“It is a common occurrence to observe students who are physically present, yet mentally preoccupied by non-course-related material on their mobile devices,” says the study Mobile Phones in the Classroom* written by several US universities and published last year. But, it doesn’t take the combined brainpower of a team of US researchers to identify this phenomenon. Just ask any teacher – they will immediately recognise the state of disengagement brought on by texting, playing games or accessing Facebook during lessons.
This is why a third of schools across England now ban mobiles** – and a government-commissioned review into tackling poor behaviour in the classroom has been asked specifically to focus on the disruptive influence of smartphones. Even schools that have provided pupils with iPads come in for criticism with the review leader, Tom Bennett, claiming: There’s no substantial evidence …. that suggests that using interactive whiteboards, tablets and iPads and so on has made a significant addition to children’s academic performance.”
An integral part of the future
Now it seems that the strength of arguments against mobile phones have all but drowned out the counter arguments. But these are equally powerful in their own way. Today’s pupils will be living and working in a world where their phones – or tomorrow’s equivalent – will be an integral part of their future being. There’s a case for teaching them to use these devices positively and maturely. Even the Department of Education which commissioned the review says that appropriately used technology, “can enhance the educational experience of pupils”.
There’s also an argument to say that pupils who are fully engaged in the classroom won’t be drawn to their phones. However, the lure of the screen is obviously difficult to resist in any lesson, let alone those which many find difficult such as languages or physics. There’s no getting away from the fact that learning some subjects is hard work.
It’s a real challenge to engage a pupil’s attention when teaching a subject such as maths or chemistry and there are many dry facts to be learnt alongside the nuggets of pure inspiration. Of course, many motivated and confident pupils rise to this challenge. However others shy away, reluctant to reveal their lack of understanding by asking questions.
Engaging pupils is not just about getting their attention. It also involves identifying gaps in their knowledge and improving knowledge retention. But then if the majority never ask any questions, how can teachers and lecturers know whether they are lapping up the lesson or finding it impossible to comprehend?
Moving on from clickers
It’s an issue which universities and other higher education establishments have been battling with too. While it might be feasible to ban Year 7 pupils from bringing their phones into school, it becomes more difficult when dealing with six-formers and undergraduates. Even asking them to turn off their phones as they come into the lecture theatre will immediately make the lecturer sound like a dinosaur and, anyway, will be impossible to police.
In some universities the whole issue of engagement is amplified by the large volumes of students from overseas who may not have English as their first language. Trying to get your head around nuclear physics is bad enough, however driven you may be. But nuclear physics in a foreign language is probably enough to make most of us find something else to think about – or surf the internet behind the barrier of a laptop screen.
Over years some universities and colleges have addressed this situation by providing clickers or student response systems – and these have also been taken up by schools. These have introduced the idea of polling students or pupils to test their understanding of a topic and detect gaps in knowledge. This enables lecturers or teachers to use available time to the best advantage, focusing on the areas identified.
Now a number of universities are experimenting with a student response system which brings the concept of the clicker into the age of the cloud, the smartphone and the mobile app
However, these clickers often became an extra burden for the lecturer or teacher who had to make sure everybody had one, cope with any malfunctions and make sure they collected the same number they had handed out at the end of the session.
But now a number of universities are experimenting with a student response system which brings the concept of the clicker into the age of the cloud, the smartphone and the mobile app. Schools would do well to take note as the system would work just as well in the classroom as the lecture theatre and it could help turn the prospect of mobiles in schools into a positive.
No more hardware
The system is built on technology used by commercial organisations to gain insight into audiences at meetings and other events. It’s accessed by downloading an app onto a phone or via a web link on a phone or tablet and entering a code. Consequently students can use their own phones or tablets and there’s no extra devices to manage and maintain.
There’s now a virtual two-way link between student and the lecturer and teacher. Polls and quizzes to test knowledge levels are still valuable – only now, because the system can be integrated seamlessly into PowerPoint, can these be created during the session and the results displayed immediately.
If a student can see straight away that others too were totally lost on a certain topic, they are more likely to stay with the session, resolving to get to the bottom of their misunderstanding. Because the feedback is provided in real time, the lecturer can divert the lesson if necessary, changing the focus or timings to leave time to explain a subject in more detail.
The app also enables students to direct questions to the lecturer, anonymously if they prefer. These can request clarification during the session or ask to discuss a topic at a later date. Because both questions and answers can be anonymous, students who may be reluctant to admit they don’t understand in an open forum, are more likely to air their concerns using the app. This means teaching is far more inclusive, giving less confident and more introverted students a chance to quietly express their concerns.
A university’s answer
It was this particular issue that led the University of Chester to consider a student response system and their story may strike a chord with schools too. Its Department of Biological Sciences was finding teaching in a large classroom and engaging and interacting with the students a real challenge. With only three or four students willing to raise a hand to ask or answer questions, it was difficult to know whether the teaching resonated at all with the other students.
Dr Neil Pickles, deputy head and senior lecturer of the department wanted a solution that would engage students and encourage more participation. After experimenting with three different student response solutions, he attended a conference where Meetoo was used and recognised that the simple, user-friendly features would be the perfect solution to creating interactive lectures. As a result he signed up for Meetoo with plans to use the PowerPoint add-in to engage students in live polling and discussions.
Meetoo helped increase student participation dramatically. Previously in a group of one hundred students, only a handful would contribute. Now more than half the students took part in the session, whether asking questions, voting on polls or sharing comments.
“During a lecture, as soon as I think of something to ask I can create a question and poll the students. I can download the results of each session in Excel and share it with the class afterwards as a summary of what was discussed in the lecture. By using multiple choice questions to test the knowledge in the room, I can instantly understand which topics need more revision,” says Dr Pickles.
He adds: “Anonymous profiles encourage more students to ask questions without fear of feeling embarrassed in front of their peers.”
Nothing will stop the next generation’s fixation with phones and other mobile devices, whether they are banned or permitted. However, schools could benefit by taking a leaf out of higher education’s book and putting this obsession to good use to help enhance pupil engagement. Because at the moment the entry-level app is completely free of charge its adoption is a viable option, especially when compared to the overheads of clickers.
As Bennett, the leader of the government review team said: “Learning is hard work and children are all too aware of this. So when they have a smartphone in their pocket that offers instant entertainment and reward, they can be easily distracted from their work.” Replacing that instant entertainment with compelling and interactive teaching is today’s major challenge – but one that can be addressed by embracing the technology and using it to this end.
* Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter and Message Content on Student Learning by Jeffrey H. Kuznekott, Stevie Munz and Scott Titsworth, May 2015 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03634523.2015.1038727)
** The Guardian, 13 September 2015 ( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/sep/13/mobile-phone-impact-school-lessons-scrutiny)