Since the pandemic, technology has proven instrumental in supporting academic instruction for students and teachers alike. But not all technology. Some are downright distracting, creating a variety of challenges for educators trying to keep their students engaged. That’s why many leaders are cracking down on cellphone use this school year, including one organization that’s recommending a global ban unless the devices are clearly being used for learning.
Last week, UNESCO, the United Nations’ education, science and culture agency, published a more than 400-page report discussing some of the major flaws of technology in education, including how cellphones disrupt student learning. For instance, the report cites research that suggests a negative link between excessive and or inappropriate use of information and communication technology (ICT) and student performance.
“Mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries, yet less than one in four have banned smartphone use in schools,” the report reads.
As a result, they’re arguing that smartphones should be banned in all schools to mitigate disruption because technology should never come first in education.
“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential, but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. “Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the well-being of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”
Phones are “a distraction”
Some school districts across the U.S. have already enacted restrictive policies ahead of the upcoming school year, including Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee. The district’s Superintendent Justin Robertson says it’s been a long time in the making.
“Over time, we have seen the disruption caused by cell phones increase in our schools as more students have access to them,” he says. “In response, the call to address these disruptions from our teachers and administrators has increased as well.”
In July, the Board approved a new policy that prohibits students from being allowed to take photos or record videos of any kind while on school property, Local 3 News reports. Additionally, students in grades K-5 won’t allowed to use their phones during hours and operations. Students in grades 6-12 can only access their phones with approval from their teachers.
“Until the approval of our new policy, principals in Hamilton County were responsible for establishing cell phone guidelines on a school-by-school basis,” Robertson says. “In the spring of this year, the Board of Education initiated the development of a district-wide policy to bring consistency across the district.”
Throughout the developmental process, he says district leadership reached out to principals for their input on what the policy should look like based on their experiences.
“We heard that student use of cell phones during class was a distraction,” he says.
As with any of the district’s disciplinary policies, students who violate this new policy will be addressed in accordance with the district’s acceptable behavior code to ensure that educators and administrators receive sufficient support in regulating smartphone use among students.
“Consequences increase for repeated violations,” Robertson explains. “For a simple violation of the policy, consequences could range from a teacher correcting the student to device confiscation and a family conference. Additional consequences could be added if the use of the device violates other guidelines in the Code of Acceptable Behavior. In worse-case situations, where persistent violations occur, consequences could include in-school and out-of-school suspensions.”
Ultimately, the effectiveness of the policy falls on building administrators and staff, he adds. But since its approval, he says leadership has taken the necessary steps to ensure everyone is up to speed ahead of the school year.
“It has already been discussed with all of our principals and assistant principals so everyone is on the same page with how the policy should be enforced,” he says.
Is it an issue for tech leaders?
Similar policies are used and regulated among educators at the Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Not only have cell phones become more distracting among students, says Jon Ostendorf, CIO at PDS, but so too have their school-issued devices.
“In our lower (elementary) school there are no phones allowed,” he explains. “In our middle school, any phones must remain in lockers throughout the school day. In the upper (high) school, it is primarily up to teachers as to what is permitted in the classroom.”
There are several cases in which high school students can use their phones, he explains. But their uses are rather limited, for instance, taking a picture or scanning a QR code. Simply put, they’re not a necessity for instruction.
“Of course, we have acceptable use and other policies that cover the use of phones,” he adds. “As far as what I hear from teachers, phones are a definite distraction. Even our school-issued, remotely managed iPads in the middle school have become more of a distraction. This seems to have gotten worse since Covid, perhaps due to the increased use of these devices by many for basic social interactions during much of that time.”
As a tech leader at PDS, Ostendorf says he has to be in the loop when decisions surrounding student devices and cell phones are made.
“Leadership in each of our divisions makes decisions regarding cell phone use,” he says. “Our Academic Technology team and I play a key role in helping inform those decisions. We also ensure that our “Acceptable Use Policy” encourages appropriate use, and covers issues that may arise.”
Both their middle and elementary schools operate 1:1 with iPads, thus reducing the need for cell phones to be leveraged by students for instructional activities. Ostendorf says nowadays it’s difficult to argue a case for allowing smartphones in the classroom.
“Apps are designed to be distracting and addictive, and kids do become genuinely addicted to them,” he explains. “Even the most benign notifications become irresistible distractions. In addition, they detract from the genuine social interactions that are vital for students in their development, particularly adolescents.”
“I know that people may argue for students to have phones from a safety perspective, but there are other ways to achieve safety goals,” he adds. “Of course, these issues exist for other devices as well. By managing the apps on our school-issued iPads and monitoring how they are used, we try to minimize these issues and optimize the benefits of technology in our classrooms.”