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Distraction, or vital aid to education?

The use of mobile technology in class has become even more controversial. How are schools reacting?

Mobile technology in class has come in for a bit of stick lately. Michael Wilshaw has stated mobile phones should be banned in class. Nick Gibb has asked ‘behaviour tsar’ Tom Bennett to look into the harmful effects of mobiles on behaviour and learning.

modern-tech-400And the OECD’s latest education report appears to show that while students who use computers moderately at school, such as once or twice a week, have ‘somewhat’ better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely, those who use computers very frequently at school get worse results (however, it’s worth noting that UK countries were not included in this research).

Rather than attempting to argue over such statements, it is more productive to look at what schools are actually doing about these issues.

It is more productive to look at what schools are actually doing about these issues

Schools show a range of responses. One is to implement a ban mobile devices in class, thereby avoiding the known risks, including:

  • Distraction, for both students and teachers
  • Cheating
  • Cyberbullying, sexting etc
  • Increasing inequality, although schools can ensure students can access whatever technology is required, for example by subsidy.

But while acknowledging these risks do have to be addressed, other schools wholeheartedly adopt mobile technology – laptops, tablet computers and, yes, mobile phones – in class.

They have found a range of benefits that more than balance the risks, including:

  • Learning aids: students using technology in class to teach themselves and each other, with teacher guidance
  • Collaboration: enabling students to hold peer to peer discussions and problem solving, even remotely
  • Research aids: the internet is far more powerful and up-to-date than even the best school library –if used judiciously.

Indeed, the OECD report’s foreword, by director for education and skills Andreas Schleicher, acknowledges that technology can amplify great teaching though it cannot replace poor teaching: ‘We need to get this right in order to provide educators with the learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world… Perhaps more importantly technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces.

Technology can amplify great teaching though it cannot replace poor teaching

‘It is vital,’ he adds, ‘that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too.’

And they are. At St James School in Exeter, a member of SSAT’s innovation fellows project and now assistant head and leader on new technologies Stephen-Lee Farmer says: ‘digital technology helps bridge the gap when students need to carry out research, use a calculator, video something to play back for instant analysis or make notes. We have had to put significant time and effort into our wireless infrastructure and develop clear polices for use within the school.’

To ensure mobiles, laptops etc are not misused in class, St James’ have developed clear policies, which are regularly shared. Students misusing the technology are challenged, and ‘we involve parents if we need to.’

Recent examples of St James’ use of this technology to advance students’ learning and make teaching more effective include:

  • Memrise – learning key words relevant to a topic test
  • Scientific calculators in maths
  • Video recording sprint starts in PE to enable instant analysis and subsequent improvement
  • Sparx maths app – a personalised learning platform.

Specific benefits resulting from these innovations include: the adaptive Sparx maths app is personalised to each user to support and challenge them, and linked to a teacher console to monitor progress and intervene if needed; and the Memrise/Quizlet app has led to improved subject-specific vocabulary in written examinations.


Stephen Tierney is executive director of Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust, and leads the SSAT Aspiring Senior Leaders Programme.

He says the main issue of mobile technology is simply that leaders must have a clear view of potential impact on students’ learning. ‘It’s important to weigh the potential investment required in terms of time for staff training and cost of infrastructure and devices against other potential ways to enhance learning. Only then can an informed decision be made.

‘Technology of itself is neither good nor bad for learning, as ever it depends what teachers are able to successfully do with it in the class room that really matters.’

Final words should go to prof Stephen Heppell, chair of the Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG): ‘The whole point is that if the kids who are really good at using their technology are finding the education system does not progress, or reward, or advance their important 21st century skills, the answer can’t be to take the kit away from them!

’In the last century, the UK led the world into educational technology, not by waiting to see who we might copy – there was no-one to copy – but by imagining what the future needed and committing to it, with our companies, organisations, ministers, schools, teachers and universities.

‘As the world moves to embrace personal technology, rich data algorithms, online collaboration and digital ingenuity we should once again trust our history, our judgement, and ourselves to lead the world in making learning better for all. We don’t do that by worrying about what Belgium, Brazil or the UAE are doing.’

Relevant links

The latest OECD education report: Students, Computers and Learning – Making the Connection

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