The impact of smartphones in schools

The recent report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asking for banning smartphones from schools points to the dangers of introducing technology to young minds. This should be a welcome proposal, that too in a nation like India, where the younger population is more, to prevent its adverse impact, like restlessness, anxiety and lack of concentration. The report emphasizes the need for a “human-centered vision” where digital technology serves as a tool rather than taking precedence. It hints at the classroom disruption by way of the growing acceptance of digital education as a replacement for face-to- face teaching-learning  process. The UN body’s Manos Antoninis has also warned of the danger of data leaks in educational tech as only 16 per cent of countries guarantee data privacy in the classroom by law. The report highlights the disparities being created by digital learning, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when half a billion students worldwide were left out due to the shift to online-only tuition. Geographically, the report noted a significant imbalance in online resources favoring Europe and North America. Hence, it urges the countries to set their standards for the way technology is designed and used in education such that it never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction and supports the shared objective of quality education for all. It may be true that the digital revolution holds immeasurable potential, but just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education, which is worth considering by any responsible nation. There shall not be any dispute that this modern enhanced learning experience shall always be for the well-being of students and teachers, and certainly not to their detriment. The report, also ponders; “Technology in education as a tool at what and whose terms”? However, the appropriate use of technology in class may indeed help, especially the disabled children, who ought to struggle in a traditional, in-person setting and benefit from this option availability for assistance.

According to the UNESCO report, the rapid shift to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic left out an estimated 500 million students worldwide, mostly affecting those in marginalized, rural communities. Thus far, the report underlines that the right to education is increasingly synonymous with the right to meaningful connectivity, yet one in four primary schools do not have electricity. It calls for all countries to set benchmarks for connecting schools to the Internet between now and 2030, and for the primary focus to remain on these marginalized communities. It also claimed that due to a lack of impartial evidence concerning the added value of tech, most evidence comes from the United States, where the What Works Clearinghouse, points out that less than two per cent of education interventions assessed had “strong or moderate evidence of effectiveness.” In other words, the evolution of technology is putting strain on education systems to adapt. And, the UNESCO argues, that digital literacy and critical thinking are increasingly important, particularly with the growth of generative artificial intelligence (AI). And, the additional data in the report shows that this adaptation movement has begun: 54 per cent of countries surveyed have outlined skills they want to develop for the future, but only 11 out of 51 governments surveyed have curricula for AI. The report further says; “Let’s not forget that to be able to navigate the digital world, we don’t necessarily need very sophisticated skills. Those who have the best reading skills are those least likely to be duped by a phishing email, for instance.” Moreover, teachers also need appropriate training yet only half of countries currently have standards for developing educators’ information and communication technology skills. Even fewer have teacher training programmes covering cyber security, despite five per cent of ransomware attacks targeting education. Against this backdrop, it reminds one promo which has become viral on Indian televisions of the Punjab government where a school student emphasized that this technology has become imperative for students like her as the teacher has started even setting question papers on the mobile. It is also not only disturbing but also appears to be a criminal act, in the wake of the UNESCO report, that the alleged ‘farmer’ in that advertisement boasts of saving from his free power supply scheme of the state government, which helped him buy the cellphone to fulfil his daughter’s need.

Hence, the question arises. Should smartphones be allowed in classrooms? The UNSESCO which ‘red flagged’, however, says though smartphones can be used for educational purposes the devices possibly disrupt classroom learning, expose students to cyber-bullying, and can compromise students’ privacy. How the government at the Centre views this concern to restrain the use of cellphones in educational institutions, that too in primary education? Experts, however, feel it is no harm if this technology is permitted for the post-matric, that’s from Class 12 or Intermediate, and certainly not for school-going children, which only promotes disparities. This, despite some state governments extending to provide these gadgets as part of their election agenda to grab power with this ‘lure’ which is going to do more harm than good to our children. There are an estimated 15 lakh schools, more than 97 lakh teachers, and more than 26.5 crore students, all of these just at the school level alone. Responsible politicians and others should not construe this as yet another conspiracy against an emerging economy like India but examine seriously how this affects our younger generations in years to come, as technology is making them more complacent in their academic approach.