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Should students be allowed to bring their phones to school?

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

DECEMBER 4 — You’d imagine that in 2023 a basic question like the above would have been more or less settled already. Far from it.

In Malaysian colleges and universities, the question doesn’t even arise. Phones in class are as natural and accepted as clothes and bags.

Examinations notwithstanding, no institute of higher learning would rationally think of banning phones on campus (whatever for?).

Ask any college lecturer and they’ll tell you one of the biggest headaches during lessons is trying to draw students’ attention away from Mobile Legends or WhatsApp or whatever is on their phone which occupies them 24/7.

But the picture changes as we go lower down the education chain.

Some private slash international schools allow students to bring their phones. Many students in these schools even bring more than one device to class.

However, in most of these cases there is a strict rule against using phones in class, a rule only sparsely seen in universities.

For other schools, students are allowed to bring their phones to school but under no circumstances are they allowed to bring them to class; all devices are to be kept in their lockers and whatnot.

What about our public schools? Here is where it looks like another world altogether.

Students are cautioned over and over again not to be caught having a phone in school (in school, not even in class!).

The restriction is practically sacrosanct and absolute. No, it doesn’t matter if your child is taking public transportation (so you’d just want to know her whereabouts when commuting). No, students can’t bring phones to school and leave them turned off in class.

If phones are found on the students or just found, they will be confiscated, the students’ parents called up and required to go to the school office to collect the phones.

Further offences will be met with worse punishments like permanent confiscation (although I frankly don’t know how any school can enforce this).

And no, students can’t bring phones to school and place them in their lockers (which, if spot-checked and discovered, will be confiscated).

To make things more complicated, I understand that the Ministry of Education is doing some study on the feasibility of (finally) allowing students to bring their phones to school.

When phones kill learning

I once spoke to the headmaster of a private school in Subang. He said the reason his school allows phones is because the enforcement procedures took up too much effort and time.

Better to allow students to bring their phones but bear the full cost and responsibility of either theft or loss as a result.

As for learning, he said it’s up to the teacher to make their lessons engaging. Either that or the teacher himself could set class rules for or against using phones during lessons.

This is generally how universities and colleges approach the issue too i.e. in one stroke enforcement concerns disappear and the burden of holding the attention of students depends on the lecturer’s personality or classroom management skills and so on.

While this may sound intuitively like the practical thing to do, many would question if learning isn’t compromised as a result.

Earlier this year, a 14-country study cited by Unesco found that the mere presence of a mobile phone nearby is enough to distract students from lessons, even calling for a global ban on smartphones in school.

Again, any lecturer today can tell you what a chore it is to constantly “drag” students away from their phones to focus on the board or the activity or the lecture.

The amount of time and mind-space wasted when phones are present in the classroom is potentially boundless.

Some private slash international schools allow students to bring their phones. Many students in these schools even bring more than one device to class. — AFP pic
Some private slash international schools allow students to bring their phones. Many students in these schools even bring more than one device to class. — AFP pic

Some private slash international schools allow students to bring their phones. Many students in these schools even bring more than one device to class. — AFP pic

When enforcement becomes the problem

But is the other extreme the way to go?

Think about the accumulated hours wasted a week on spot-checks in our government schools, then even more hours wasted “processing” the devices confiscated, not to mention the time spent by disciplinary teachers arguing with parents and students about their phones, only to do it all over again in a few weeks’ time.

Consider how many parents are forced to make separate transportation arrangements because their child isn’t allowed to bring a phone to school (and, nowadays, how many parents can accept not being able to contact their pre-teen kid between home and school?).

Or all the procedural gymnastics devised by students to hide their phones from prefects and teachers. Or the very incongruence between adults being allowed to bring and use their phones on campus practically every minute but students (somehow?) being prohibited to even bring one device to school — that doesn’t strike us as a bit weird?

Finally, just ask any public school teacher today: Are students necessarily engrossed in class just because their phones aren’t with them? Seriously? Do we really believe grades will fall or classes will be that much less engaging if students are allowed to bring their devices to school?

There’s also a strange reason given as to why public school kids in Malaysia aren’t allowed to bring phones to school i.e. because they may record what goes on.

Huh? This is so big a concern for government schools? Why? What about private schools and universities? Why isn’t there a concern for “illegal recording” in those places? Are we talking about a place of learning or a cinema?

There is no 100 per cent absolute answer for now. Too many variables at play.

I confess, as a college lecturer, I lean more towards having phones in class (because it’s as “real world” as it gets) but I don’t deny institutions may have their own concerns too.

Heck, maybe wrestling with this issue can be a learning event in itself for us.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.