Banning and unbanning phones in schools

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forbidden ... or encouraged?
forbidden ... or encouraged?
When planning for new initiatives that will introduce and/or utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in some way, a simple general rule of thumb is worth considering:

The best technology is often the one you already have, know how to (and do ) use, and can afford. In many places around the world, this technology is the mobile phone.

This is not to contend that 'new' technology devices should not be considered -- far from it! Rather, this general guidance is meant to serve as a reminder for planners and decisionmakers to consider how it might be possible to take advantage of and leverage *existing* technologies, and the activities and processes these technologies enable, before committing to introduce totally new (or foreign) technology tools into a given environment. Just because something is new doesn't mean that it is automatically better. Of course: It doesn't mean that it is worse, either.

At a conceptual level, when considering what technology devices are to be utilized as part of a given project or activity, mobile phones may often be the 'best' technology. But: Does that make the mobile phone an appropriate or practical technology choice for use in schools, and/or by students and teachers?

It depends.

When it comes to mobile phones and the education sector, things aren't so simple, and answers vary considerably by place -- and are changing. In some countries and schools, mobile phones are not allowed at all for students (and in some cases for teachers as well) and/or their use is limited to certain circumstances inside (and in some instances even outside) of school. In other places, phones are allowed with few restrictions. In yet other places, long time bans on phones are being reversed. Even where bans are in place, phones are still to be found in schools, for better and for worse, and they are used for a variety of purposes (again, for better and for worse).
What are some current perspectives and practices related to
the use of mobile phones in schools and education systems around the world?
Imposing -- and removing -- bans on phones in schools

New York City lifted a ban on mobile phones in its schools earlier this year. In May, two academics published a widely read paper ( Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance) which argues that "student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases post [mobile phone] ban". A few weeks later, Barbados lifted a longstanding ban on mobile phones in schools.

What's going on here? Who's right?

Bans on mobile phones in schools began in earnest in many parts of the world around 2008-2012 ... about 5-10 years *after* the first wave of efforts to 'unban' (or allow) phones in schools in many U.S. states gathered momentum.

Discussions about whether or not to ban phones in schools in Jamaica in 2007 echoed conversations in many U.S. states in 2002 which led to bans being relaxed, or where the responsibility for such bans were transferred to more local jurisdictions. In the U.S. state of California, for example, a blanket ban on phones in schools in place since 1988 was lifted in 2002. Instead, local school boards were able to adopt their own local policies in this regard (and in some cases further delegated related authority to individual schools, and in some cases to teachers to make decisions about what was appropriate in their own classrooms).

In contrast, a bill to ban phones in schools was introduced in France in 2009. Bans came into effect in places like Nigeria in 2012, around the time that teachers in the Solomon Islands called for phones to be banned in their schools. Uganda banned phones in schools in 2013, one year after Malaysia reaffirmed its own similar ban.

And it's not only been in schools where young people have been prohibited from using their phones over the years. In one prefecture in Japan in 2014 children were not allowed to use phones after 9pm, not long after Belgium banned the sales and advertising of phones to children under seven. Earlier this year, bans on student use of phones inside and outside of schools were considered in Indonesia.


Many reasons are commonly cited in support of banning phones from schools. They include:

Why to ban phones in schools

1. They are distractions
Anyone who has ever been in a conversation with someone who spend most of the time looking down at her phone, or whose speaking was interrupt by the chirping or buzzing of someone's phone (in other words: everyone) will understand this reason. (When you hear some educators and administrators referring to the new age of 3D that education technologies are enabling, this is often not a positive statement about the promise and potential of 'virtual reality', but rather lamenting the role of phones in classrooms as 'digital distraction devices'.) It is not only that phones distract learners -- in some places, phone use by teachers is seen as a distraction (as in Bangladesh).

2. They present (possible) health issues
Much has been made in certain quarters about the potential damage that radiation from phones present, especially to children. (Here's the latest guidance on this contentious issue from the World Health Organization). There are other health-related worries about potential impact on eyesight and about the role of phones (and other devices) in enabling 'cyber-addiction' (for what it's worth, such worries are often especially acute among many policymakers in East Asia).

