Why the distinction between mobile phones and laptops matters


Boys and girl study in computer class using internet technology with female teacher. Kids get an education sits with laptops on lessons. Flat vector illustration isolated on white.

With the announcement of new non-statutory guidance to be issued to support headteachers to ban the use of mobile phones, in a new series of articles, Fiona Aubrey-Smith explains why phones have no place in the classroom

In October 2023, the Secretary of State for Education announced that non-statutory guidance would shortly be published supporting headteachers to ban the use of mobile phones throughout the school day. This guidance is seen by the sector as unnecessary and headline chasing rather than meaningfully useful given that many schools already ban mobile phones.

Much of my work is immersed in academic research concerned with the uses of digital technology in schools, and most of my days are spent in schools working alongside children, teachers and leaders. Drawing upon this combination of insights, there are three very clear reasons why I think that in the current educational and national landscape, mobile phones have no place in the classroom.

Understanding the distinction between devices

The distinction between mobile phones and laptops or tablets is important because it demarcates a type of use of technology. Research, publications and presentations about technology use in schools often overlook this, and it causes some over generalisations which are inaccurate and unhelpful. For example, UNESCO (2023), recently published a comprehensive global monitoring report about technology in education, and drew out a conclusion that, “Student use of devices beyond a moderate threshold may have a negative impact on academic performance. A meta-analysis of research on the relationship between student mobile phone use and educational outcomes covering students from pre-primary to higher education in 14 countries found a small negative effect. The decline is mostly linked to increased distraction and time spent on non-academic activities during learning hours. Incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distraction, resulting in students losing their attention from the task at hand.”

The argument about appropriate volume of use, and avoiding the distraction of inappropriate use, is a persuasive and justified conclusion, which is certainly backed by both theoretical and empirical evidence. However, if you pay close attention to the quote above, it is possible to see that the argument being made is phrased to infer any kind of ‘device’ yet the evidence cited to support this argument is based upon specific kinds of devices (smartphones) and furthermore, specific kinds of uses (e.g. notifications, and proximity of a mobile device).

The impact of the lack of precision in the illustration above can be seen manifesting itself in media portrayal which then affects headlines which policy makers feel obliged to address. For example, the Guardian summarised that UNESCO report as, “​​Digital technology as a whole, including artificial intelligence, should always be subservient to a “human-centred vision” of education, and never supplant face-to-face interaction with teachers…. excessive or inappropriate student use of technology in the classroom and at home, whether smartphones, tablets or laptops, could be distracting, disruptive and result in a detrimental impact on learning.”

With its inference about all digital technology – in light of the narrow smartphone-centred evidence base upon which it is drawn – it is important to see how the reporting has collated smartphones, tablets and laptops when in fact the empirical evidence itself only referred to smartphones. This very minor detail is vitally important to recognise because of the significant influence of media reporting upon the perception and mindset not just of governance, but also of school leadership, the teaching workforce and school communities (e.g. parents and families).

Human conceptualisation of a mobile phone and the things we use them for are known to be different to those associated with laptops or tablet devices. Thus, this lack of precision is highly damaging to the ways in which non-specialists conceptualise classroom uses of digital technology – something that offers the potential for significant positive impact on learning.

I work with a significant number of schools where there are embedded 1:1 laptop/tablet ecosystems resulting in clear and sustained impact on a wide range of outcomes, and all of them ban mobile phones.

In Fiona’s next article, she explains how to better understand screentime as a taxonomy of cognitive challenge.


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