3 Myths About Smartphones and SMS Messaging in Education

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When it comes to using SMS messaging in student education, one major issue that comes up is whether students should have mobile phones at all (in class). Currently in the UK, each school sets its own rules on mobile phone usage. Some allow them in class and some ban them entirely.

Clearly there’s a variety of opinions on the subject, but what are some of the facts? According to OFCOM, 90% of Brits aged 16-24 have smartphones in 2015. An older study from 2013 claimed 80% of students used smartphones (ages unspecified). The truth is the student population is now a mobile generation. How will that impact education? Let’s take a look at three common concepts regarding mobile phones and SMS in education to find out.

1. Using SMS/mobiles in class is distracting and lowers scores in the classroom

Mobile phones are the ultimate distraction. Students have immediate access to music, movies, games, chat programs, and the Internet. Why in the world would they pay attention in class if they have the option of using their smartphone? Shouldn’t they be banned outright?

Most teachers would probably admit that if the students want to be distracted – or to communicate with one another –  they will find a way. Years ago it was secret notes handed back and forth when the teacher turned his or her back. Sometimes it’s doodling in a notebook, or starring dreamily out a window. It’s just a question of how easy it becomes when they have a mobile in their hands.

It turns out though, that what happens when students are allowed to have their mobiles, and they are integrated into their education environment, is still up for debate.

Last year the London School of Economics published a study that examined mobile usage in four English cities. The highly publicised results showed that test scores were higher in the schools that banned mobiles. The difference in scores was “equivalent to an additional hour a week in school, or to increasing the school year by five days.” It went on to point out that the biggest improvement was seen in students that were otherwise underperforming. These students were particularly susceptible to the distractions smartphones provide the study concluded.

That sort of result could be convincing enough to push for a country wide ban. But it isn’t the whole picture. Studies done in other countries have shown the benefit of using mobiles, SMS in particular, in class and outside of class for learning.

One example is from Portugal. In a paper entitled, Mobile Learning: Using SMS in Educational Contexts, the authors focus on using SMS for language learning. They concluded, “The research findings showed that students had positive perceptions about the experiment and SMS use for learning improvement and the use of their own mobile phone as a learning tool. All groups showed interest in receiving educational content via SMS. Some students greatly improved their language learning performance.”

The report included data from a previously published work (SMS-based Discussions – Technology enhanced collaboration for a literature course) from an IEEE symposium, “In another study, a tool was implemented for communication and discussion based on sending SMS messages via PDA that aimed to initiate discussions and collaborative work. Results showed that the technology improved collaborative work in literature courses.”

In Africa, the educational environment and infrastructure are facing major shortages of teachers and funds. According to the Herald (www.herald.co.zw), 10 million children drop out of primary school every year. But even as the populace is becoming less educated due to the shortages, Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market and ranks second globally in terms of size.

Industrious educators have taken to using those mobiles to teach. Organisations like Yoza Cellphone Stories are using the mobile platform to encourage and provide reading materials to smartphone owners. In Nigeria, help and advice for exams and health education are delivered via SMS. As noted above, the African “classroom” isn’t always the same as what you’d find in the UK. The Herald article says, “If mobile learning is to have a real impact, we need to also rethink what we mean by education, schooling and what skills it develops.”

The article goes on to quote a UNESCO study regarding education and skills in the future (starting in 2016, the report was in 2015), “the report predicts that there will be an increased blurring of the boundaries between learning, working and living.” It further states that the need for digital literacy will rank high along with traditional reading and maths.

The two foreign reports I mentioned are just counterpoints to the assumption that mobiles can’t be successfully used in a classroom setting – and that perhaps the mobile revolution is also leading to a revolution in education. SMS and mobile technologies do work in some circumstances, so perhaps it’s a topic worth more evaluation.

2. It sends the wrong message to kids if you let them use their mobiles during the school day.

One goal of a classroom is to ensure a proper learning environment for students. There are rules regulating behaviour, speech, electronics, and even clothing. Given mobile phones offer students the opportunity to violate many of those rules, shouldn’t they be banned? Won’t it be a confusing message for students that using mobiles is ok, but they can’t bring in an MP3 player?

This is probably the toughest of the myths to conquer, because it is partly true and somewhat subjective. Allowing phones can send a bad message, but it all depends on how the message is delivered. And of course how the rules regarding their usage are enforced.

In my daughter’s school, students were allowed to have phones, but not to use them during teaching times. They could use them during breaks or study times provided the sound was off or they used headphones. Should a student be caught violating the policy the mobile would be confiscated and the student could pick it up at the end of the day (with potentially other disciplinary action depending on circumstances). Her school had not incorporated mobile into their education programs at all, but had set a clear policy in recognition that virtually every student had a phone and brought it to school. The key is that the policy was clear and consistent. If one classroom allowed their use during lessons, then it would be confusing for everyone and potentially send the wrong message.

Other schools though, ban them entirely, which is also a clear policy but perhaps one that is in denial of reality. At least that is the feeling of at least one school governor. Shena Lewington offers guidance to governors, teachers and clerks on her website Clerk to Governors. On her blog she offered the following opinion on mobile phones in the classroom:

I think that there is little point having a ban, and every point accepting that the world has moved on. Pupils need to “behave” which means not using their phone at the wrong time or in the wrong way, much like fiddling with their seventeen-function watch (remember the excitement of the first digital watches??) or brushing their hair in lessons or writing notes to each other with pencil and paper. We don’t ban brushes or pens or watches. Phones might be more seductive but it’s the same principle.”

It’s obviously just an opinion. One that potentially contradicts the Department of Education’s latest endeavour to examine the impact of electronics (and iPads in particular) in classrooms. I think there’s a general recognition that technology (mobile and SMS in particular) can be great tools for learning. But it is also true that how the devices are used and managed in an educational environment plays a large part in their benefit or lack thereof.

The solution may not be the same for all student levels either. A study at the University of Colorado Boulder showed 92% of university students used their smartphone during idle times while working or at school. More importantly, 82% used it for “school related-tasks”. By the time students reach university, mobile phones are both a distraction and a tool to be used for school. In fact, many universities use SMS to communicate with students because it is so commonplace and easily accessible to everyone.

3. Using SMS can violate privacy laws regarding children

Lastly, is the least controversial myth to debunk. Privacy is a major concern for everyone, especially educators and children. However, an SMS messaging program at a school would need to operate on an opt-in basis to comply with UK regulations.

Schools wanting to use SMS messaging with their students would need to get permission from them (or their parents) with an explicit agreement to opt in to communications from the school. Once they’ve done so, the student’s mobile number is available for the school to use as a contact via SMS.

Regarding privacy of the student information, the mobile number could be treated the same as other private student data. Schools already have policies and procedures in place for such things so a student mobile number would be as safe as any other data provided.

Technology changes can ultimately benefit education, though it can often be a bumpy road. Smartphones pose additional challenges due to their small size and powerful features. I’m hoping that the three “myths” I examined for you above showed both the reality and the potential of smartphones and SMS use in education. There are arguments on all sides of the issue. Bans of course work. But so does including SMS into educational programming, at least in certain circumstances.

What do you think? Which side of the argument are you on?

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