It is no longer debatable that smart phones, iPads, MP3 players, laptops aid learning. That these digital devices are all the rage among young people has left many school heads jittery over the likely impact they will have on students.

SAMUEL KAMUGISHA and RACHEAL NINSIIMA have been talking to school heads and give an overview of the situation. At the beginning of each school term, Charlotte faces the dilemma. Her 16 year old son, now in  senior four, argues that he needs a smart phone like many of his classmates at Naalya SS.

Charlotte has had to wrestle with the fact that her son will eventually get a smart phone, either through her financing or his own devices. That his school is reluctant to budge on not allowing the students to have cell phones, although many actually have them, makes her even more perplexed. Whether these devices should or should not be permitted at school remains a debate oscillating between two extremes.

On one extreme are those who think that these devices are killing students’ creativity and learning opportunities for the better. Numerous studies have shown that the continued use of Google’s search engine have affected students’ abilities to retain information.

The other extreme thinks that these devices need to be allowed at school, but maintained under some control, as they are key to learning.

At Vienna College, Namugongo where electronic devices are allowed, teachers and students say that when used in moderation, the devices can go a long way in enhancing one’s academic performance and ICT skills which the job market demands. Shaun Johnson, a year 12 student at this school, testifies that with his iPad, research has become easier, especially for academic resources that cannot be accessed in hard copy form in the school’s library.

“I’m able to watch academic videos off YouTube, which has improved my retention capacity and overall grades in class. Aside from academics, I also use it to capture memorable events such as my rugby games. One’s use or misuse of such gadgets solely depends on one’s self discipline,” said Johnson, a former student of St. Lawrence-London College School. His old school does not allow students to possess these gadgets.

Another year 12 student, Stephanie Ejiotor says her iPad enables her to access reading materials at her convenience, since computers in the computer laboratory are based on first come first served. Her friend, Hanila Wamboga says, because of the early exposure, she has acquired from using electronic gadgets, she can compete with a university graduate in the use of ICT in the job market.

As part of Vienna’s IT curriculum, students are inducted in internet services such as social media, online banking and shopping; control systems such as robotics and air conditioning; and practical lessons such as web design and desktop publishing, something their colleagues elsewhere, who are banned from using such devices can only dream of.

PROS

Michael Musaazi, the chief operations officer at Vienna College says letting students have phones at school gives parents a peace of mind, as they can readily communicate with them regularly. Additionally, these devices help them to access current data especially on IT which is a dynamic field.

“Since we are following the Cambridge curriculum, which is majorly research based, these gadgets are handy as they make access to new information possible and they enable them to complete many homework assignments,” Musaazi says.

Additionally, they hasten the pace of communication between students, teachers and the administration through electronic mail and enhance social learning where students share information across social networking sites.

Fredrick Odongo, the teacher in charge of IT and computing at this school says modern devices also save students the trouble of spending time looking for certain topics through piles of text books. At the end of the day, technology opens a gateway to different styles of teaching and learning.

CONS

The negative aspects associated with using these devices at school include, among others, their capability to divert students away from academic issues to non-relevant issues. This is especially true when one is exposed for long hours to social media.
Competition of having the latest gadget is also often a negative vice that mushrooms among students forcing some to steal in order to keep up appearances.

“Some students are overwhelmed with having the latest gadgets that they sometimes resort to stealing. What we have resorted to as a school is to register everyone’s gadget as they come into the school for easy identification,” says Aziidah Nandaula, head of administration at Vienna College.

Although the school has instituted security and privacy features to protect students while using online resources, Odongo says that some students find ways to bypass these measures and get online illegally. Anelyn Turyahebwa, the head teacher at Mpanga SS in Fort Portal Municipality suspects that some students hook up with sugar mummies and sugar daddies in order to obtain expensive gadgets,  especially phones.

Some research done in Europe says that although digital devices make for greater connections among students, too much time with them fosters a disconnect from face to face activities. Indeed it is not uncommon to find young people paying more attention to their cell phones instead of fostering interpersonal relationships. When such devices are allowed during teaching hours, they are even more destructive.

Nevertheless, to compete with their peers around the world, Musaazi says that students should be permitted to use devices at school but with the regulation of guidelines and rules.

RULES AND REGULATIONS

At Vienna College the rules allowing the possession of these devices stipulate that all students should not possess or use mobile phones during class time between 6:45am and 4:00pm or during night revision time; 6:45pm and 9:30pm.

“Failure to abide by this rule leads to automatic confiscation of one’s gadget until the end of term,” Musaazi says.

All gadgets must be used strictly for academic purposes during study time, the reason the school has blocked social networking sites such as Face Book and Twitter. Additionally, teachers and staff are banned from possessing mobile phones in examination rooms and they are equally advised to use their phones in the staff room or offices unless in the case of an emergency.

