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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Mobile phones and student learning in secondary schools

Elizabeth Hartnell-Young
Nadja Heym

This article is adapted from a report produced by the University of Nottingham for Becta, an agency of Britain's Department for Children, Schools and Families. Dr Hartnell-Young is Group Manager, Research Branch, Education Policy and Research Division, DEECD Victoria, and has worked as a Research Fellow at the Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham. Nadja Heym is a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham.

Mobile phones are becoming ubiquitous among adolescents. In Britain, for example, 91% of 12 year olds are said to have a mobile phone (Mobile Life Youth Report, 2006).

The evolving technological capacities of mobile phones invite use for educational purposes. As well as allowing communication by voice and text and capturing still and moving images, recent 'smart phones' allow users to view PDFs, spreadsheets and word-processed files, and possess additional features such as a stopwatch and a GPS. However, mobile phones have usually been seen by schools as disruptive rather than useful.

A research project undertaken by the University of Nottingham has explored the use of mobile phones to support secondary students' learning. The study, conducted over nine months in 2007–08, involved 10 secondary teachers based in two individual schools and one cluster of three schools, in different areas of the country. It also involved over 300 of their middle and senior secondary students, selected by the teachers. The teachers chose the activities and the extent of participation for each group of students.

The schools' mobile phone policies forbade their use in the classroom, although in practice students were allowed various levels of personal use, for example to make or receive important calls, and there were occasional innovative efforts to use mobile phones as an educational tool within the classroom. For the purposes of the current project, however, the principal at each of the participating schools approved more extensive use of mobile phones by students.

The researchers interviewed the participating teachers, as well as the ICT managers at two of the schools. Students' opinions were collected through a baseline student survey of use and attitudes that had been constructed in tandem with one of the teachers for use by each of the participating schools. A second survey designed to collect responses from the students was developed by the university team and administered at the end of the project. Data also included notes from informal conversations with students and teachers, documents, observations using video, and samples of digital products created by students and teachers.

At one school students used their own phones, while at another students used their own sim cards in 'unlocked' smart phones, so students could use their own phone numbers and have access to the devices at all times. In the three cluster schools all students used a set of unlocked smart phones, with one device shared between every two students. These, and sim cards, were provided by the university and used for periods of less than a day, so there was no opportunity to personalise the device.

Students' use of the mobile phones

Overall, students' use of the mobile phone was concentrated on the production of images and video clips: the survey results indicated that 96% of the respondents used the still camera, often to capture evidence of activities in class; 22% also used the video application.

Students were only beginning to explore other uses: 10% transferred data between the mobile phones and their own ICT equipment, and 7% transferred data to peers or teachers. While the MP3 function could potentially be used to listen to curriculum material such as podcasts, only two students reported using this feature for learning purposes. There was little evidence of mobile phones being used in the assessment process.

The students' use of some of the functions was associated to specific subjects, with the stopwatch often used in science and calculators in maths. However students reported quite low use of their phones in ICT classes.

Older students appeared more able to adapt their use of the phones to improve learning, while younger students seemed to need more encouragement from teachers to do so.

Participants' perceptions of the mobile phone as an educational tool

While the mobile phones were not yet being used to their full potential, the impact of the project on student and teacher attitudes was significant.

Teachers remarked on the spontaneity and efficiency with which the phones' calculator and stopwatch functions could be used during outdoor activities. In science classes, students could capture an image on camera rather than drawing a diagram, and could then upload the captured image directly into a report, increasing the time available for experimentation and interpretation of results. Students' ability to read and edit text or spreadsheets while on the move also allowed them to identify and correct errors before printing their work.

The teachers and students both felt that the phones had improved their communications with each other. For example, students could be sent timely reminders by teachers, during the term or over the holiday period. Some students seemed to prefer texting over face-to-face encounters as a medium for asking questions and engaging in discussion with the teacher. In the schools where students used the phones on a 24/7 basis over a period of months, the teachers and students reported a general atmosphere of trust, and students' increased sense of autonomy.

The students were initially surprised to find that mobile phones could be successfully used for learning, but almost all reported that they enjoyed the project and that their involvement motivated them to use mobile phones as an educational tool.

Given the current school policies and the negative publicity around mobile phones, the researchers anticipated that some parents might not approve of the project. However most of the parents of students invited to join the project signed the consent forms without any concerns, and only a few asked for more information about privacy and the security of the data.

It is clear that mobile phones are not suitable for all aspects of computing, and they therefore need to be linked to other technology such as PCs, printers and wireless networks. At one school students could access the school learning platform on their mobile phones using their school email logon. Design technology students regularly captured evidence of the development of their models, and uploaded this to the learning platform. A senior art student personalised her space on the learning platform, storing resources for inspiration, capturing images and interacting via her phone. Her teacher could also load material specifically to each student's space, thus encouraging personalisation.

Early in the project, many students made a clear distinction between school life and social life, and while such boundaries are sometimes appropriate, previous research (eg Hartnell-Young & Vetere 2006) suggests there may be benefits to be gained from greater interaction between the two aspects of a learner's life. For example, homework stored on the mobile phones could be linked to other ICT in the home, improving access and offering another way for students to show their work to their parents.

Conclusions and recommendations

If mobile phones are to be used in schools, certain issues must be addressed, including leadership and school culture; the attitudes of teachers, students and other influential parties; appropriate curriculum activities; professional development; technical integration and support; and a new approach to mobile phone policies.

While all teachers in the project were supported in using the mobile phones outside their school's policy, a more widespread implementation would require strong leadership, good management and the professional development of other teachers to promote cultural change. Starting small, with champions of the technology, and then expanding is a good strategy for this type of change.

The major recommendation of this project is the need to shift the focus of policy away from mobile phones themselves and toward the frequently reported reasons that mobile phones are banned: fear of distraction in class, cheating, inappropriate video recording of students and teachers, and the publication of captured material on sites like YouTube. Solutions to each of these issues must be found with policies that address the ownership of computing equipment and access to network connections; tools to support curriculum and its personalisation; appropriate behaviour in school and other contexts; and privacy and security of data, including photographs and video clips.

Further recommendations are as follows:

  • Identify and support champions: volunteer teachers who are prepared to take pedagogical risks.
  • Involve those with responsibility for curriculum, student management, or technical support to plan and work through responses to the issues raised in this report.
  • Initiate discussions about the use of mobile phones for learning (perhaps using student voice work as examples) and survey current ownership levels and device capability, as well as the ways mobile phones are already being used in the school.
  • Provide hands-on, small-scale opportunities for teachers to experiment with appropriate uses for mobile phones. Teachers need time for tinkering and classroom experimentation, allowing them to be active and creative, and time to reflect on their experience.
  • Encourage teachers to design activities that make the learning purpose clear and to anticipate management issues at the classroom level (such as rules around usage and etiquette).
  • Inform parents of the learning purposes of mobile phones, and involve them in establishing appropriate ownership, management and ethical arrangements.
  • Anticipate and address technical issues ranging from battery charging to network access and security and data protection.

While the eventual aim could be to replace policies that involve blanket bans on devices, whole-school change is not recommended at the outset. Rather, changes should be adopted gradually as attitudes and behaviours align with purposeful learning, until mobile phone use is as natural as using any other technology in school.


Subject Headings

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Multimedia systems
Secondary education
Educational evaluation
Great Britain