The growing battle over smartphones in the classroom


The addiction of youngsters (and many adults) to smartphones is now a common feature of our 21st century society. The negative effects of this addiction have been widely discussed: Shorter and shorter attention spans, lower cognitive capacities, altered personalities, higher levels of antagonism and aggressiveness on social media, etc. In a nutshell, smartphones have had strongly negative effects on youngsters; on their education and on their psychological and social behavior.

I here would like to discuss the battle that smartphones have ignited between teachers and students in classrooms. 

About two weeks ago, Kevin Brown, a professor of English at Lee University in Tennessee in the US, published an article titled “Why I Take Students’ Cellphones” on the Inside Higher Ed online multimedia platform. He first explained what led him to make students put their smartphones on a board at the front of the classroom at the start of each class; and, secondly, why he has found it a productive action. Many, including myself, find that too drastic a solution to the problem of students’ surreptitious usage of phones in classrooms.

In my own experience, this issue has been growing year by year. Indeed, on the first day of each course, I spend a few minutes stating boldly that I do not want to see a mobile on any desk, let alone any student switching one on, even if it is to check the time, and I put this rule (and some vague accompanying threats) on the syllabus. Still, for weeks, barely a class passes without me having to ask a student to put away his/her phone. It seems the students just cannot help it — they are addicted.

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After reading Brown’s article, and although I cannot imagine applying his “take away” solution (there would be uproar, and logistically it is much too complicated), I decided to conduct a poll on Twitter on this issue. Over 24 hours, almost 2,000 people responded to my survey about the best solution to adopt regarding students’ smartphones in the classroom. 

In the field of education, cellphones are having a strong, mostly negative impact

Nidhal Guessoum

The results were interesting: A third of the respondents chose “it is best to make students use their smartphones in teacher-led classroom activities;” another third preferred “the teacher should make greater efforts to keep the students focused on the lecture;” and the final third chose either “take away the students’ phones” or “punish students who (furtively) switch on their mobiles.”

A number of exchanges also took place on Twitter around my survey. Young people implicitly put the burden, if not the blame, on the teachers: “If their lectures are boring, and they cannot keep our attention, they should not be surprised that we switch on our smartphones,” they were essentially saying. Others recommended using the devices in classroom activities, with apps such as Kahoot, which defines itself as “a free game-based learning platform that makes it fun to learn — any subject, in any language, on any device, for all ages.” In other words, adapt your class to our smartphones and our digital addiction, not the other way around.

I tried to explain to those who voiced those opinions that such “activities” can, at best, be conducted for a few minutes in any given class. Moreover, while teachers should do their best to keep students focused and interested, we cannot make it the teachers’ responsibility and their fault if this or that student could not keep their hands off their smartphone for 50 minutes. 

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Older fellows suggested more drastic solutions, including the possible use of internet blockers, making phones usable only for calls (and SMS) or for intranet protocols, only allowing access to the school’s digital platforms and applications.

None of the discussions addressed the deeper causes of that digital addiction, however. Indeed, the problem is much larger than smartphones in the classroom, as tablets have increasingly been used as “digital pacifiers” with very young children, and everything being turned into an app nowadays. Undeniably, there are benefits to digital and smart devices, and no one could even imagine doing away with them. On the contrary, we should take advantage of their useful features, including educational ones. But we need to control their usage and limit their effects.

Two years ago, The Atlantic published a long article by Jean M. Twenge titled “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” with data and graphics. In the field of education, cellphones and the steady streams of social media and movies that they bring anytime and anywhere are having a strong, mostly negative impact.

We educators, psychologists, sociologists, and digital media experts need to make a collective and concerted effort to understand this phenomenon and to find intelligent responses to it. The psychological and educational well-being of a whole generation depends on it.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view



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