken on school grounds.
- Mobile data evading the school Wi Fi filters opened up students to exposure to inappropriate content on school grounds
- The mobile technology was too hard to monitor – a ban was easier
- Teachers were worried about students filming and taking compromising photos of them
- Parents and students texting each other at school was a big problem, with some students complaining about teachers, or wanting to go home.
- Wearables like smart watches and earbuds were something that were also becoming a problem.
- A few teachers used the phones in class and did not see them as a problem
- Some teachers felt they could handle the phones in school issue, but some teachers struggled with it.
- Some schools I visited just couldn’t envision how a ban would work. It’s been put in the too hard basket, and they didn’t want to do it without parental support.
It’s not just phones…..wearing headphones around the school is also a big issue, with students being asked to take headphones off during class. I personally observed a student wearing headphones into my talk and hiding them from staff. With wireless earbuds taking off it’s becoming even harder to tell if a student is listening to music or a podcast in class. Some new in-ear wireless earbuds have storage, so they don’t even need a phone or watch to stream content. Students are probably already listening to music or podcasts during class and teachers are probably not aware of it. Watches can make calls, message, read social media, emails, have games and much more. This is a much wider issue of wearable technology distraction than phones.
In schools I have visited where there are phone bans the behaviour of the students is noticeably different from schools with no ban, and this is backed up by feedback from the staff. Students have a far better attention span, they are talking and playing with each other in recess and lunch as opposed to sitting in groups on their phones. There is more eye contact and socialising over all. There is certainly less yelling by teachers to tell students to put their phones away or remove ear phones. Teachers in schools where there isn’t a phone ban report to me that they find that the attention span of students is markedly shorter than what they would find at a school with a phone ban. Teachers report that there are fewer incidents both in school and out of school online where phones in school bans are in place. This varies due to demographics, and parents education and awareness of technology.
The Side Against A Ban
The reasons some educators do not support phone ban is that they feel a ban is backwards – anti technology or draconian and unworkable. They feel that phones can be included in lessons and students taught to use them responsibly. I can certainly see that side of the argument as a tech positive person. But I think it also depends very much on the demographic of the students, how many students there are, and what other technology there is available to do the same job as a phone can in a classroom. Some teachers are much more tech savvy than others, and can find ways of integrating phone use in class rooms in a useful way.
The argument that teens will learn to moderate their own behaviour if they are taught to use phones respectfully in school, may have some merit, but we do need to recognise that teens are not adults, and they do use digital devices quite differently to adults. They are in a different space to adults, more likely to be risk taking and still discovering themselves and dealing with puberty.
Some schools may allow phone use during class as long as the phone is connected to the school Wi Fi, or has a parental control filtering software app on it. A good question for an educator might be why a phone and not a tablet or laptop? Are there economic issues to consider? Do the benefits of in-class mobile phone use really outweigh the possible downsides?
Content Restrictions Issues with 4G
There is also the issue of phones not needing to be connected to the school filtered Wi Fi to access the internet. Whilst not always 100% secure, school filtered Wi Fi can at least limit the platforms and media that students can access. This limits the potential for viewing and sharing inappropriate content. Schools are responsible for what children are exposed to on school grounds, and how they use their internet connected devices at school. It is impossible to limit content with unfiltered phones. Should all phones brought into schools have filtering software enabled on them? How would that be maintained?
Legal Implications For Schools
The issue of safety for all students and teachers is incredibly important. Limiting the type of irresponsible behaviour that phones can bring much easier into schools is an important consideration. It is simply harder to behave irresponsibly on school filtered Wi Fi with a Laptop or Tablet than it is on a smaller more portable personal phone. The size of the phone makes it easy to hide and can be used fast and without notice.
If a student finds inappropriate content on a school Wi Fi or school issued device, the school is of course liable, so they work very hard to make sure that their devices are as secure as they can be. There may be legal implications is another student is shown violent or pornographic content, or is harmed through the use of a personal mobile phone on school grounds. If a teacher is filmed or recorded without permission and the video is used in a harassing way there are of course legal and criminal implications. Schools may be liable for any illegal or harassing behaviour that has happened as a result of the use of a personal mobile phone by students. This is something each school and the department of education have to weigh up when deciding on the rules around phone use in schools. The risks vs the benefits or rights of the students to have their phones on them during school hours.
Teachers have reported to me that they have been filmed and photographed at schools on mobile phones. I’ve also seen an increase of videos taken inside schools uploaded to social media sites like YouTube, and TikTok in schools. Some videos include teachers or staff, who may not know that their image and behaviour has been uploaded to a public platform.
BYOD devices also have issues of responsibility, but schools have rules about not “Hotspotting” these devices to 4G devices to evade Wi Fi restrictions. Of course some students will get around this, and they do. But like every other rule in school it is then a matter of discipline and consequences.
Why Aren’t Some Schools Banning Phones Already?
Teacher at some schools I have visited feel banning phones may cause a greater problem because of the trouble with policing it. They may not have the facilities to make sure that phones are left in lockers for instance, leaving phones in bags is of course less secure. It would also require support of parents, and some parents will push back against any confiscations given. Some schools do not want to confiscate phones from students as there is an issue with responsibility for the phone, some phones are worth at least $1,000.00. Some teachers tell me that they have enough problems disciplining students as it is, and adding a mobile phone ban into the mix is just too hard.
The Bottom Line:
Any research needs to show the upsides and downsides of allowing phones in schools, but also take into account different demographics and economics. Does incorporating phone use in school really teach students better more responsible phone use, and enhance their education? Do some schools use mobile phones in class in Liu of available technology, due to funding issues around computers? Hopefully the study will give some good ideas on how schools can manage either scenario, so that it is a safe workable solution.
I have found that in many schools that do ban in school time phones, they are generally not “anti technology” at all. Some have the most cutting edge technology available for students at the school, including state of the art computers, 3D printers, film studios with editing facilities and more. Some have told me they are simply not convinced that allowing smart phones during school hours helps students to stay focused and develop good relationships with their school community.
Lastly, with the uptake of wearables, like watches, some easily hidden like in- ear wireless earphones, what guidelines will be set up for devices just on the horizon….smart glasses? (snapchat and Google already released them…) ..shoe with computer?