Should we ban mobile phones in school?
It seems that the hardest part of writing any research is coming up with a good title.
Earlier this month King & Baatartogtokh published a paper examining the theory of disruptive innovation that was made famous in the book The Innovators Dilemma. They found (8 years after publication..) that less than 10% of the case studies cited in what has become something of a management bible actually demonstrated the theory in action. Their paper shifted ‘disruptive innovation’ from being a goal all companies should aim at to an observation that occurs in rare cases.
It should have been huge news, but they gave their work the less than exciting title of ‘How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation‘ and nobody seems to have paid much attention.
In the ed tech space we seem to be going through a phase of coming up with more sensationalist titles and abstracts to get work noticed.
The problem with this is people still don’t seem to be reading the papers, but instead come up with a version of what they think it might say based on a few lines at the start.
Which is nice.
The recent media hype around banning mobile phones is a pretty good example of this. Tracing back, it seems the source is a Centre for Economic Performance paper published in May.
They went with a fairly neutral title of ‘Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance’. But there’s a couple of lines in the abstract that suggest something bigger is within:
“…we find that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases post ban.”
“results indicate that these increases in performance are driven by the lowest achieving students.”
And they finish it off with:
“restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”
All of which sounds like we should be rethinking our policy of allowing smartphones in lessons.
The study itself is interesting, and the method is strong. They have a large data set (91 schools) and have controlled for other variables (such as policy or leadership change) that might have had an impact on results.
The impressive results show an improvement in test scores of 6.41% of a standard deviation for the student body as a whole, 14.23% for students in the lowest quartile of prior achievement gain after a mobile phone ban.
But what is missing in the coverage of this story that I saw is the nature of mobile usage in these schools before the ban. The key line from the conclusion:
“these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured.”
Somewhat less eye catching than where we started.
What I take away from this study is that students will become distracted if not engaged in their task (whether that task includes ‘technology’ or not), and that smart phones are distracting things. But, while the research did find that a ban had an impact in these schools they also acknowledge that making use of the tools for learning could do the same.
Certainly a ban would be easier to implement than the kind of large scale curriculum redesign and training required to include smartphones in lessons, but this paper shouldn’t discourage schools who have started down the BYOD route. Mobile devices could be a distraction and there are certainly lessons where they should remain switched off, but they could equally be used for good too.