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


Bringing our own devices

We’ve been working our way along the development curve of moving the school to #byod. If it’s a new idea to you, what we are trying to achieve is an environment where any user can bring any device they like to school and access all the services they require using it.

It seems to me to be absolutely the correct way forward. In the same way we don’t force every student to study Spanish, why should we make them all use the same computer? It’s about personalisation, and it’s about flexibility.

This is clearly not one of those changes that can happen overnight, and at the request of @eylanezekiel I wanted to try and write up what we are doing. I’m not suggesting this is the best, or only, way to achieve it, and we are learning and modifying this plan as we go. We are always open to comments, questions and suggestions, and we’d be happy to support any others that would like to head down this path too.

What we have done so far:

1) Talk to the students

We did this in plenty of informal situations, but also used our student ICT school improvement group to more formally survey the student population about student owned devices. This group then collated the results, wrote a draft AUP for allowing students to use their devices in school, and then pitched it to SLT, staff, students and governors. These guys are brilliant. You should all have a group like this.

2) Developed our policies

#byod is a culture change, but the reasons why are clear and you can be controlled about it. This isn’t some big free for all, your lesson isn’t constantly interrupted by ringing phones, etc. It is down to the individual staff member, guided by the department heads to choose which/when/how in a lesson electronic devices can be used.

3) Opened up limited parts network & started the move to the cloud

@jamesyale is the technical genius on the team for those who want detail, but our standard wireless now allows a user to connect any device, providing they enter their school username and password. Access is still restricted and filtered in all the ways you would expect, and the username/password allows us to log use, develop different rules for staff, etc, etc.

We also made the jump over to Google Apps. There are other ways to do this, but it is the start of our development to become platform, as well as device agnostic. It’s that flexibility word again.

4) Built a genius bar!

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Well, sort of (photo is from work in progress during the summer)… We are lucky in terms of student devices. The vast majority of our kids carry an array of technology that would make IBM envious. But, equality of access is really very important to us. The new genius bar, among other things, provides the backup devices. Maybe a staff member wants every student in one lesson to have a specific piece of technology- the bar can provide loan kit for these. Perhaps they need a few extra iPods to give to students who don’t have a similar device for a particular task. The bar provides a loan pool with a booking system to supplement student owned devices. It also provides a constant staff presence who can support and inspire users. I’ll post again later in the term about this as it warrants a little more detail.

5) Engaged the staff

Our new techs AST is the absolute key here. @ribbk and the members of our staff ICT school improvement group are tasked with sharing good practice and supporting our others with new technologies. They organise regular learning focused, sessions supporting teachers using the technology and build confidence. And, they are key members in their departments for a lead on new technologies.

The other hugely important thing our staff and student groups do is plan the future. Can you teach outstanding lessons on a tablet device? Will coursework marks be higher if the content is blogged? Can twitter improve engagement in X set in Y subject? And so on. Every year members of these groups take on action research projects, and using measured results we can not only make good purchasing decisions, but help mould our curriculum.

I said it before, but your school should have these groups.

What is coming next:

1) Unmanaged wireless

A bit techy I’m afraid. One of the limitations of the wireless access is it doesn’t allow device to device communication. Good for security, bad for playing each other at DS games and so on. Our current intention is to put up a second unmanaged network to allow for this when required.

2) Building up the genius bar

We are starting to see what is popular, what we need more of. It is also teaching us new ways of supporting and training our users in more informal learning situations.

3) Student loans at the bar

Wouldn’t it be great if students could loan kit themselves? A teacher formally signing out is a step in the right direction. But, as a student being able to drop into the bar at lunch to pick up a camera because I want to document my artwork next lesson and forgot my Blackberry (unlikely, I know…) would be perfect.

4)The 1-1 scheme

This is the big picture, long term goal part. I’m either a genius or mad, but the vision makes complete sense to me.

The clear weakness of stopping where we currently are in the process is while the loan kit props up those without, it’s not good enough.

I’m a fan of the 1-1 schemes that are appearing, some really nice implementations in schools local to us. Giving a student access to a digital tool of some description with the potential to enhance their learning in every lesson is just great.

But I don’t want to tell every student the way they learn best is with X brand of laptop, or even Y type of device.

