Mobile Technology in Schools: Not Worth It

Following on from my Kids With Mobile Phones article, I’d like to share my thoughts on the continuing rise of mobile technology in education. The growing popularity of tablets and iBooks has led to their increased adoption in schools, but while they may offer the potential for a richer learning experience, they also offer a greater potential for distraction and disruption.

Why Tablets?

I have always wondered about why schools use iPads or other tablet devices in classrooms. From my own experiences, it doesn’t seem to motivate students to work harder, nor does it help get information into their heads any better than a book does. If anything, a shiny gadget only serves to distract them from their learning, especially as they can switch out of iBooks and into YouTube in most cases.

If you are a mathematics fanatic stuck doing your mandatory English Literature assignment with an iBook to read, of course you are going to be tempted to do something else. A book has no distractions, but an iPad offers plenty.

Ranger

The software that companies sell to lock kids down on computers is never unbeatable. When one student works out that an odd button combination will unlock the laptops, that then makes its way onto Facebook or something similar and then everyone knows about it. This renders the software useless, leading to dozens of laptops gathering dust in the corner, since teachers are hesitant to use unrestricted machines – partly because the children wouldn’t be doing the classwork, but also due to child protection regulations possibly not being met.

I know that when I was in school, a piece of software called Ranger was installed on every computer. This allowed the teacher to see everything we were doing on her screen, as well as take control of the computers, write messages to us and so on. This didn’t matter though, because we all worked out that if you load the Miniclip game first and then switch off the WiFi, you are sorted.

One or two of my friends even downloaded a cracked version of the teacher’s software and ran it off a memory stick. Unfortunately when they thought it would be fun to shut down the teacher’s machine, they ended up shutting down every last computer in the entire school: around 800. Kids are always one step ahead.

Safety and Sneaking

If anyone argues that children should be forbidden from taking mobile devices into school altogether, I’m afraid that’s pretty much impossible to accomplish. Mostly because parents would never allow it, and quite rightly. They want their children to have a lifeline available in case an emergency comes up, and as a safety measure when they walk to and from school. Besides, kids would find ingenious ways to sneak them in anyway, and they always have little tricks to use them when the teachers aren’t looking. When I was in school, it was popular to set your ringtone to a very high frequency tone that children can hear but adults can’t; that way, there wouldn’t even be a tell-tale vibrate in a silent classroom.

Kids will always find ways to disrupt the class with mobile technology too. I didn’t get on with my High School IT teacher, nobody did. I had a Palm Tungsten E2 at the time, and found some software which would adapt its InfraRed transmitter into a universal remote. Turning off the projector when he was poorly trying to convey something about Excel spreadsheets, and watching him fumble around looking confused, was the most fun we ever had in that lesson.

If children are using their mobile technology openly in classrooms, I blame the teachers for that anyway. They should lay down the rules, and enforce them. At both my college and high school, you knew which teachers would catch you on your phone, and which wouldn’t. (You also knew which would come down on you like a ton of bricks.) However, the teachers who would confiscate your phone were also the most engaging, fun, interactive, and pleasant of them all. I really do believe that part of the motivation a child receives to mess around on their phone is due to poor teaching.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think that mobile technology is a problem in classrooms run by teachers that are good and engaging, while also willing to enforce a set of rules. The wishy-washy teachers at my school would just say “Don’t let me catch you with that again”, over and over. The teachers who were good at both teaching and discipline were the ones whose students kept their phones in their pockets.

Though iPads (or any tablet devices) are shiny and help to show off a large school budget, I don’t think they are any better than a book. Books are far cheaper, you don’t have to worry as much about damaging them, and they don’t need recharging either.