Is there a place for smartphones in Australia’s schools? This has lately been a subject of significant debate.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has spoken out publicly in favour of banning smartphones in the classroom. Birmingham believes that there are very few reasons that smartphones should be allowed in classrooms. While at school, he suggests that devices should be kept powered off and inside students’ lockers. His statement followed on the heels of a tragic incident---the death 14-year-old Amy "Dolly" Everett, who was a victim of cyber-bullying.

Birmingham says that smartphones are not just a potential “platform for bullying,” but claims they are a distraction as well.

And he’s not the only person to call for a removal of personal mobile devices from the classroom. Others agree with Birmingham’s views and posit ideas of their own.

Banning Phones from School Classrooms

Among those who feel that smartphones should be kept from inside schools is Pasi Sahlberg, a world-renowned Finnish education expert and a new professor at the University of New South Wales. Sahlberg says that phones should definitely be banned from primary schools, before the children have gotten in the habit of having constant interaction with their devices. By high school, it may prove too difficult to completely ban phones, Sahlberg says, because students truly don’t know a world without technology.

But even in the later academic years, schools should make it a priority to encourage self-control amongst students. Mobile phones are dominating the lives of young people and frequently leaving little room for interpersonal relationships and other non-digital pursuits. Not only could this result in problems related to personal well-being, but it could have academic impacts. In fact, it may be already: Sahlberg posits that the distractions caused by smartphones could be one of the reasons that schools in Australia---as well as other countries---have slipped in their PISA rankings (Programme for International Student Assessment).

There’s no doubt that some time spent away from screens could be beneficial to young people. Research shows that excessive screen usage is frequently linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. It can also affect a child’s social skills. At a recent educational conference in Perth, child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg called today’s students “the most vulnerable generation in the history of Australia,” citing that mental health issues for our young people are the worst they’ve ever been.

But is the school the right place to limit smartphone usage? Or should that take place at home?

Students at Mckinnon Secondary College seem to like the idea of a smartphone ban at school. Recently, the institution implemented a partial ban on devices. Students can bring them to school property, but they must be kept away in their locker at all times, and are not to be used even during breaks. While many young people might protest such a move, the students at McKinnon largely appear to be supportive. A Year 11 student reported that “Not having the distraction there at all, rather than having to try to avoid it, makes it a lot easier.” And in the days following the new policy, the response was positive, with students participating in lunchtime activities, socialising more, and relishing the unique lack of technology. While this result is promising for those who support smartphone bans, it’s tough to say if the outcome would be the same elsewhere.

Smartphones Kept Out of Classrooms
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So would a blanket ban make sense for Australia’s primary and secondary schools? According to some, this may be the easiest solution, but not the most ideal. Even Sahlberg concedes that each school should deal with the matter in its own way. Better than a ban is education around smartphone use. The ideal, according to Sahlberg, is to “teach all children safe, smart and responsible use of technology.”

The Argument Against Smartphone Bans

While some education experts and public figures want to keep smartphones out of our schools, others vehemently oppose this move.

Dr Joanne Orlando, an expert on children and technology with the University of Western Sydney, feels that a smartphone ban is a profound error. She said, "A blanket statement like that takes us a few years back from all the work we are doing in education and training.” There are many possible uses for smartphones and related technology in the classroom, and removing devices from the equation would halt that progress.

There are several other voices chiming in to declare that the smartphone issue is a complex one, and to assert that a solution will never be simplistic.

Chris Presland is one such figure, and agrees that a ban would be difficult if not impossible to institute in the high school setting. President of the NSW Secondary Principals Association, he has shown support for education with regards to the smartphone issue. After all, even adults have difficulty exercising restraint with our devices. With all the technologies being used in our schools, Presland suggests that “what we need to be focusing on is educating students and parents about the appropriate use of technology in schools.”

WA Education Minister Sue Ellery also feels that the decision may lie with individual schools. While she doesn’t particularly favour a ban on smartphones, she supports the idea of educators initiating a dialogue with students about smartphone use. Ultimately, it’s up to those individual communities to make the choice that’s best for their school.

And it may be that educational leaders must make the first move, not just teachers and principals. Even Federal Education Minister Birmingham, who supports a ban, has stated, “Those running school systems need to lead from the front with firm policies that ensure the problem isn’t just left to hardworking teachers and principals.”

Smartphones Kept Out of Classrooms
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Using Smartphones in Education

Instead of opting for a black and white solution, it seems that the middle ground involves allowing smartphones to remain in schools, but creating the best systems and standards for their use. Having the right policies in place will be paramount for schools going forward. The proper rules can ensure devices do not become distractions or generate problems for students, while still taking advantage of the terrific possibilities of the technology.

And the potential is enormous.

Emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) may rely heavily on the use of personal devices. These technologies can enhance the learning experience and perhaps make it more fun and memorable for students. As a tool for a better education, the smartphone could be a key.

Schools have also heavily focused on promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Using devices like smartphones is an integral part of these realms, and without having smartphones available in school, students could be missing out on a crucial aspect of their professional future.

What do you think about smartphones in your child’s classroom?

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