Cellphone in schools proposal gets mixed response

By John Churu, Gaborone, Botswana

The issue of cellphones in the classroom that the Minister for Basic Education Unity Dow is proposing has been received by many with a cocktail of sentiments. Dow who was speaking at a Botswana Sectors of Educators’ Teachers Union (BOSETU) conference recently when she proposed that there was need to allow school going children to carry mobile phones into the classroom during school lessons. The proposition by the Minister, has aroused a debate that looks like it will live longer after the BOSETU conference.

She said while people accept computers in schools, it is strange that they do not readily accept another ICT gadget, the mobile phone in schools. “Tablets and cellphones are an information dissemination tool, as such they should be allowed to enhance thinking and problem solving in the classroom set-up,” she told a radio presenter on one of the local radio stations here. She said the mobile phone should be used by all the school going age from as little as 3 years up to secondary school age. “A cellphone is no longer a subject but a learning tool,’ she added.

According to the minister, schools across the world are employing the use of cellphone in schools with little or no adverse effect. There are already tablets and computers in schools and we see no problem with that, Dow added. However, some parents and interested people who commented said at the present moment, there are not enough computers in schools but already, the government is exhorting parents to let their children take cellphones to schools. “If she can’t buy computers, how does she expect parents to buy mobile phones for their children,’ one disgruntled parent said on radio.

Another commentator asked how the use of this proposed gadget will be used in a responsible way, because the children would be tempted to watch other unrelated material at the expense of the prescribed school work. “Other pupils will see this as a disruption to their learning, other than an enhancement,” added another on the same issue.

However, there were also a number of those that believed in the idea that the minister was bringing on board. In her argument, Dow explained that a study carried out in the UK showed that 90% of students owned mobile phones in schools. Banning these had no discernible effects high achievers, she said. She added that instead, this brought about 6.4 percent on performance when the use of cellphones was factored in.   

An expert contacted by biztechafrica on open and distance learning where the use of such tools was most paramount said he saw no problem with that. To the contrary, he said he would rather advocate for the usage of that as soon as possible.  “Mobile phone coverage is provided by four service providers – MASCOM, ORANGE, BTC and Be Mobile and coverage spans most towns and national roads. The mobile penetration for Botswana is more than 70%. This offers a unique opportunity to use mobile phones to deliver courses to different learner cohorts.”

In another ground-breaking study in Niger, reports have demonstrated the role of mobile phones in boosting literacy for marginalized youth and adults in eastern Niger. In Niger, a randomized evaluation carried out by a Tufts University research team in 2009-11 on Project ABC, which piloted a mixed model of cell phone and classroom-based literacy learning for youth and adult (age 16 and above), demonstrated that the addition of cell phone modules improved literacy and math skills of adult learners by 0.19-0.25 standard deviations, equivalent to an additional year of education.

Students in Project ABC villages achieved additional literacy and numeracy gains, with test scores 9 to 20 percent higher than those in non-Project ABC villages. The project had longer-term impacts as well: 7 months after the end of classes, writing and math test scores were still higher in Project ABC villages. The differences in Project ABC and non-Project ABC outcomes demonstrated that mobile phones are effective as a motivational and educational tool for adult/youth education for rural populations. Project ABC additionally contributed to participants’ economic well-being, helping them access market prices more quickly and providing them with valuable information before travelling to markets to sell agricultural products or livestock.

It is just a matter of time before we see the proliferation of mobile phones amongst school going children because as one parent had rightly noted, “technology is the way the world is going and we can’t be seen to be left behind as a nation.”

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