Much of the debate about technology in the classroom isn’t above the level of tech = bad, textbooks = good. But forget the negative, technology (and that includes those mobile phones) present enormous opportunities

It may surprise you that, given my job title, I’m pretty sceptical about technology as an educational tool in general and mobile phones in particular.

The downsides have been widely covered. Using phones for learning can legitimise off-task behaviour. The in-built social inequality between pupils toting an iPhone6 and those with mum’s old BlackBerry. Limited screen and keyboard size are far from ideal. Most damningly, the diversity of devices means teachers can’t rely on much commonality of apps beyond access to the internet and some form of text entry.

On this analysis, there’s little gain for quite a lot of pain.

There is a truism here: everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. Some schools, however, are managing to make phones-for-learning work through collaboratively-agreed acceptable use policies and by effectively managing pupils’ behaviour. This means dealing with the back-of-the-room pencilled note every bit as well as the tweet about the chair of governors.

Some schools will welcome a bit of stern, governmental clarity on an issue that can be a point of friction between heads, parents, teachers and pupils. Others will continue to make appropriate and well-managed use of mobiles because, for them, it simply isn’t an issue.

Misuse of mobile phones in schools is not the cause of a poor behaviour culture, it is a symptom of it. Where this exhibits itself in the subversion of the uniform code, schools with strong behaviour management tackle the problem indefatigably. It seems unlikely that schools struggling with behaviour will break through into the sunlit uplands of a positive learning culture just by banning one highly visible aspect of misrule.

I have two other important concerns about banning smartphones from classrooms. The first is that the debate has focused only on the negative costs of their use, with the opportunities largely ignored.

The debate rotates around poles of absolutism

There are some commonly cited benefits: taking photos of whiteboards, recording discussions, videoing demonstrations, access to the entire canon of human knowledge since the start of recorded history, that kind of thing

Less well understood is the enormous significance of nascent browser-based tools. Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google’s Apps for Education are making device type and form largely irrelevant. These are full productivity suites with email, storage and homework distribution workflows, delivered through the browser. They work on any internet-connected device and are free to schools, funded not by advertising or data-sale but by their business customers.

Once schools have shifted to an online ecosystem, the smartphone becomes exponentially more useful as a learning tool.

That is not to say that I’d recommend schools pursue a smartphone strategy in lieu of something more manageable and effective – just that phones can provide access to some quite useful learning tools, and that is only going to improve as more software moves online.

The second problem I have with the unexamined “any head worth their salt should ban phones” position is that a desire to curb disruption arising from unmanaged, data-connected pocket-sized computers in the hands of teenagers has been conflated with a totally different question about the efficacy of technology for learning.

Some media interpretation of this issue isn’t much more sophisticated than tech = bad, textbooks = good. No one is saying that technology in education is an unqualified good thing. That would be a silly thing to believe. Most sensible commentators agree that good teaching, within a positive culture of learning, can be enhanced and deepened by the discerning application of technology where it adds value above other methods.

The sad thing is that this debate rotates around poles of absolutism. Those who evangelise technology as a panacea for education’s ills are just as guilty as those who seek to banish it. As Nick Gibb commented last week, schools should “consider the needs of their pupils to determine how technology can complement the foundations of good teaching”.

I agree with Nick.

United Learning is a national group of primary, secondary and all-through schools

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