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.

Read the full discussion paper here.
Great coverage of The Innovators Dilemma story at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Go read.
Image CC licensed on Flickr by


Why we should advertise to children



So the title is probably a little more provocative than it needs to be, but there is something to consider in here. As schools should we be worried about the way our students are advertised to online? It feels a little like another one of those fence around the swimming pool vs. teach them to swim arguments. We always seem to err on the swim side of these debates, but as a Google Apps school I know their position is to remove all ads for the education customers so maybe there is something more in this…

Does advertising matter?

Do we mind that we are being advertised to? I don’t think it is news that the advertisers are the core customer for the free social web services, but it is down to us to choose how much we personally take from that. Google are more than happy to place adverts relevant to my email down the right hand side of my inbox (personal email account rather than the apps account…), but it is rare I read them, let alone click on them. Ditto Facebook, it’s there but it is not a major focus for me. In online ad terms this is all about the CTR (clickthrough rate). There’s some fascinating research around success rates in this area.

Television has advertised at us for a long time, it is just that we are more familiar with this medium so it doesn’t seem to generate the objections that the online ads are at the moment. Even with the publicly funded BBC you can see how they edit the shows to be divided up by adverts in countries that buy their content (or even when it ends up endlessly repeated on Dave..). People seem comfortable with advertising on television, they go and make a coffee while it happens, or Sky+ their way round them.

An interesting aside here is product placement is being introduced into the UK– this is obviously a new route around the Sky+ style viewing. But, after some initial public whining we seem to be just getting on with it

I would also suggest that these adverts can be a positive if they are correctly targeted. I don’t think our position should be that all advertising is bad, if done well it could be genuinely useful. More on this later.

Those new literacies

Part of our role as educators is to prepare students for the world outside of the institution. Would it be completely unreasonable to take a position stating that these commercial models for online advertising should be present in education so students can learn how they work, and how best to interact with them? We spend time talking to them about bias in the media, the dangers of social networking, etc- this is the same area. If we are not part of the Facebook world (whether through use of the service or working with the company to help develop their offering) our students won’t just abandon it, they’ll just be there unsupported.

Control, schools and the web services

As a school working with tools like Facebook places us in their hands in terms of how the product develops, there is always a risk that a feature we use will just disappear. It happened with the Google Wonderwheel a while ago, and I have discussed this point in a previous post about Second Life.

But, I don’t think the problem is unique to this environment.

We all buy into (in some form depending on license, etc) VLEs and various other products, I don’t think we are any more separate from the risks associated with the commercial needs of these companies than we are with a free web service with commercial needs that are met by advertising revenue. It has been argued in various journal articles that initial VLE designs came from a commercial perspective (think Sharepoint..) and education shoehorned their techniques into them. Is this not exactly the same thing?

The only difference between the 2 models is how the income is generated. Microsoft recently dropped a whole load of services they had previewed for Live@edu that many schools were expecting, same problems, different business model. Same is true of Adobe updates, we hope the features we make most use of make it through to the next version, or the improvements we need happen, but there is no guarantee really. The new subscription model Apple have introduced to the App Store is proving largely unpopular with everybody, but we continue to use it if there is enough value.

This point seems more obvious on the hardware side, Apple again are a superb example. Schools and colleges love their products, but we never have any idea what they are going to be, or what/when the updates will be. Only the other day we suddenly discovered the Macbook had disappeared from the product line, only to then be told it would be available to schools still. It was pretty limiting that the first iPod Touch didn’t have a camera, but it didn’t stop us buying them. We have no control in that process- we work round it, we don’t mind.

To me, these examples suggest we are just as controlled by commercial requirements elsewhere so we can discount the risks associated with control and free web services.

A couple of examples:

  • Facebook will only let a teacher have one profile rather than maintaining a second presence on the network to interact with their students.
  • Google+ will only let people use their real names.
  • Every Twitter account you create must have a unique email address associated with it.

There are countless rules in place to control how we use web services. Most of them we never really notice, but with each of the examples above I can see that these have the potential to cause problems for educators.

But are the restrictions placed on us by these tools any more limiting from the perspective of the learner than those placed on us by National standards, examinations boards, etc? In the same way the that the needs of the assessment process can pull in the opposite direction to the learning requirements of students using e-portfolios, is the need of the web 2.0 companies just another conflicting limitation?

Making use of the model

I would be really interested to look at Universities that have embraced the ad-targeted market. We look at the powerful tools companies have to direct content at you as a potentially scary area, but how useful would this tool be if I was a University marketing manager attempting to sell places on my courses to relevant interest groups?

At a smaller scale would it be good if a lecturer could use the Google/Facebook ads model to target learning resources at their students? I haven’t seen it happening yet, but the Kahn Academy would be ideal for using this kind of system to push their content.

As a purely financial decision if an institution could remove all of the costs of hosting and supporting their web services by adding advertising to it how much would you need to save before that became a serious consideration?

Alternatives/the way forward

This post has largely been a series of questions in a difficult area but I like to look at the options for solving it. On what I would see as a descending scale of good:

  1. Make use of the tools for our benefit as institutions, educate our users.
  2. Work to generate protected, ad-free environments for use within education.
  3. Keep out of the social networks, stick in the safe, institution controlled, spaces we already have.

Personally, I don’t see the advertising model adopted by web 2.0 companies to be a bad thing providing we can educate our students to understand it. If we take this view the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, and our route forward sits somewhere around the top of the list.

Image sources- Billboard by Hans S, American Idol screengrab, Money and Calculator by Images of Money, Giant pop-up by Feureau

Community web filters?

