Weeks before I left Sydney to start my Fulbright Fellowship, discussions began about the need to ban mobile phones from schools.

This followed a decision by the Victorian Government to bad mobile phones in all state schools – both primary and secondary. According to the education minister, James Merlino, this was to take place from semester one, 2020, in an effort to reduce distractions and cyber bullying, and improve education outcomes. The ban is supported by federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan who stated that he would raise it at the meeting of State Education Ministers – so it is not an issue that will go away.

It came up when I was on ABC’s The Drum and there was overwhelming support for the ban by the other panel members who echoed many of the sentiments raised about distractions and bullying.

Research conducted in 2015 also highlights that schools that ban cell phones have less distractions and there was also some evidence of better academic results.

While I have sympathy for the intention and arguments associated with the ban, there are a number of reasons why I believe it is misguided and does not address the challenges it attempts to solve.

I will let others deal with the way that this is a simple solution to a complex social problem that emerges when a new technology enters our society and simply will not work. Rather, I will instead concentrate on why such a ban is pointless from an educator’s perspective:

  1. We need to teach young people about responsible use of technology – that is, digital literacy.

Mobile technologies have great potential as well as risks. The issue of sexting, bullying, over sharing and inappropriate comments will not go away because mobile phones are not allowed in the classroom. Rather, through using these technologies in the classroom, we can create opportunities to discuss its impacts and appropriate use, and help students to develop the deep level of digital literacy required to make informed decisions about its use. 

One of the case studies I used to run when teaching first year students was on ‘technology, sex and power’. The case involved a young woman who had sent a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend, who then shared it without her knowledge. Having students use this technology to see how quickly information can travel is powerful and highlights the responsibility that comes with this technology.

2. This is the most powerful technology – why would you not use it?

In the classroom, you can ask students to look into a contemporary topic like tax cuts: what are the arguments for and against? Go to the Australia Institute website and compare that to the Centre for Independent Studies: how can two organisations have such different views about the same topic? Who funds them and how do we understand their different perspectives.

In a world where man are increasingly entering echo chambers and we are witnessing increasing divisions, we need to use this powerful technology to stop this trend.

There are also countless Apps that can be used in class to record real time feedback and problem solving –  a pedagogical tool that can be used to assist educators in many ways.

3. We live in a data driven world – how can we teach this without the technology

One of my research areas is data ethics and I have been working on a project to identify the way organisations access and use data about us – see here.

Australia’s lack of data rights is concerning, and it is important we teach our students about protecting their privacy – again, to do this without the technology present is like learning to drive a car in theory.

4. Problems yes, but many tools of support also

There is no doubt the problems identified by the critics of these technologies are real and must be addressed, but let us not forget the many support mechanism that this technology gives us access to. Some of these are aimed at wellbeing, exam stress, having difficult conversations and Apps to Support LGBTQ Youth.

Every technological revolution has both positive and negative outcomes – many unintended. The way forward is to learn how to adapt with the technology to mitigate risks while leveraging opportunities.  

For other good resources on this debate, check out:

The Conversation’s expert debate including Dr Joanne Orlando’s valuable insights: https://theconversation.com/we-asked-five-experts-should-mobile-phones-be-banned-in-schools-98708

Jane Caro’s discussion on the complexities: https://10daily.com.au/views/a190626qkxba/jane-caro-banning-phones-in-schools-is-easy-to-say-but-hard-to-do-20190626

As always, would love your thoughts…