Our school recently started providing in-school wifi access to pupils. Teaching staff were not privy to the logic – but when the leadership team announced the news in assembly, they were cheered to the rafters by grateful children. The schools grounds have poor phone signal, so logging on through 4G had not been an option, and the internet had only been available through school computers until this point.
I doubt that a decision was made not to talk to us teachers beforehand – school managers, like teachers, are swamped with work, and it probably just didn’t occur to them that we might be interested parties. If they had, I would have voiced my deep concerns.
Firstly, I worry about the pupils – providing wifi on tap is like handing them the keys to the tuck shop and expecting them not to clear the shelves. I’m all for encouraging the development of self-control, and students do need to learn to manage themselves and their habits. But do we have to make it as hard as possible for them? Young people who (like me) struggle to stay focused might actually appreciate having the number of distractions reduced. As well as this, of course, school was a sanctuary for some from cyberbullies and feelings of being left out.
Teachers too are paying a price. Internet access is one useful part of a learner’s toolkit, but the thoughtless way it has been introduced has handed us a host of new problems. We find ourselves the ones in the pupils’ lives who say “no”. Already we say no to another trip to the toilet; to wearing that hat in class; to earpieces being worn while we’re talking. And now we also get to say “No, you can’t FaceTime your pal in the room next door to make lunch plans”.
The lack of consultation has led to inconsistency, with individual teachers making class-management policies on the hoof. And there are some horribly grey areas. For example, are pupils allowed to read books on their phones? Or to use them as calculators? Or take photographs of PowerPoint slides?
These are all, of course, entirely legitimate activities. But if phones are allowed in class, many pupils are unable to resist the temptation to use them in less helpful ways – some of the children have, with a simple download, installed a VPN, which allows all filters to be bypassed.
While we all try to stress that they must not take pictures of us and share them online, this has become increasingly difficult to manage. Recently there was an incident in class, which was filmed and shared, leading to online discussion of the extent to which the teacher responded quickly, appropriately or effectively enough. Understandably, this public trial left an experienced teacher traumatised. Against this background, it seems incredible that no conversations are taking place about how we should respond as staff to this issue.
Research suggests that caution may be wise. There is evidence that screen time is hazardous to children and could point to a correlation with increased ADHD, depression, anxiety and even psychosis, according to a recent study. Adolescent psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley has also described the terrifying effects of too much screen time – grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, impaired cognitive functioning. And much of this damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive change during the teenage years.
In the teaching community, there ar those who argue that technology can play a positive role in schools. At the Isle of Portland Aldridge community academy in Dorset, for instance, pupils from year 1 to sixth form are actively encouraged to use smart devices in class to cross-reference information online with their textbooks and look up current affairs such as the Syrian crisis. By way of contrast, Burnage Academy for Boys in Manchester introduced a complete ban on the use of phones four years ago and have said their students are thriving.
What’s happened in my school may just be examples of teething problems, a price worth paying for the educational benefits smartphones bring. But I have yet to see much evidence of this. I hope I’m wrong, but the coming together of sophisticated phones, students and wifi appears to be creating a particularly unholy trinity.
Mobile phones are here to stay. Mine certainly is. My problem is not with the technology, though – it’s the assumption that technology, in any form, must be beneficial.
11 February 2017