The 1-1 scheme that we are building is one where (guided by our staff and student SIGs) our stakeholders can make informed choices about the device that best suits them, and we can support them in purchasing this in all the standard ways you see with other device specific 1-1s.

Backed up by our loan pools it means we can personalise student owned devices, but still offer the flexibility of all the other tools if what they have isn’t ideal for that moment in time.

Or, if my battery runs out I can drop mine in to be charged and grab a backup device while that happens.

Or, I could pick up some extra kit to take home because I wanted to challenge my Dad to that maths game we were playing in lesson.

For those working in the area you’ll see the challenges in going down this route compared to the standard 1-1. But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother.

So, that’s where we are. I’d say we’re about halfway through the process.

The important takeaway if you managed to read this far is we measure. The SIGs test the theory, prove the benefit to teaching and learning (or in some cases the opposite), we move from there. We’re still planning the final stages, and will only go there if our research tells us we should. I’m the lucky one that gets to blah on about vision and go to some very shiny events for inspiration, but the structure alongside is what will get us there.

I’m also lucky enough to be in a position where we can work with others who share our vision. If you still don’t think I’m mad we should probably be working together!

F2F vs. online chat for learning

I’ve been reading up on studies of how communication is altered, for better or worse, when moving from face to face dialogue to various digital modes.

I don’t take the seemingly standard view that all online communication should be identified as being significantly worse than face to face dialogue.

It’s a wide ranging area, and the technologies vary hugely in their abilities. If we compare f2f with simple text based communication there are clear differences than if we compare it to say, video conferencing. These differences impact communication both in ways that I think can be measured and others that are more about user perception.

It is worth pointing out that the classroom practice examples I have been looking at used online chat (in various forms) in addition to face to face sessions, not as a direct replacement. Using online chat as an enhancement rather than a replacement doesn’t remove the issues I discuss below, but does make them less significant. If, as seems most likely, blended learning is the approach that schools take rather than delivering content entirely online this is going to help course designers a lot.

The most commonly raised issue surrounding text based chat when discussing it with educators seems to be what is lost. Removing the face to face element takes out the important factors of facial expression and body language, and tone is lost from what is being said. Text chat does make use of other methods to attempt to counter this- it is common to see exaggerated punctuation, and emoticons play a large part for example.

Emoticons are an interesting area. At the simple level they are considered to replace facial expressions, but there is more to it than that. The most striking difference for me is about intent. Whereas your facial expressions are not always intentional, use of an emoticon during text based chat is a considered act. This shouldn’t automatically be seen as a negative, but it should be highlighted as a difference. Loads more on this in Functions of the non-verbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary Force. Really interesting article.

Web based discussion impacts on the natural flow of conversation you experience. Even using synchronous online discussion tools the usual turn-taking flow of a conversation is altered (Herring, S. 2010). This doesn’t just apply to text based communication- anybody who has participated in group audio or video chat will have noticed how much harder it is to work out if it is your turn to speak, or how the gaps between speakers tend to be a little longer than with a group sharing the same physical space.

While this produces a different flow compared to face to face discussion, again it is not always bad. The opportunities it presents could allow a wider ranging conversation to take place, or perhaps enable a greater degree of reflection if the pace is slower?

Moving to the asynchronous, Meyer noted that threaded conversation allows students more control over the discussion path whereas a face to face discussion can often switch topics before a student is ready to move on. Different flow, positive outcome.

The implications of language should be mentioned here too. It is important for students to have strong writing skills to enable them to communicate their ideas effectively in text based chat. In addition to the straight forward language barriers, while I haven’t looked into it in a great deal I can appreciate that writing style will vary between countries and cultures, and therefore impact on discussion.

The permanent record of conversation that remains afterwards can be a good thing. The learning that took place in a discussion board still exists, and can be referred back to by the students as part of the reflection process. We see this pattern within our own forums- initial unresearched responses start the dialogue, students go away to look at other articles, finding new questions and answers along the way. This seems to be evidence of higher level thinking taking place in the environment.

That record also helps remove time as a significant factor from the discussion, allowing a larger group to participate at a time convenient to them. Online discussion requires a marked expansion of the time devoted to a particular class and its material (Meyer, 2003), but with a motivated student group and a strong technical set-up gaining time definitely has positive implications for a course. Good for distance learning courses, but also good for schools looking to encourage their students into studying during their free time.

