Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

Controlling the hi-tech helpers

Chalk in school, BBC
Some schools have been using phones alongside more traditional tools

Mobiles in schools are not necessarily bad, says columnist Bill Thompson, but they need careful management.

Most weeks I am fortunate to hear about interesting and innovative developments in technology around the world as the in-house commentator for Digital Planet, the World Service radio show presented by Gareth Mitchell.

We hear about solar-powered wi-fi in Brazil, computing in Nepal, driverless cars in the USA and silicon chips that can tell when their calculations have been affected by cosmic rays.

We get to interview interesting people like Feargal Sharkey, former Undertone and now a lobbyist for the music industry, author Steven Johnson and head of the Mozilla Foundation Mitchell Baker.

And we find out about new initiatives and projects that could shape the emerging networked world, like One Laptop per Child.

Bill Thompson
Social justice and equality of opportunity need to be balanced against our drive toward digital engagement, in the classroom as everywhere else.
Bill Thompson

Test case

But having a worldwide audience doesn't stop us being interested in developments closer to home, and last week reporter Anna Lacey went to Park House school in Newbury, where they have been experimenting with the use of mobile phones in school.

Instead of banning phones and giving detention to any student foolish enough to take out their mobile in class, the school has been part of a nine-month research project into whether they can be used effectively in teaching.

The results are interesting to those of us who have seen how our children embrace new technologies.

During 2007 and 2008 Dr Elizabeth Hartnell-Young from the Learning Sciences Research Institute at Nottingham University and her colleagues explored ways in which students in five secondary schools could use smartphones in class.

They started from the premise that mobile phones are now "small, personal computers, providing clock, calendar, games, music player, Bluetooth connection, internet access, and high-quality camera functions in addition to voice calls and short messaging", and decided to find out whether they had a role in class.

The conclusions were hardly surprising. During the nine-month experiment, the range of activities that the smartphones could be used for was impressively broad, from timing experiments to listening to foreign language podcasts to accessing the school's student support system remotely.

Some students even recorded their teacher reading a poem to use for revision.

Hi-tech helper

Yet all of the schools involved in the project had formal policies in place that effectively outlawed the use of mobiles, even if the policies were often disregarded in practice - as they have been over the years in my childrens' schools.

Mobile for small children, AP
Phones are starting to be made specifically for children
The current restrictions are absurd, and will not last much longer. But there is a difference between letting students use their phones to keep in touch with parents or friends and expecting them to use them in class.

Simply bringing down the barriers will not, in itself, transform pedagogic practice and will raise new problems that must be addressed.

For one thing, today's smartphones, are not actually very good when it comes to searching the web, editing documents or videoing classroom experiments.

Most, apart from the G1 and the iPhone, are primarily designed to enable users to make voice calls and send texts, and the cool user interface features are there to let their owners download and play music or take and send photos and grainy videos.

Few school students have business-oriented Blackberries, and even simple tasks like sending and receiving e-mails or reading documents sent as attachments are impossible on the average teenagers' phone.

Simply entering a web address can be a slow and painful business, and doing a proper search for sources could take a whole lesson.

Within the classroom there is also a class divide between those who have the latest models and the latest phones and those from poorer families who may not have smartphones or even any phone at all. In the research project many of the students were given phones to use, but this is not going to be the case generally.

Equal access

I was one of the first students at my school to get a pocket calculator, back in the early 1970's. It was a Sinclair Cambridge that one of my friends fathers had built from a kit, and used Reverse Polish logic, so you entered 2,2,+ to add two and two.

Of course, I wasn't allowed to use it in class, and couldn't take it into exams. But having one at home definitely gave me an advantage in maths because I spent less time doing grunt arithmetic and more time thinking about mathematics.

Iphone on sale, AP
Divisions can appear when parents cannot afford high-end phones
The same thing could easily happen with mobiles. I'm plugged into technology, and affluent enough to provide my children with the kit they need, but there are a lot of kids at school with them who are not so fortunate.

Middle-class parents who can afford home computers, fast broadband and even laptops for their children are already giving them an advantage and we don't want the same to happen with mobiles.

The report authors are aware of this, and they point out that "the cost of wireless internet smart phones means that they are not ubiquitous among secondary school students", and note that "cost and ownership go hand in hand as issues to consider".

However, this is just the sort of concern that is likely to be missed as policy develops and guidance is issued.

We could easily see a more liberal attitude to the use of smartphones in class without any attempt to ensure equality of access or provide resources for those students who do not already own appropriate devices, and that would only serve to perpetuate the inequalities that already disfigure our education system.

Since we're unlikely to convince the department for children, schools and families to give every child under 16 their own smartphone, we should think very carefully about how we move towards opening classes up to mobile technologies.

Social justice and equality of opportunity need to be balanced against our drive toward digital engagement, in the classroom as everywhere else.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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