The Pandemic and Mobile Technology


School lockdowns have cast a light over access to mobile technology. But bans on mobile phones, against research evidence, is still a widespread phenomenon. As students are having educationally potent devices taken away, how can the arguments for banning be turned to a positive?

The current pandemic, if nothing else, has disrupted the discourses around technology and particularly mobile technology. We might wonder whether the experience of lockdowns might ultimately shift the balance of forces and change ideological positions on the place of mobile technology, but this remains to be seen.

Interestingly, what we haven’t heard are demands from schools that mobile phones be banned from homes during home or on-line learning, in the way most ban them from schools. This is surprising because surely all the same arguments in support of a ban would hold in whether learning was located in the classroom or in the home. This of course raises questions about the justification for mobile phone bans, especially when for some pupils, their mobile phone is their only current contact with the school and the outside world.

However, in actuality, logic has never really been central to the banning of mobile phones, as is argued in a current article in the British Journal of Educational Technology. The article, is by Neil Selwyn, currently a “Distinguished Research Professor” at Monash University, and who can be called a world ‘expert’ in digital education having researched the field for 25 years, and Jesper Aagaard.

The article is titled “Banning mobile phones from classrooms – An opportunity to advance understandings of technology addiction, distraction and cyberbullying”, though this gives a somewhat false impression of his argument which develops “a counter-narrative to dominant discourses surrounding the prospect of banning phones from schools” because “the idea of removing powerful mobile devices from the hands of students goes against much of the literature in fields such as m-learning and media education” (p. 10). Yet, the experts on mobile technology have found themselves on the wrong side of school practice.

Unfortunately, to date, the efforts of experts who have attempted to argue against such bans has fallen on predominantly deaf ears. Indeed, strong arguments can be made for resisting the blanket banning of phones in terms of equity, practicality and diminished educational opportunities. Nevertheless, government and public support for bans remains strong. (p. 9)

The widespread trend for banning mobile technology is, Selwyn claims, a retreat from decades of “uncontroversial support for technology”, which although largely true ignores the widespread opposition to the use of calculators in mathematics back in the 80s and beyond, in particular from conservative politicians who see them as an attack on “teaching the basics”. However, in contrast to the almost universal acceptance, implementation and installation of interactive whiteboards, bans on mobile technology have been widespread, which is seen as a pivotal moment in slowing the pace of technological change. We see that:

cohorts of students are having educationally potent and personally significant devices taken away while in their classrooms and schools. (p.9)

Of course, mobile phones are not the first artefacts to be banned from schools. Schools are heavily regulated places where various behaviours are restricted and/or prohibited” (p. 10). France has banned the hijab, schools prohibit trainers, jewellery, short skirts and afro-style hairstyles. So, it is useful to see phone bans in the same light in order to both understand and respond to the practice.

So, somewhat in resignation, Selwyn asks:

If we cannot prevent bans from being introduced in the short term, how might we benefit from them in the longer term. (p. 10)

Selwyn’s argument is that the research evidence is unlikely to influence the widespread banning of mobile technology, which stems from the moral panics we have seen before. Printed books were strongly opposed as having the potential to harm the young. See in particular my article “Mobile Technology in the Classroom” which surveys all the current research.

Rather than fight the bans, Selwyn’s alternative is to use the phenomenon as an opportunity to raise critical questions about underlying problematic issues surrounding technology and society.

He sees five elements in the case put forward in support of mobile phone bans:

  • Children becoming addicted to technology
  • Children being distracted in lessons
  • Mobile phones fostering cyberbullying
  • Children being subject to surveillance
  • Environmental sustainability of ubiquitous technology

Though it is the first three that are routinely put forward as the rationale for banning mobile devises, he looks at each in turn by considering how they might be used to advance debate.

Reconsidering concerns over “technology addiction”

It is proven that the impact on young brains in particular with mobile phones is akin to that of cocaine, that is how bad the impact. (George Christensen, Australian MP, cited in Caldwell, 2019)

As Selwyn tells us, it is important to acknowledge that it has emphatically not been scientifically “proven” that phone (over)use is equitable to drug addiction; Christiansen is quite wrong. So, bans will not have any influence on technology addiction.

