Last month, Teacher reported on a study published by the London School of Economics on the link between school mobile phone bans and student achievement. In this follow-up article, Roger Broadie and Mal Lee challenge the findings and discuss the complexities of the use of digital technology in school settings.
The Centre for Economic Performance paper by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy, that gave rise to an article in the Guardian claiming that banning mobile phones in schools raises the performance of pupils, is a classic example of the danger of taking a micro view of a macro phenomenon.
It is, moreover, typical of economists' all-too-often naïve studies of schooling. From a small and heavily skewed sample of schools, the authors generalise to suggest that the education of the lower quartile of secondary students would be enhanced, and educational inequality reduced if the use of mobile phones was banned in schools.
This reveals the authors' failure to appreciate the complexities of contemporary schooling where the use of the digital is normalised.
It is assumed, as the authors don't specify, that their findings include all manner of current and emerging ‘disruptive' digital technologies, be they smart watches, smartphones, phablets, tablets, netbooks or laptops. All have the facility to receive and send anywhere, anytime, and to disrupt.
Yet they have failed to investigate those schools in which use of those technologies contribute appreciably to reducing student alienation, improving student teacher relations, increasing student attention and turning on previously disinterested students.
This is a study of schools that have judged it necessary to impose a draconian ban that phones cannot be brought to school or must be handed in. Their solution is to ban the pupils' access to what – they themselves acknowledge – is a social norm of the ‘real world', fuelling the likely already considerable staff-student animosity and lifting the number of student detentions.
It is inconceivable that this happened separately from other actions to improve behaviour and reduce distractions. To generalise to all schools from research of such a subset of schools is fallacious.
Secondary schools that build upon students who have been taught a culture of trust and respect in how to use their suite of digital technologies, aptly and appropriately 24 hours a day, present a very different environment.
This study reveals a lack of understanding of the role of schooling in a digital and networked world, its rapidly evolving nature, the transformative impact of the digital technology on schooling, the importance of all students having in their hand the current digital technology and the imperative of looking at the total school ecosystem.
Digitally based, tightly integrated school ecosystems that blend the ins and outs of school teaching and learning are complex organisations where much of the evolution is non-linear in nature and where as yet few, if any, fully understand their workings. That is the new reality.
The challenge for researchers is that when schools set about normalising the use of technology across the whole school and all activities, the silo-like organisation of 20th Century schools breaks down. Subject teachers in secondary schools, and to a lesser extent class teachers in primary schools, are accustomed to operating largely autonomously within their own classrooms. Digital systems create interconnectedness; communication becomes much easier, pupils' work becomes much more visible, resources and tools become more accessible and collaboration online becomes possible.
This invariably changes the nature of interactions in schools, raising both the quantity and quality of learning interactions - if the school leaders realise the benefits to be gained.
However, to capitalise on the affordances offered by technology, schools soon find that they need to create a whole-school ecosystem for learning. Developing practice in one area feeds off, and itself feeds, many other areas of changing practice.
The rapid innovation that results creates a diverse educational setting where context, culture and lots of tightly integrated variables - many non-linear in nature - are at play. The ecosystem in such schools becomes ever-evolving and is closely tailored to the particular nature of the school and its community.
At the same time, as diversity grows, so too does the imperative of creating a school culture, an ecology that strongly promotes learning.
Improvements in whole-school behaviours to which all in the school's community subscribe radically change attitudes and the learning environment. Trust grows, people become more networked and, critically, pupils become more engaged in the learning. This is shown in the studies of the schools that have normalised the use of digital, both those undertaken by Mal Lee and by Roger Broadie in their analysis of the UK schools accorded the Naace 3rd Millennium Learning Award. These suggest that it is possible to raise learning activity and achievements to levels not attainable in a paper-based learning environment (Lee, 2015 ).
In the context of these deep whole-school changes, studies that focus on a specific micro aspect of the use (or non-use) of technology in schools, particularly in schools still operating within a paper-based paradigm (Lee and Broadie, 2015) adds little or nothing to the creation of apt digitally-based school ecosystems. When studies like this grab headlines and remain unchallenged, later adopter schools become reluctant to learn about the many benefits - cultural, educational, organisational, and economical - of digitally-based school ecosystems.
Research on evolving tightly integrated school ecosystems has to change. The impact of the digital on learning can only be studied in real whole-school settings, understanding that each school and its culture is unique. Myriad closely intertwined variables at play must be considered. In such settings, researchers cannot study the micro without regard to the total setting.
It needs to be acknowledged that the diverse ways of using the digital technologies and the growing differences in practice between and within schools makes it almost impossible to make extrapolations about the technology that will be transferable to other schools.
What is transferable is how learning and achievement can be taken to new levels by normalising use of digital to support a range of approaches that drive pupils' engagement with learning.
Still, it has to be the responsibility of a school's leaders and whole staff to identify the elements of practice seen in other places that can and should be incorporated into the local approach devised to fit their specific school community, which drives pupil engagement.
The real story is that what matters is the engagement of all the pupils in learning. The necessity for schools to learn how the digital environment can contribute to engagement is critical to creating this.
Lee, M., and Broadie, R., (2015). A Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages. Broulee: Australia. Retrieved 20 April 2015, from http://www.digitalevolutionofschooling.net