Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Ban First, Ask Questions Later… The Problem with Calls to Ban Mobile Devices

I read the article Schools that Ban Mobile Devices See Better Results on the bus this morning. It is from May 2015, but someone had reposted the @guardian piece to my @Twitter feed. From my perspective as a mobile learning researcher, it presented troubling research findings:

"Effect of ban on phones adds up to equivalent of extra week of classes over a pupil’s school year" (Doward, 2015)

But, they’re not troubling for the obvious reason presented in the story. The premise of the story (and the research on which it was based) was that mobile devices are distracting students to the level of significant lost instructional time. And if schools want to see better test scores, then they had better start banning mobile devices. No. This is not the problem.

A blanket ban on mobile devices because they distract learners is just the latest in a centuries-old trend of resisting technological change out of fear of the unknown. Steve Howard (2012, July 14) pointed out that as far back as 1815 a school principal fought against the introduction of paper and ink, and lamented that:

Students today depend on paper too much.  They don’t know how to write on a slate with­out get­ting chalk dust all over them­selves.  They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?

If we want to leverage new technologies to enhance learning experiences and bridge current inequities in the classroom, then we cannot succumb to knee-jerk reactions to alarmist statistics. As Homer Simpson once said:

People can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent! 14 percent of all people know that.
(Source: METTL, 2015)

What IS troubling with this story (and research) are the questions that were NOT asked. The research shows an increase in achievement across ALL schools that have banned mobile devices versus ALL schools that allow them. BUT, no attempt is made to look at schools that actually plan for mobile technology integration. It could be that the majority of the schools polled have no such plans, in which case the argument that mobile devices only serve to distract students is likely true. But what of schools that have coordinated their technological infrastructure and pedagogical strategies to leverage mobile devices within the curriculum?

I have predicated my mobile learning research to date on the problem that teachers and schools are the barriers to effective integration of mobile technologies because they lack confidence in the technology. The problem is NOT that mobile devices are allowed into schools. The problem is that we are not preparing teachers and schools for an environment of ubiquitous access to technology. From my dissertation (Power, 2015, p. 11):

Ally (2014) noted that teacher training continues to be based on an outdated education system model that does not adequately prepare teachers to integrate mobile technologies into teaching practice. Lack of training in the pedagogical considerations for the integration of a specific type of technology can have a negative impact upon teachers’ perceptions of self-efficacy (Kenny et al, 2010).

Technology will never replace good teachers. But technology can make good teachers better. Better teacher (and school) preparation will enable educators to make instructional design decisions that incorporate technology, and increase student engagement and access to learning opportunities and resources. My research has shown that professional development focused on scaffolding technology integration in the context of desired learning outcomes and appropriate pedagogical decisions does increase teachers’ interest and confidence in using educational technology. If teachers are interested, and plan how they will leverage technology in the classroom, then distraction will decrease and learning will improve.

However, preparing teachers to leverage educational technology is not enough. We must also prepare students. Yes, if you let students who have had no guidance access mobile devices, then there is huge potential for them to be distracted. But, if you teach them digital citizenship and responsible use, there is less likelihood of distraction. And they will be better prepared for a world with near universal technology permeation. You cannot teach digital citizenship or responsible technology use with black and white policies of either banning all devices, or letting them all in. Unfortunately, the information technology support departments (and bureaucracies) of too many school systems (and higher education institutions) still operate with Acceptable Use Policies, which explicitly detail what is permissible and what is not. In contrast, Responsible Use Policies focus on making appropriate decisions about when and how to use technology. (Joe Countryman, Mary-Ann Vardakas & Melissa Taffe did a presentation on this, and prepared a wikipage about it for a Problem-Based Learning activity in the Digital Tools for Knowledge Construction course I teach at University of Ontario Institute of Technology.)

Before policy makers, or the public at large, jump to the conclusion that the statistics presented in the Guardian (and also on CNN) point to the need for an outright ban on mobile devices in education, a number of questions should be considered:
  1. How do students perform at schools that have planned for mobile technology integration?
  2. How do students perform in classes where teachers have been prepared to make effective educational technology integration choices?
  3. What factors are creating barriers to effectively leveraging mobile technologies in the schools polled in this research? And what can be done to overcome those barriers?

I do not think that the key to improving learning in schools is to ban access to technology, as the Guardian story would lead readers to conclude. Rather, I see the issues raised by this story (and research) as lending support to the need for more research and funding to support planned approaches to educational technology integration. To solve these problems, and the issues raised in the Guardian story, we need to:
  • Better prepare teachers to integrate technology in teaching and learning practice
  • Teach digital literacy and digital citizenship
  • Adopt Responsible Use policies


Ally, M. & Prieto-Blázquez, J. (2014). What is the future of mobile learning in education? Mobile Learning Applications in Higher Education [Special Section]. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), 11(1), 142-151. doi

Countryman, J., Vardakas, M., & Taffe, M. (2016). Acceptable use policies. Retrieved from 

Doward, J. (2015, May 16).  Schools that ban mobile phones see better academic results. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Howard, S. (2012, July 14). The ruin of education in our country – A positive thing [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Kenny, R.F., Park, C.L., Van Neste-Kenny, J.M.C., & Burton, P.A. (2010). Mobile self-efficacy in Canadian nursing education programs. In M. Montebello, V. Camilleri and A. Dingli (Eds.), Proceedings of mLearn 2010, the 9th World Conference on Mobile Learning, Valletta, Malta.

METTL (2015). The Homer Simpson guide to online assessments [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Power, R. (2015). A framework for promoting teacher self-efficacy with mobile reusable learning objects (Doctoral dissertation, Athabasca University). Available from

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