How To Handle Smartphones In-Class: Ban or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)
Schools need to confront smartphones head-on. 86% or children aged 12-15 say that they regularly use a mobile phone, and 96% of children over the age of 16 own a smartphone. Many students regularly bring these devices to school. This can be a significant distraction. It also provides an opportunity.
Finding dedicated funds for IT purchases is a major challenge for schools. Investment in end-user devices, network infrastructure and educational software cannot always be made at the same time. 81% of surveyed education professionals thought that students had access to better devices at home than the schools could provide. 68% said that they already encourage students to use their own devices.
The in-classroom applications of smartphones are endless. Anything you could do with a tablet can be done on a smartphone. For example, in a physics class, students could use an app to collect acceleration data or measure sound intensity. In language classes, students can record themselves speaking and play it back to self-critique pronunciation.
The Problem: Equality of Access and a Loss of Control
The most basic issue with BYOD policies is equality of access. Among 5-15-year-olds, only 46% said they owned a smartphone in 2017. Based on research by Ofcom, socio-economic factors do correlate with a decreased use of a wide range of devices. However, they do not correlate with tablet or smartphone ownership. But, fundamentally, not everyone has a smartphone.
What to do: There are two solutions to this issue. The first is to invest in a number of classroom devices that can be used by some students. The other is to only engage a BYOD strategy for group activities where you can make sure that those students with devices are evenly spread among the classroom. However, the inequity of BYOD is unavoidable.
The second issue is control. When students are using their own devices, the ability to monitor and contain exactly what they do diminishes. This is a potential distraction and security problem.
Smartphones: Integrate or Ban?
A 2015 study by the Centre for Economic Performance found that student performance improved by 6.41% of a standard deviation in schools that banned mobile phones. Looking at 91 schools in four English cities, the study concluded that low-achieving students benefited most from the ban — improving by 14.23% of a standard deviation. This would indicate that although BYOD policies are a workaround to budget constraints, the lack of control limits its utility.
This gets to the heart of the debate about smartphones and student-owned devices — ban them or engage with them. Although banning them seems like the easy thing to do there are exterior problems with this strategy, in addition to losing access to an already existing pool of technological teaching aids.
Many parents coordinate pick-ups and after-school activities through mobile phones. Phones are often purchased for children so that parents can contact them in an emergency. In 2015, the department of education for New York City lifted a highly unpopular ban of mobile phones for a host of reasons, including parental and student complaints.
Strategies for Controlling Personal Devices
- Establish Expectations: No matter what the approach, make sure to lay out clear ground rules about the use of mobile phones at the beginning of the year. This includes when and how they are allowed to be used and consequences for misuse. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THEM AWAY
- Consider Incentives: One of the main issues with controlling student behaviour is getting ‘buy-in’. Rather than penalising students for misbehaviour, provide incentives for conformity. For example, some classes base a percentage of their grade on participation points. Tying those points to not using mobile phones inappropriately, or even voluntarily surrendering phones at the beginning of class can be a good way to avoid distractions without generating resentment.
- Walk Around the Classroom: In order to know if students are on their phones, you need to be able to see them. If students think you will likely walk behind them with little warning, they are more likely to stay on task.
- Re-arrange the Desks: In addition to walking around, re-arranging the desks in your classroom into a semicircle will improve your ability to see what students are doing while depreciating their ability to reliably account for your position in the classroom.
- Give Your Students Tech Breaks: You can purposefully provide your students with a short phone break every 20 to 30 minutes. This can be attached to individual or collective cooperation with not using phones for unauthorised purposes.
- Integrate Phones into Teaching: This comes back to BYOD policies — if students are using their phones for class exercises they may be less likely to use them for personal purposes.
Summary: Schools Need to Address Smartphones No Matter What, Integrating Them Into Lessons May Be a Creative Solution to That Problem
Smartphones have changed our lives and they are now disrupting education. Teachers are arguably best placed to assess the needs of their own classrooms and decide if smartphones are best harnessed for in-class activities, or banished as a distraction. It is possible, however, to do both at the same time and allow students to use their phones for only certain periods of the day.
In all cases, teachers must tread carefully. It is important to gain student buy-in when it comes to limiting smartphone use in-class. Integrating them into lessons comes with even more pitfalls. Teachers need to make sure that they don’t become a distraction and that their inequitable distribution does not disadvantage some students. The payoff, however, is access to an already existing pool of powerful technology that can empower digital learning strategies, both inside and outside the classroom.
“81% of surveyed education professionals thought that students had access to better devices at home than the schools could provide. However, bringing smartphones in to the classroom has it's pitfalls when it comes to which children have access to smartphones and the risk of reducing concentration."