The history of an online discussion also produces a set of reading for others studying the topic in the future. As a learner would looking at the discussion students had on a topic from a previous year help your understanding? Quite possibly. As a teacher would looking at how the learning panned out in a previous class on the same topic help you design your lessons? Probably. This is something that can’t easily be replicated in a face to face discussion in a classroom setting.

Another positive I wanted to cover was about confidence.

“Many researchers note that students perceive online discussion as more equitable and more democratic than traditional classroom discussions” (Swan, K, Shea, P et al, 2000)

It seems that the online environment helps less confident students join the discussion. In the case of more public discussion the content of the response is often more considered and “students consider language structure somewhat more” (Godwin Jones, R. 2003). The suggestion being if you know the audience for your thoughts is large you are more careful about how you present them. Any of us that blog will know this to be true.

For asynchronous chat there is a positive for non-native speakers too, the process allowing more time to consider and prepare answers than in a live classroom situation.

It is also worth mentioning that all the issues mentioned here also apply to the tutor delivering the course. I’m going to separate off my thoughts about monitoring/moderating online chat into another post, but as much care should be taking designing the experience for the tutors as the students. I don’t want to poke the digital native beast just yet, but we should certainly think about whether our teachers are given enough support to build their confidence in an online environment?

Not only did Johnson and co come up with a catchy title in Comparative Analysis of Learner Satisfaction and Learning Outcomes in Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments (Johnson, S, Aragon, S, Shaik, N. 2000), but their research demonstrated that-

“while student satisfaction with a face to face course was marginally higher, there was no difference in the quality of learning that took place.”

This, for me is the most important point here. If we’re just about learning then it seems a simple argument for using the technology as part of the process. The value of ‘student satisfaction’ is so subjective it makes it much harder to measure though. My feeling is that with the correct course design this could be evened out too. It crops up again and again, but it’s all about the correct tools for the job.

There is far more detail (and evidence to back it up…) in the paper and those listed below than my brief ramblings here so do have a read if this is your area. But, in short my reading seems to demonstrate that with the correct course design the issues surrounding text based communication shouldn’t have a negative impact on learning outcomes.

Related Reading:

Dresner, E, Herring, S (2010). Functions of the non-verbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary force

Godwin Jones, R. (2003). Blogs and wikis: Environments for online collaboration

Herring, S (2010). Computer-mediated conversation: Introduction and overview

Hewitt, J. (2003). How habitual online practices affect the development of asynchronous discussion threads

Johnson, S, Aragon, S, et all (2000). Comparative Analysis of Learner Satisfaction and Learning Outcomes in Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments

Kassop, M (2003). Ten ways online education matches, or surpasses, face to face learning

Meyer, K (2003). Face to face versus threaded discussions: The role of time and higher order thinking

Tiene, D. (2000). Online discussions: a survey of advantages and disadvantages compared to face- to-face discussions

Links to all the articles on this subject and from other parts of the course are also all in my Delicious feed.

Time for a new ICT Qualification?



I started writing a post reflecting on the various sessions at #lwf11, but there are already lots of great versions of this out there. What I thought I’d do instead was try and document what I sat on the train thinking about on the way home.
It’s not news to hear I’m not a massive fan of the current breed of ICT qualifications schools offer- DiDA and iMedia being the two I have most direct knowledge of. I don’t feel the course material challenges or excites the best of our students, and I am constantly seeing the most creative and innovative uses of new technology out in other departments. For a long time this has lead me towards the opinion that ICT should not be a discrete subject at secondary level at all, but applied across the curriculum. But, I’ve never been convinced.

Now, we all understand why DiDA type qualifications are popular with schools. But if we are looking at the higher ability students, the ones I would like to challenge during their ICT lessons, I don’t think them missing out on the 4 GCSE’s worth of DiDA in preference for something else would impact on your 5 A*-Cs. Would be easy enough to model that on current data. What else could we be doing with that 4 hours a week they get at KS4 if we drop it completely? Could we bash through the DiDA qualification lower down the school and have a year for something else?