We’ve been talking about filtering the Internet in the last week or so. There was some fairly high profile blocking/unblocking of sites on our LA primary schools filter this month, and much complaining as a result. Made me think about just how hard managing something like this is. For a while we’ve been sorting ourselves out with blocking here, and a flexible filtering option from Hampshire IT Services is on the way soon for others. As is becoming habit though, I’ve been wondering if there might be another option.

A completely flexible filtering set up is hugely powerful- being able to offer different levels to different groups of students, individual classes, etc is a fantastic tool. The ability to change things in real-time, or based around times of day is also great. But, this is great because we’re an 1800+ secondary with the time/need/skillset required to make use of this. If I was honest I’d say on a day to day basis we don’t actually make that many changes to our standard level of blocking, and we invest far more time and energy into enabling as open a system as possible based on the trust we have in our students.

So if we don’t use it that much, how often would this level be required in smaller schools? I’ve got a feeling the answer might actually be not very often, so the question then becomes about how much the flexible solution is going to cost. How big would the number need to be before you’d say no?

In that case to say that for some the standard LA filtering is too restricting, but the completely flexible option is probably going to be too expensive seems reasonable.

Enter a community based solution.

What if we had a filtering setup based around the current standard, but where everybody involved in the project could request sites to be blocked/unblocked, the community voting on the outcome of each. Would this be a democratic, teacher-led system that would provide a cheap middle ground to the problems I’ve touched on? Does it feel more like the way we should be working?

It certainly does to me. What also sounds good is technically this wouldn’t be hard to achieve, and it would be very cheap.

The problem. Liability. I haven’t got my clever answer for this yet, but working on it. When we moved over to filter our own connection we had to sign over liability for the connection from our authority. How could this work if your filtering was the responsibility of the community as a whole? As a school would you be prepared to be responsible for the actions of the group? How could we protect against this being a problem? This can’t be a new issue and I’m sure it is solvable, just not something I have encountered before.

Would this be something people would be interested in? Based on my random wanderings around schools I think there might be some mileage in it, and it would only take a few to take it to a point where we could justify actually doing it…

The big Facebook experiment

We’re interested in making use of the social networks in school and have been trying a few little projects this year. From this half term we are running a few more to see what impact we can have. Things are happening on Twitter and YouTube that I’ll blog later, but it’s hard to try anything in this area without taking on Facebook. Facebook in school has been a very popular topic on the net for a while, lots of people unsure how to make best use of it and many more scared of the bad things could happen. We wanted to trial something because:

  • Not only are most of our students active users, at the last audit 63% of our parents also had a profile.
  • There is a fairly large potential for issues for eSafety within the network and we wanted to measure any potential impact on learning against these risks.
  • Relevant case studies in the area will really help schools to firm up policy on the site, and support our current AUP on web 2.0.

For about a year now we have had a Facebook page for our community set up here, and this has proved popular (it gets as many views during a week as the community website itself but has the advantage of pushing content to users profiles). The next stage is to start thinking about teacher-student interaction.

Our initial thinking around this has come up with a set of options on how we use it with students. These are listed below, in decreasing order of safety (or increasing personal connection with students). Obviously this can be seen in a positive or negative way depending on circumstance/opinion/personal bias.

  • The teacher running the project sets up a new profile using their school email account, no personal links/information on it. Students do the same. A page (or group) is created for the project and they all sign up to that.
  • Teachers and students set up new accounts, add each other as friends.
  • Teacher creates a new account, students use existing but all communication still goes through a page or group.
  • Teacher creates a new account, students use existing to become friends with the teacher.
  • Teacher and student use existing accounts, create a page or group for the project to interact on.
  • Teacher and students use existing accounts, and using limited profile settings become friends.

Having created this list we have started to think about projects around it. For now I’m writing off the first and the last- they are listed above to provide a complete picture but I don’t feel either would work well enough to justify the time.

So, starting at where we feel the safest option is project one is working with MFL- creating all new accounts and linking them together. Lead by one of our Spanish team, @javiera1974, a group of year 10 students will visit Facebook, switch the site into Spanish and create themselves a new profile in that language. They’ll friend the teachers new profile and then interact only in Spanish. For the sake of the case study we monitor amount of use, quality of the content, etc, etc.

The obvious benefit of this set up is there is no link to the more private profiles of both teacher and student, but the concern linked to this is about usage. Because students will have to log in as somebody else will they choose to do this at home? Would we do better to let them use their own profiles? We’ll finish this example and then look to the next to measure this.

This week I have been mostly reading…

After half a week of school closures I thought I’d put together a list here of the research I’ve been catching up with over the last few days. Been a growing pile of articles on my desk that I knew I wanted to read, have actually got round to them now. None particularly short, but all worth a quick look if you do something vaguely related to me. The Ofcom report in particular is worth a scan of the summary page if nothing else.

  1. Augmentation and dialogic teaching: alternative pedagogies for a changing world
  2. Exploring teacher mediation of subject learning with ICT: a multimedia approach
  3. Charles Leadbeater: 21 ideas for 21st century learning
  4. Ofcom: UK children’s media literacy 2009 interim report
  5. Creating and connecting: research and guidelines on online social and educational networking
  6. Powerpoint, interactive whiteboards, and the visual culture of technology in schools
  7. Developing a better understanding of technology based pedagogy
  8. Teaching with technology

And, I’ve started The Fourth Way as well. Andy Hargreaves on the future for educational change. First part of the book that I’ve read takes you through the history of education policy in this Country, interesting reading for someone only catching up with it in the last 5 years or so.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]