The combination of students and mobile phones has long been a source of anxiety for teachers. Instead of being engrossed in the lesson, the assumption is pupils will be unable to resist the lure of texting, watching videos or playing games.
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But the next revolution in school tech is turning this attitude on its head, as students are being encouraged not only to bring their mobiles into schoolbut to use them in the lesson, in an approach dubbed bring your own device (BYOD).
While BYOD already has some traction in schools in the U.S., as well as in a growing number of workplaces, it has yet to infiltrate many schools in the U.K.
But although the number of schools going down this route is still small, experts predict it may soon become the norm, in response to both the ubiquity of personal devices and the cost of updating hardware to keep pace with technological advances.
George Spencer Academy in Nottinghamshire was one of the early adopters of BYOD in the U.K.. Paul Hynes, vice principal, says it was only when the technology available to students became sufficiently powerful that it was feasible for them to use their own devices in the classroom.
Combine this with the cost of keeping the school’s own equipment up-to-date, or issuing students with school-bought devices, then it started to make financial sense.
“It is not sustainable to keep buying technology and giving it to the students,” Hynes argues. “And it is only now that teachers are really getting to grips with what they can do with them [mobile phones].”
With the finances stacking up, the school still had a number of issues to address before it could introduce BYOD. One was whether all students had access to a device, and whether the disparity of devices could be a cause of friction.
It soon became clear this was not a problem. Most students had at least one suitable device, and many had more than one. The school was able to issue equipment to the few students who were without, and Hynes says any fears over phone-induced bullying proved to be all in the teachers’ minds.
Once the policy had been introduced, the school also found that students would – unprompted – pool devices to use the one that was most suitable for a particular task. So if they were videoing an experiment, they would use the one with the best film quality; if they were drawing up data tables, then graphics won out.
A second challenge was the possibility of misuse. Hynes concedes this is a downside. George Spencer has an open wireless network, and while the school can block devices that are accessing sites they shouldn’t, it doesn’t necessarily know who they belong to.
But while there are always likely to be some who take advantage of any system, Hynes says that by and large the introduction of BYOD has gone smoothly. It only applies to older students – aged 13 and above – and is entirely at the discretion of the teacher.
And although it does not mean the end of the school desktop or laptop, student devices are used in subjects across the curriculum for activities ranging from basic research to peer assessment. In fact, their use has become the norm so quickly that Hynes admits there may be a time when bringing your phone into school will be compulsory.
“At the moment it is something extra to our IT facilities, but we will get to a point where if you don’t bring in your own device we will put you in detention,” he says.
As well as being cheaper for the school, BYOD also has other advantages. One is that students are inclined to take more care of their own property. There are no compatibility issues. It also requires little or no technical support, saving both time and money.
On the downside, the digital divide may be a bigger issue for some schools, and there are also risks with students bringing expensive devices into school.
George Spencer is one of a minority of UK schools that have introduced BYOD so far, but, despite scepticism from some educators, a tipping point may not be far off, says Roger Broadie, a former teacher and now a consultant and board member of Naace, the IT teachers’ association.
“More schools are cracking the problems associated with it and showing it is feasible,” he says. “Soon we will reach a critical mass.”
Like Hynes, Broadie concedes that possible misuse and e-safety represent major challenges, but argues that BYOD allows for a more open discussion around them. Rather than hoping mobile phones will go away, schools need to promote responsible use.
“As more and more kids have phones connected to the internet, it is not helpful to have a lock-down approach, because all they have to do is step outside the gates,” he says. “We should be developing a culture where they’re self-policing.”
He believes concerns over e-safety are something of a red herring. The real stumbling block is the challenge it presents for teaching methods. “As soon as you expect the use of pupil devices, it means teachers are going to have to think about what they’re doing in the classroom,” Broadie argues.
And while teachers need to talk to their pupils about the sensible use of these devices, ultimately the rewards mean schools can’t afford to ignore this forever.
“It means hugely more tools, hugely more resources and hugely more opportunities for collaboration and conversation,” says Broadie. “If children have a device in their pockets that can add to their learning, it would be a crime not to use it.”
Ultimately, the technical, teaching, security and managerial challenges will be overcome, says Roger Davies, director of IT at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria and a member of the board of the Computing at School (CAS) group, which promotes computer science teaching.
He suggests that BYOD is not only inevitable but also preferable to the lock-down approach to mobile phones which puts students and teachers at loggerheads.
“You can’t stop students using the powerful computers in their pockets,” he says. “I don’t think this is something schools should rush into, but this trend is unstoppable.”