• Question: I would like to know your views on the use of mobile phones in schools? Is here any evidence to show it decreases attention? Does it affect grades? Is the effect more revalent in boys than girls?

    Asked by sjays to Emma, Gaia, Geneviève, Matt, Mike on 31 Jan 2018.
    • Photo: Emma Blakey

      Emma Blakey answered on 31 Jan 2018:


      Thanks for your question, this is a really topical issue and I’m sure a lot of other teachers are wondering about this. The research out there is small and a little ambiguous – however, there are a lot of anecdotal positive reports that mobile phones can be a great learning tool in the classroom for students to do research, do group work, create reports and can be used informally to assess learning (for example, through quizzes). So for pros and cons, a lot depends on whether students are using them as an educational device in the classroom or whether they are using them off task and not in an educational context (see this teacher’s experience for example: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/do-smartphones-have-a-place-in-the-classroom/480231/). This Guardian article also gives interesting insights from schools around the UK on what their approach has been so this might of interest: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/dec/15/schools-approach-to-mobile-phones-varies-widely-in-uk

      But in terms of the evidence out there – there was a recent study that looked at what impact banning mobile devices had in several UK secondary school classrooms. They found that test scores did improve after a ban on mobile phones, and they improved the most for initially low achieving students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. You can find the full write up of the study here: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1350.pdf or shorter summary of the results here: https://theconversation.com/how-smart-is-it-to-allow-students-to-use-mobile-phones-at-school-40621 Other evidence (from University students) has shown that if students are addicted to their smartphones, it can have a negative impact on their academic achievement and males and females are equally susceptible to smartphone addiction: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131516300641

      However – what is really needed for stronger evidence is a full randomised control trial where some classrooms implement a ban and some don’t to fully control for other factors that might come into play. I’ve a had a look and I can’t see any studies that have done this yet.

    • Photo: Geneviève Allaire-Duquette

      Geneviève Allaire-Duquette answered on 1 Feb 2018:


      Thank you for asking this question.

      I’ve seen read some interesting papers about learning activities that have been made possible through the use of mobile phones. For example, some schools used mobiles phones to increase environmental awareness (Uzunboylu et al., 2009) or to increase physical activity (Fanning et al., 2012).

      However, when looking at the big picture, it seems that some factors need to be taken into account before implementing new technologies in the classroom (OECD, 2015)

      – students first need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills;
      – students should be alerted to the possible harmful aspects of Internet use;
      – schools should be providing high-speed internet;
      – etc.

      Fanning, J., Mullen, S. P., & McAuley, E. (2012). Increasing physical activity with mobile devices: a meta-analysis. Journal of medical Internet research, 14(6).

      OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, OECD Publishing, Paris.
      http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en

      Uzunboylu, H., Cavus, N., & Ercag, E. (2009). Using mobile learning to increase environmental awareness. Computers & Education, 52(2), 381-389.

    • Photo: Mike Hobbiss

      Mike Hobbiss answered on 2 Feb 2018:


      In addition to the two answers above, I’d just emphasise a couple of key points…
      – Most of the research at the moment has been done using undergraduates, who usually have a lot more freedom in how they can use (and misuse) mobile phones whilst studying. We should be careful about generalising any findings about attention etc to schools and to school age children. That said, the results don’t look great. One study that I quite like found that the ‘mere presence’ of a mobile phone (i.e. a switched off mobile phone that the experimenter left on the desk whilst the participant completed an experiment) harms performance – http://www.lawdogs.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/641/2017/01/Mere-Prescence-Of-Cell-Phone-May-Be-Distracting.pdf I think this is interesting in light of the policy of a lot of schools that allow phones as long as they are in pockets etc. More research is needed in schools though to be able to answer the question of attention more clearly. Looking at academic results, as Emma said, it does look like schools that have banned mobile phones have generally seen improved results.
      – As with a lot of technology, the problem is not really with the device per se, it is with the tendency for the device to encourage us to multitask and split our attention across multiple sources. One of the strong (and common sense) finding in cognitive psychology is that we are worse at doing two tasks simultaneously than we are doing them separately. But many technological gadgets are specifically designed to be salient and to grab attention, and to split it over a number of apps (e.g. through notifications etc). I wrote about that here: https://hobbolog.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/we-cant-multi-task-students-parents-and-teachers-need-to-know-this-if-were-to-use-technology-effectively/ This means that if mobile phones are to be used in education, then there need to be very clear structures governing how and when they are used (as Genevieve mentioned as well), to minimise these potentially harmful effects.

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