Schools banning phones in class: we’re still learning.

Education Minister James Merlino announced a ban on mobile phone use for students at all Victorian state primary and secondary schools yesterday—but the fact is, we should have done this sooner. For the last ten years, Victorian schools haven’t really been able to police what devices end up in the classroom to serve as unwitting distractions for students across the state.

A mobile phone in class. It would have been near unheard of back in the 80s. Back in the day, lugging around those bricks to and from class on the off chance someone might call you was too ridiculous for any student to consider beneficial. Somebody should have told them that in 20 years’ time, 95% of American students would bring their phones to class every day. I imagine the number here in Australia is not dissimilar. 

I suppose if you want an educational console, the DS was the best thing for schools in 2009.

Over the last few years, the Education department has encouraged the use of additional technology. The mobile phone debacle here in Australia might even be traced back to a short-lived government push for computers in the classroom. The Digital Education Revolution: a spunky name for an otherwise basic mandate, ensuring “one million Australian upper secondary students get an education with the latest technology, to prepare them for the jobs of the future”. In layman’s terms, this meant personal laptops in classrooms, and better internet connectivity for students and teachers. I was lucky—my primary school received the option of laptops in Grade 6, but my school played a peculiar card (and note: I can’t find any other instances of this occurring on record). The Grade 5 students, who we shared a class with and were not yet covered by the “revolution” did not receive laptops, but played on Nintendo DS Lites over the course of two hours during the week. Of all gaming consoles around in 2009, at least the DS had the most memorable educational titles available and was arguably the least controversial.

It wasn’t long before they considered the iPad for the program in Queensland. “When it becomes available in Australia, the Department of Education and Training will conduct an evaluation to determine its suitability for teaching and learning as well as network compatibility,” said Queensland Department of Education and Training chief information officer David O’Hagan, upon the release of the Apple iPad specs (the tablet not yet available in Australia) in 2010. The Digital Education Revolution ended in 2013, but the effects continue today.

It is easy to see how many have judged this whole process as nothing more than political spin. The figures are very impressive and it is easy for Labor to claim the project a success. After all, they have met their targets. The Computer Fund has achieved a one computer per student (1:1 ratio) for students in Years 9 to 12. But measuring the true success of this ‘revolution’ in terms of learning outcomes is nigh on impossible.

Doug Loader in 2013

Since the government was no longer pushing devices into schools, schools had to ask parents to do it. Introducing the iPad to Australia saw a massive complication in the argument against smart devices in classrooms—the iPad, or any tablet with network connectivity, could become a mobile phone. And in contrast, as mobile phone touch screens grew larger, they could become a tablet. My Oppo R15 is almost half the size of an iPad Mini, and could probably perform most of, if not all, the same functions as the latter. Phones are actually a grey area in the Personal Devices (parent payment and access) policy laid out by the Victorian Education Department. They define a BYOD as:

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) – students bring in their own device either purchased or leased directly by families. This may include:

  • any device
  • any device, but with set features, e.g. software/applications as defined by the school
  • a specified device as defined by the school. This may also be from a preferred supplier, negotiated by the school that may also provide parents with a better/more flexible financial deal for their direct purchase of a device, or
  • a combination of all of the above.

Unless the school strictly states that touch screen mobile phones cannot be used in the classroom environment, they are (until the ban to be implemented later this year) viable options as a BYOD for students. “Any device” is not specific enough for parents and teachers. A distinction should have been made earlier in the state policy, rather than just leaving it open to school interpretation. Because of this, students can bring their phones as their BYOD—and can do so legitimately. The New South Wales Education Department held an independent review into the non-educational use of mobile devices, and though they intend to ban the devices in primary school, they determined they couldn’t do so in secondary schools, likely because of this BYOD complication.

We recognise that technology plays an important and increasing role as students progress through their education. We want to give secondary schools the flexibility to balance the benefits and risks of technology in the way that best supports their students. The use of devices in all public secondary schools will be governed by a new acceptable and responsible policy from 2020 but schools will not be obliged to restrict the use of digital devices under this policy.

NSW government, Department of Education: Review into the non-educational use of mobile devices in NSW schools

This is something I’ve experienced before in the classroom—my teacher at the time had been less than amused with my deceptive classmate. In my classmate’s defense, though, our timetable (which was occasionally subject to change) was only ever available on Compass School Manager: a phone app, also available on desktop, used primarily for your school timetable, but also for work submissions and contact between teachers and parents.

As per usual, Australia is late to the party when other countries have already identified this issue and taken action. Britain has been on top of the phones since 2007, and 98% of schools had banned the them in classrooms by 2012. From September last year, students aged 11 to 16 with phones are required to hand them in or put them in their lockers when they arrive for registration and only get them back when they leave in the afternoon. The French did it in July last year.

Phones are not the only culprit in the “battle against distractions”. It was found that most students using a computer in class spend considerable time on activities not related to taking notes, and furthermore identified a negative correlation between student success in class and in-class laptop use. Students are probably found more often on their phones than they are misusing their laptop (must be those pesky “minimise” buttons)—I’m definitely part of this group. My Philosophy teacher called me out on it and banned open laptops in class—low and behold, I ended up enjoying those classes (even if I scored poorly in them). So from personal experience, I can say that shutting down activity on technology improves your learning.

The ban will prove beneficial in the long run, but it will take some time to undo the damage that has already been done. This might even be posed to decrease the rate of cyber-bullying, or at least shows Victoria’s commitment to the issue like NSW. But students are still very reliant on them for applications (or even their own timetable) to get through the day. They may struggle through an adjustment period, but it’ll be worth it.

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