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Smartphone in classroom: A potent learning tool or an unnecessary distraction?

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

Educators feel that students are more prone to distractions resulting from widespread use or smartphones in classrooms. But is it a good idea to impose a blanket ban?

By Dr Priyanka Dasgupta

Browsing Internet, Checking Instagram or Snapchat, texting and Googling - students with access to mobile phones are frequently seen engaging in this behavior leaving their instructors in a quandary. Therefore, it’s no surprise that authorities in India and elsewhere have banned use of mobile phones in classrooms. The most recent bans have been enacted in France and the Australian state of Victoria.

But is it a good idea to impose a blanket ban on the use of mobile phones in classrooms? Smartphones have unquestionably altered the way we communicate and, as is the case with any new technology, brought a set of challenges in the process. Educators feel that students are more prone to distractions resulting from their widespread use in classrooms. Consequently, numerous schools have placed restrictions on their use during school hours. But a ban might not be the best solution.

Students, who are digital natives, have been surrounded by technology right from their birth. They are natural at multitasking. They tend to carry the phone everywhere. From mobile gaming to mobile music, they accomplish most of their tasks on their devices.

Prohibiting use of mobile phones during the day might not be so effective after all, as a school in the UK recently found out. A ban on mobiles apparently led to diminished interest in academics. The school administration was forced to relax the ban and introduce mobile phones as a tool for learning.

Scientific studies conducted on the impact of cell phones on grades have pointed in a similar direction. A meta-analysis of 132 studies on mobile phone use in classroom found that it is “difficult to determine directions and mechanisms of the causal relations between mobile phone multitasking and academic performance”. It suggested that instead of making a clear-cut judgment on the so-called negative impact of cell phones, the learning tasks and traits of learners need to be taken into account.

Another study conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science highlighted the importance of guided use of mobile phones. While restricting them in the class could lead to an improvement in students’ scores, the study did not rule out the possibility that they could also serve as an effective platform for learning. And there are other studies that have demonstrated that mobile phone multitasking, in fact, do not affect students’ scores.

Considering that students nowadays carry their mobile device with them all the time, educators need to identify its potential as a learning tool and integrate it into teaching. An entire new area of pedagogical tools called mLearning has emerged which examines the mobile phone as platform of teaching and learning.

mLearning can not only make text and audiovisual content accessible to students round the clock, it can also enhance interaction in the classroom. In addition, through mLearning, educators can implement the technology aspect of the TPACK framework in their classroom.

TPACK stands for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge and was developed to emphasize the importance of teaching the subject matter in a way that can achieve learning outcomes and using the appropriate technology to deliver that knowledge. A positive learning environment can be created if all components of the framework are implemented.

There is no dearth of mobile technological tools that can make content available and interesting. In many of my classes I have used NearPod and Kahoot to engage students. With NearPod, one can incorporate slides to lecture from and simultaneously use activities such as boards, quizzes and polls to make learning more fun. With Kahoot, one can set up interactive quizzes that students can take on their mobile devices. Then there are other tools like SoftChalk that allow educators to create interactive content and distribute it on any device. These tools help to not only engage students but also increase participation in the classroom.

Through their structured use, mobile phones can be used to immerse students in the lesson. There are numerous possibilities and it depends on the individual educator to navigate and integrate this technology into the classroom. A nuanced approach is what is required- a blanket ban is definitely not the answer.

(Author is Division Chair, Applied Media, Dubai Campuses, Higher Colleges of Technology)



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