However, framing mobile phone bans as about “addiction or inconvenience” allows a discussion with young people over the effects on them of a ban. “Will students primarily experience the enforced absence of their phones as a practical inconvenience rather than a psychological hardship?”. Has mobile phone use become habitual for young people? How and why has this happened and how does it manifest itself? This permits a discussion of good and bad habits in learning.

An opportunity to investigate the issue of “digital distraction”

By banning cellphone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students to focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need, like reading, writing and math. (Lisa Thompson, Ontario Minister of Education, cited in Jones, 2019)

Seeing digital devices as a distraction “marks a reversal of previous educational enthusiasm for digital devices allowing more active and engaged” (p. 12).

The issue with this is that the so-called evidence-based claims that mobile phones are distracting, are only supported by scientific studies that show device-based “off-task behavior” is correlated with significant declines in academic performance. This confuses “distraction through multitasking” with “distraction through off-task behaviour” – that is, undertaking research on off-task diversion but claiming it applies to “on-task multitasking“.

The literature shows that when learners use phones to engage in off-task behaviours (shopping, gaming, watching a film) their achievement level goes down. Is anyone really surprised? This aspect allows a discussion over what is the nature of distraction in a lesson, and how we deal with multi-tasking as learner and teacher, and the very real difference between these.

Nevertheless, it is mistaken to conflate the prevalence of device-based multitasking with digital distraction per se. The phenomenon of digital distraction does not relate to students’ attention simply being divided between multiple tasks at once, but to their attention being diverted from the primary educational task by the use of digital devices for off-task purposes.

An opportunity to explore the issue of “cyberbullying”

Half of all young people have experienced cyberbullying. By banning mobiles we can stop it at the school gate. (James Merlino, Victorian Minister for Education, cited in Henriques-Gomes, 2019)

Selwyn claims “there are reasons here to temper our expectations about the effectiveness of phone bans.” Research indicates that when cyberbullying does take place, there are large overlaps with traditional bullying so it is unlikely that mobile phones are somehow causing or facilitating bullying. Moreover, there is a risk that simply banning these devices from school might distract educators from addressing the more direct causes of such harmful behaviour.

An opportunity to address students’ relationships with “surveillance capitalism”

The ban of phones on school will effectively limit the data collected on children by not allowing them to use their personal devices during school hours. (Arantes, 2019)

This rarely seems to arise in debates about mobiles, but Selwyn points out that data is harvested from all of us wherever we use our phones. So, banning classroom use has little effect.

An opportunity to imagine schools’ technology in a post-abundance digital era

Schools these days are awash with interactive white boards, PowerPoint presentation, computer simulations, digital manipulatives, cloud storage, and along with our mobile phones these consume huge amounts of energy. This leads to another argument for reducing the use of mobile technology – the fast-declining environmental sustainability of digital education. Any phone ban might, therefore, act as a starting point for students, teachers and school communities to reorient their device use in the classroom as part of a sustainable future. Do we all need IWBs? Do we each need a mobile device? Do we really need digital manipulatives?


Finally, given the impact mobile technology now has on young people’s lives, how many schools actually ask their pupils about school practices that impinge so much on their daily lives and their futures? Might we ask:

How do students feel about the social dynamics of a mobile-free school? Are they relieved, annoyed, anxious or invigorated? How do these reactions differ between different groups of students?

To finish with a quote from Selwyn, although educationally unsound, mobile phone bans can offer us:

the potential to refocus discussions about educational technology away from the “technology” per se, and towards a diverse range of perspectives on what digital devices are, what they do and the conditions they create in school contexts. Mobile phones—as any form of digital technology use in education—have a range of consequences that are neurological, psychological, social, political and ecological in nature. The arguments outlined in this paper move discussions of education and technology towards more nuanced understandings where the complexities of “real world” digital education are fully engaged with.

(p. 17)

Selwyn does not go into detail over how these discussions might take place. But that was not his intention. What he does highlight is, in contrast to what many schools claim, mobile phones have not been shown to be a distraction, are not the cause of (cyber)bullying and are not addictive.

One way forward is for schools to begin to have these debates, and move to asking “what do we need to establish in order for pupils to have access to their mobile phones safely?” This would presumably include all these assumptions we make about the use of mobile phones by adults in schools – because I imagine few, if any, schools ban staff from having their phones in their possession in school. Indeed, what would staff do if a Head one day banned them from having their phones in school?

Author: Peter Gates

Socialist, mathematics educator, statistician, teacher, partner, father ....

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