3. Cyber-bullying (and protection from violence)
The role that phones can play in so-called cyber-bullying is well known. In addition to the psychologically damaging role that phones can play, there are also worries about the potential use of such devices in certain places in helping foment unrest (as in Kenya), and particularly their use to 'protect' women and girls (here are two examples from different parts of India). In some schools in the United States metal detectors are used to prevent students from bringing weapons to schools; in some Chinese schools they are used to prevent mobile phones from entering.

ANECDOTE: I once visited a school for girls in Papua New Guinea and asked whether or not phones were allowed. I was not surprised to learn that they were not (I often ask questions to which I think I know the answer, assuming that I might not be as smart as I sometimes think I am -- and because I like it when I am surprised by answers that contradict or challenge what I think I 'know'), but was a little shocked at the reason why -- girls had been using them to arrange fights between classes and after school.

4. Cheating
Students around the world have long been innovative in the ways they have utilized technologies to cheat on exams. The mobile phone is a device can be particularly helpful in this regard. (Some education systems are becoming innovative themselves in utilizing new technologies to help detect such efforts.)

5. Theft
Carrying around expensive gadgets make students potential targets for thieves.

6. Impact on student performance
Where's the evidence that having phones in school (positively) impact student performance, ask many supporters of mobile phone bans? To date the evidence base in this regard is pretty thin, for or against, although one recent study from England argues that the impact of phones in schools is negative -- especially when it comes to low income students. (Research in this regard is still in its infancy, however -- and almost entirely based on contexts and circumstances in certain 'highly developed' economies which may or may not be relevant to schools and learners and communities in other parts of the world.)

Which highlights issues related to ...

7. Equity
If phones are allowed in schools, they are more likely to be owned by students from wealthier families -- and the phones that wealthy kids have may be more powerful than those of students from lower income families. Such concerns can be especially acute where schools have adopted 'bring your own device' (BYOD) policies.

There are many other reasons put forward in forth of banning phones in schools, and reasons for banning phones in schools might potentially apply in other contexts as well (as mobile learning pioneer Steve Vosloo argued tongue-in-cheek in an influential presentation, Let's Ban Malls), but I'll stop here.

(I will note, however, that in certain places companies that sell tablets and laptops quietly advocate that phones be banned in schools -- no doubt so that their own products face less competition. Indeed, various groups can benefit from bans on mobile phones in schools in ways that can be surprising. In 2012 it was estimated that local businesses in New York City -- from corner stores to trucks parked near school entrances -- made US$4m annually be renting spaces to students to store their phones during the school day.)


With such a long list of reasons why it makes sense to ban phones in schools, why would it make sense to allow them? Here are a few reasons:

Why not to ban phones in schools

1. Phones are already in schools -- and there to stay
Mobile phone ownership and use is increasingly ubiquitous across many societies -- and will no doubt become even more firmly embedded in people's daily lives going forward. Given this reality, does it make sense for schools to be a phone-free zone? Maybe. But where bans are in place and are widely flouted, such disconnects can undermine authority in ways both minor and pernicious -- and enforcement can also serve to selectively punish certain groups of students that undermine social cohesion in ways that are simply not productive (or fair).

2. Why buy so many new computers for schools when lots of students already have small computers in their backpacks?
As many education systems seek to roll out educational technology initiatives in their schools, they are faced with very large costs related to procuring new hardware. In many places, once the hardware is purchased, this is little money left to spend on the software and content that will be accessible through such devices, and for training of teachers and students on how to take advantage of the new devices. Given fiscal constraints across pretty much all education systems around the world, is it prudent to simply ignore the fact that there is an installed ICT infrastructure that students already know how to use just because it was not originally purchased by government?

ANECDOTE: I was once in a school in a low income community in Brazil. Policymakers were considering purchasing lots of low cost tablets for use in such places. In one classroom I asked how many students had a personal mobile phone with them -- all but one did. You are preparing to spend *lots* of money on handheld computing devices for use by students such as these in classrooms such as this one, I commented to the education officials who were with me. Has the fact that almost all of these same students already have a computing device with them factored into your decisionmaking in any way?

