Mobile devices in schools: The phone dilemma

Mobile phones in schools – now there’s a topic sure to polarise opinion!

Phones or no phones is no longer a simple decision for schools: it’s almost impossible to ban mobile phones outright. Some students have valid reasons for carrying a mobile to and from school (safety, arranging transport or waiting on calls from a part-time employer) and whilst there are good reasons for controlling the use of phones during school time, it is important for schools to rethink their position on mobile phones. Rather than simply deciding whether or not to ban the use of phones on school grounds, schools should be looking to find ways of embracing the tools their students are using, and adapting them to leverage some pedagogical outcomes. A few schools have chosen this option, allowing phones to be used in class for data logging, video conferencing, capturing stills, video and audio, polling, and even as an electronic diary.

Of course, there are still problems for schools who choose to embrace mobile phone technology:

Equity – if smartphones are used, then every student needs access to one. Perhaps the library could stock a few phones (without SIM cards, or with limited pre-paid access) for lending to students.
Inappropriate use – harrassing other students, exchanging inappropriate content, filming fights. Clear policies need to be in place before phones become part of the classroom.
Damage – many mobile phones, especially smartphones, are prone to damage, so teachers may need to set policies about students using each others’ phones, or borrowing school mobiles.
Distraction – playing games, using the phone in ways not intended by the teacher, changing settings – these are some of the threats that might undermine a learning activity. Oddly enough, these are the sort of behaviours that undermine any sort of learning activity!


It’s a very complex situation, and there are reall opportunities for schools to take the lead. Students don’t read instruction manuals any more. If they can’t work out how to use a feature, they’ll ask a friend. Manufacturers rely on ads and word of mouth to spread the message about what these devices can do. The downside of this is that students are mostly learning from peers, so are falling into the same habits, both good and bad. We woudln’t expect a teen to learn how to fire a gun by imitating their friends who were also learning: safety guidelines would need to be in place. Mobile devices are the same: they can also wound and cause damge if used without proper care. But today’s students are not going to sit around while being lectured about the dangers of a loaded smartphone! This is where school must take the initiative, finding some cool things these devices can do, then demonstrate how the phones can be used responsibly. Teachers also need to explain and discuss some of the legislation relating to mobile devices.