THE AUTHORITIES TAKE

The matter came up during a teachers’ conference at Makerere, where head teachers from different schools of the divide clashed over the matter.

“You are saying that we should use ICTs like mobile phones in the learning process, yet most schools do not allow students to own mobile phones at school,” a head teacher observed.

An expert on ICT for Education matters had just delivered his paper titled Improving ICT for Education. In response to the school head’s concern, the ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports opened up.

“There is no harm in allowing learners to carry these gadgets [such as mobile phones and tablets],” said Dr Yusuf Nsubuga, the director for Basic and Secondary Education at the ministry.

He argued that because schools were preparing 21st century graduates, there was need to consider bending the rules since, “the issue of not allowing mobile phones is no longer acceptable and tenable”.

He then revealed that the ministry was preparing a policy on the matter. However, he was quick to add that these mobile phones should not be used for entertainment nor as a luxury but as instructional materials. Elizabeth Gabona, the director for Higher, Technical, Vocational Education and Training, agreed with her counterpart but her approval was saturated with a tinge of caution.

“It is urgent and necessary; it is a necessary evil,” says Gabona. “They [mobile phones and other ICTs] can be misused; that’s why school heads are cautious.”

Indeed, as though Gabona had peered into the school heads’thoughts, the head teachers would want to tread the road to lifting the ban on mobile phones with the caution of a midwife.

Dr John Baptist Mpoza, the director of St Kizito SS, Kabowa in Kampala, is one of such. Dr Mpoza, also the commissioner for Education in  Buganda Kingdom, told The Observer that he was shocked to find primary school pupils in the UK with mobile phones years ago but would not want their integration in learning to be abrupt.

He is worried that if cell phones were made compulsory, majority of the learners would be left out since ‘even some parents do not own mobile phones.’

SITUATION ON GROUND

But the views of students, parents and teachers in the western district of Bushenyi seem to suggest that the school heads either have to give in or give up on the ban on mobile phones.

The study was conducted by Richard Twebaze, a senior lecturer at the Mbarara-based Bishop Stuart University, with a total of 180 male and female students, randomly sampled from 18 of the 36 boarding secondary schools in the district. Aged between 15 and 19, the students were drawn from the classes of Senior Three to Senior Six.

Titled Mobile Phone Use in Uganda’s Boarding Secondary Schools; A Case Study of Bushenyi District, the study findings indicated that 34 per cent of the students interviewed were aware that some students owned and used mobile phones within the school premises.

Whereas 40 per cent of teachers said they were aware that some students owned and used phones in school, only 20 per cent of them supported the use of phones by the students. Only 40 per cent of the parents supported the use of mobile phones by students at school.

A school owner, Twebaze argues that the proliferation of mobile phones, “continues to become easier with the drop in prices of the phones and the airtime charges”. But while school authorities argue that possession of mobile phones will compromise discipline, Twebaze observes, learners have continued to defy the odds in the name of wanting “to communicate with the outside world [the world outside school].”

STUDENTS, TEACHERS & PARENTS’ VIEWS

The majority of the student respondents (77 per cent) were opposed to the lifting of the ban on use of mobile phones in schools while the rest (23 per cent) called for the legalization of the use of the devices in schools. Student respondents who rooted for the ban of mobile phones argued that “phones in school would increase problems of social hierarchy, jealousy, bragging and thefts” and that “the cost of airtime would be an extra burden on parents.”

Twebaze sampled some 50 teachers from selected schools, all of whom acknowledged that mobile phones were prohibited in their schools. Yet 40 percent of them reported that some students owned and used mobile phones within the same school premises. Interestingly, 20 percent of the teachers said students should be allowed to use mobile phones at school but only outside class hours.

“Those in support reasoned that mobile phones would allow learners to communicate to relatives and friends while those who opposed to the lifting of the ban said the devices disrupted the learning process and promoted indiscipline amongst students,” the report partly reads.

Majority of the parents (60 per cent) wanted the ban on mobile phones to remain while the rest (40 per cent) supported its lifting. The latter group reasoned that students would easily call home when sick, parents would send them money, and hoped that the move would also nip escapism in the bud since learners would be in contact with the world outside the school.

Parents from this school of thought said they would give their children mobile phones if they were allowed at school. On the whole, Twebaze notes, “the battle against the use of mobile phones by students in secondary schools may soon be lost due to the increased availability and benefits associated with their use.”

However educationists like Dr Mpoza preach caution in the event that the ban on use of mobile phones is lifted.

“We need to prepare; we don’t need to rush; we may start at a higher level such as A-level,” Mpoza says.