This isn’t just about DiDA, or about my school. This is a pattern I see repeated everywhere we visit. It has all been rattling around in my head for a little while. Added to this a few key moments from Learning Without Frontiers:

  • The amazing work that Apps For Good are doing. Applied to our institution where we already have at least one student earning a significant income from his iApp design work. Are we still saying that the ICT curriculum is providing for the needs of students like him?
  • Ed Vaizey (MP for culture, communications and creative industries) while not saying very much, did have a stat (that I didn’t write down) demonstrating just how few of our students know how big the game industry is in this country, what opportunities are there.
  • Ray Maguire (MD, Sony UK) was very clear. Schools are not providing students with the skills his company need in this area. He didn’t carry on to tell us what they were though.
  • Jimmy Wales (of Wikipedia fame) was asked what one thing he would prioritise in a new school- “The need to teach media literacy and how to assess sources of information and quality of knowledge”. This is huge. We do cover it in some way in various subjects, but is it high enough priority?

Coming away from the event I’m left with the feeling that there are some amazing things happening some of our schools, but we’re still not producing the goods at that core subject level for the careers our students want. Doesn’t it all just feel like it’s time we thought about something new? That argument about evolving vs. disrupting.

In an ideal world we would be sitting down with teachers and industry leaders, designing a course for our students that would provide them with the skills they need for the tech industry, giving them real-world experience, connections to the kind of people they might end up working with, making ICT something they are excited about. It would be challenging, fun, and current. When you start thinking about how this could be delivered online it starts to get a bit interesting. These conferences are the opportunities to see the most exciting people in our field, wouldn’t it be great if all of this knowledge and enthusiasm could be brought together and accesible to students everywhere?

Idle thoughts at the moment really. The other big lesson I picked up from the event was the need for more quality evidence in the field. If we are to convince the doubters all of this needs to be far more solid than ‘I think’. I’m hoping the MSc with Edinburgh will start to point me in that direction this year.

Much more to come on this, there is potential here… How hard could it be?!

Image source- Keyboard in action by lapideo

Moodle Monday: The fastest way to prepare courses/users for next year

End of the school year means start of the boring admin paperwork ready for next… This is a job I’ve just completed for one of our partner schools so I thought it was worth documenting as many others will be going through the same process at some point over the Summer break. We needed to do a few things- remove students that have left, move existing into the courses for their new year group and out of their old, and clear out all the forums/gradebooks. A couple of admin tools hidden away in Moodle make this job much less scary than it sounds.

Removing the students that have left:

We can do this in the ‘bulk user actions’ area. In the admin block on your Moodle homepage select users, accounts, bulk user actions. The trick here is to use the filters to select the group of users you are after. I did this by selecting all users that were students on the year 6 course. Add them all to my selection and from the option at the bottom hit the delete button.

Moving current students from one course to another:

This routine is slightly less slick, there may be a better way to do it using the Import part of the courses. What I needed to do was take all students listed on the year 5 page, enrol them on the year 6 page and then remove from year 5.

Again, using the bulk user actions tool I selected all students on the year 5 course. This time from the actions menu at the bottom I downloaded them all as an Excel file. We can use this list to enrol them onto the new course. Open it up in Excel, remove all the fields you don’t need (or update their details if you want), and following the instructions in the ‘upload users’ admin area create a field called ‘course1’ and give each user an entry with the shortname of the course you want to add them to.

Upload this file in ‘upload users’ page in admin, select ‘update existing users only’ and they will all be added to the new course.

Finally, go over to the old course (year 5 in my case) and remove the students from that page. Or, you can do this part at the same time as resetting the forums (see below). Repeat this process for each year group, and remember you can enrol them in more than one course at once using this method.

I found starting at the top of the school and working down was the most logical way, but as long as you keep track of who is where and pick your filters carefully all will be fine.

Removing all forum posts:

The last job for this school was to get rid of the old forum posts and gradebook entries. To do this go to the course you want to remove content from and click the ‘Reset’ option from the admin menu.

This page lets you do a few useful things, including unenroling users in bulk. But, further down the page you can choose to remove all items from the forums and gradebook. Pick what you want, click go. Easy!

And that’s it. These three simple stages have set this school up ready for the new year. Happy to try and help anybody struggling with this process, so do ask in the comments.

Image source- Paperwork CC licensed on Flickr by Luxomedia