Smartphones and handheld computers: the new battleground in UK schools
Teachers say that pupils using iPads regularly at Ysgol Glannau Gwaun in Fishguard has led to great improvements. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis for the Guardian
Children’s learning could “hugely improve” if all pupils were given smartphones to use in the classroom, technology experts say but, instead, the UK risks falling behind because “the government doesn’t seem that interested in it”.
Research shows that in many areas, the majority of pupils own a smartphone, but many schools ban the devices and the National Association of Head Teachers says they hold “potential for mischief and distraction”.
Earlier this year, a secondary school in Kent became the first in the country to equip each of its 1,400 pupils with an Apple iPad tablet computer. Longfield academy near Dartford said the iPads would help pupils’ learning. Honywood community school in Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. has also invested in 1,200 iPads for its pupils. Some schools, such as the Oldershaw academy in Wallasey on Merseyside. have created their own app so parents can check, via their mobiles, what homework their children have been set.
Miles Berry, a senior lecturer in the use of technology in education at the University of Roehampton, said schools needed to “capture the vast amount of informal learning going on outside the classroom”.
“The ability to access all the world’s information from a handheld device is transformative for learning and would make a huge difference to children’s learning from late primary school onwards,” he said.
“It seems wrong to deny this to children inside the classroom when so many already have this opportunity outside the classroom.”
Smartphones – mobile phones that offer internet access and apps – have been proven to help children maximise their learning from the age of nine, education experts say.
Berry said there was “huge enthusiasm” from pupils for using smartphones, but some schools still felt that they needed to be in control of children’s learning and that the use of these devices would prevent this.
Other experts fear the UK will fall behind competitors, such as India and France, unless children have access to a smartphone or similar device. But they acknowledge that schools need guidance to ensure their use does not lead to pupils misbehaving, for example by taking photos in lessons.
Recently, Michael Gove, the education secretary, acknowledged that the rate of technological change in education was “rapidly accelerating”.
In a speech to the qualifications regulator Ofqual, he said technology had the power to “transform the accuracy and authority” of assessment. “It also gives us the potential to generate yet more data, in order to know how our schools, how our teachers and how our whole system is performing,” he said.
The government has yet to announce its strategy for information and communications technology (ICT) in schools. A recent event hosted by the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange concluded that the fact that technology had not “featured prominently” in ministers’ speeches has “fuelled fears in some quarters of a lack of clear policy direction in this area”.
The government disbanded Becta. the body responsible for promoting technology in schools, almost as soon as it came to power. According to Becta, between 1997 and 2007, Labour spent more than ?5bn on school technology.
Experts predict that within five years, all pupils will be learning on handheld devices. In some parts of California. the handheld devices have already replaced printed textbooks.
Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, said the technology many pupils carried around with them was often more powerful than the equipment owned by their schools. He urged schools to lift their ban on smartphones.
Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, a charity that aims to equip disadvantaged children with technology at home and school, said the UK was falling behind, partly because the government had not yet shown clear direction on how it wanted schools to use technology.
“We have been a leader in the deployment of technology in education, but this is changing,” she said. “The government doesn’t seem that interested in it.”
Thompson suggested schools should buy computers, including smartphones, for their poorest pupils, using money from the “pupil premium” – a government grant for children eligible for free school meals or who have been in care for more than six months. Parents who can afford to, should buy smartphones for their children, she said.
The National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education. which includes teachers, technologists and policymakers, said that in many schools, the majority of pupils owned a smartphone. It cites research that shows the devices can have a “high impact” on students’ learning .
Another study. carried out in 2008 by Becta, found smartphones helped students to consolidate and reflect on what they had learnt outside lessons.
A separate study. by Futurelab, a charity that develops innovative approaches to learning, showed smartphones can improve group work.
However, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the kind of learning that could take place on smartphones was “not all that exciting”.
“It should remain with individual schools to determine their policy [on whether they ban the device],” he said.
The government said it would be publishing a strategy on the use of technology in schools before Christmas.
The Department for Education said ICT could not be a substitute for good teaching, but ministers were “clear that its effective use can help raise standards”.
“The scale of digital technology in education is developing very rapidly, so we are developing our future approach working closely with industry, school leaders, professional bodies and other experts. ICT is well established in the education sector so we’re not going to micro-manage how schools use technology day-to-day. “