3. Ethics, and responsible use
To the extent that school is about helping students develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will be useful to them in life, does it make sense not to help students figure out how to use a device that will, for better or for worse, increasingly impact many aspects of their lives, in ways large and small, in ways that are ethical, safe, efficient and productive?
4. Safety and convenience
Many parents argue that phones should be permitted in schools for reasons unrelated to learning. They just want their kids to be able to call them if something goes wrong, if predetermined plans change, if advice or information is quickly needed -- or vice versa.

5. Phones can be tools for learning
Today's phones are getting more and more powerful -- and less expensive. Smart phones today have more computing power than NASA had when it helped put a man on the moon. A new iPhone CPU has 625x more transistors than a 1995 Pentium processor, as a16z's Benedict Evans notes. That's all well and good, you might say, but smartphones are for rich people in rich countries. That is certainly true. It is also true, however, that smart phones now account for 50% of all new phone purchases in Kenya, and it is projected that smart phones will represent around 75% of the market for mobile phones across Africa by 2020. The potential relevance of the use of such phones for learning going forward is hard to deny (and a regular topic explored on the World Bank's EduTech blog).

ANECDOTE: A while back I was chatting with the Minster of Education from an African country. 'We thought we were being very foresighted when our parliament enacted a law to ban phones in schools a few years ago', he told me. 'Now, however, as minister I would like to explore how we can explore how we might use these as tools for learning in our schools. We cannot do this, though, because doing so is illegal. Any ideas on how we could get this ban overturned?'

There are legitimate reasons to ban phones in schools. There are legitimate reasons to allow them as well. Different education systems around the world assign different values to these reasons, and accordingly make different decisions as a result. What, then, is a policymaker to do?

your choices are about more than colors
your choices are about more than colors

There are no clear cut answers for many policymakers when it comes to (banning or unbanning) mobile phones in schools. Whatever decisions are taken, however, here are:

Five common pieces of general advice for policymakers
related to the mobile phones in schools

1. If you are not thinking about this stuff: You probably should be
Mobile phones are already in your schools -- and if they are not there yet, they will be there soon. They are becoming increasingly integral to the way that citizens in your country, including young people, live their lives -- for better and for worse. This is a reality, and it is worth considering what the implications of this reality are for learners, teachers and school administrators.

2. There are multiple dimensions to consider
There are many dimensions to consider when it comes to mobile phone use in schools. It's not just about learning, or safety, or financial considerations, or equity, or practical issues. It is potentially about *all* of these things.

3. Stay flexible
There are many ways to provide direction related to the use of mobile phones. Ministries of education (or ministries of culture) can provide general guidance related to mobile phone use. They can enact outright bans -- or allow their use in certain contexts or circumstances, or by certain groups of people. They can lobby for (or against) legal restrictions that originate in or are unforced by other parts of government. They can transfer responsibility for such bans or directives to more local educational authorities, from regional or district education offices all the way down to school principals or even individual teachers themselves, so that related decisions can be made locally.

4. If you are considering buying lots of hardware for schools, it may be worthwhile to take a step back (BYOD may be looming)
Moves to enable 'bring your own device' (BYOD -- sometimes also referred to as 'bring your own technology', or BYOT) are increasing in many education systems around the world. While such policies, or the practices they enable, may not yet be practical or relevant yet in your country -- but they may soon be. If you are devising education policies and plans e.g. for the next decade, it might be worth learning from related experiences in other places, because those experiences might well be relevant to you within this time frame.

5. Revisit your approach regularly (perhaps even annually)
Whatever your policy is today related to mobile phones in schools, it is inevitable that new developments may challenge your current policies and practices. Given the rate of change with technology in society, you would do well to consider, and re-consider, how previous decisions related to technology use in your schools may no longer be valid -- or may be needed going forward in ways you had not previously anticipated.

Mobile phones in schools: To ban or not to ban? Whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may turn out to be, one thing is for certain: This stuff will only get more complicated.

(to be continued ...)

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image of an old phone box near the village of Higham in the Forest Heath district of Suffolk, England ("forbidden ... or encouraged?") comes from Keith Evans via Wikimedia Commons. It was originally uploaded to the Geograph web site and is uised according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. The image of three phones on display at Kim Il-Sung Sqaure in Pyongyang, North Korea used later in the blog post ("your choice is about more than colors") comes from Roman Harak via Wikimedia Commons. It was originally posted to Flickr and is also used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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