Macau Matters | School mobile phone bans

Richard Whitfield

I grew up in the age before mobile technology. All my school work was done on paper, and we were limited to textbooks and the local school and district libraries for access to knowledge resources. I studied straight maths/sciences and only got my first calculator when I started university. All my friends went to the same school I did, and lived within a few miles of where I did. To call them I had to go two streets to the nearest phone box because my father refused to have a home phone.

I accept the many complaints my contemporaries have about youthful mobile phone addiction, and bumping into people in the street because they are distracted by a screen is a real issue for me. However, I know full well that resisting the tide like King Canute is not a viable, or even desirable strategy, and bans on mobile phones, other computers and internet access in schools – like the ones in France, and the ones being contemplated in Melbourne (Australia) – are very stupid and counter-productive.

While it can come with significant problems, technology has a well proven track record for improving human lives. People are very good at adapting to new technologies, but very weak at recognizing and taking action to mitigate the accompanying problems. And simply banning technology has proven to be ineffective, again and again.

Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to the dark ages of my childhood, so we need to take positive action to reduce the problematic side-effects of mobile phones and 24×7 Internet access and online social media. I firmly believe that the best strategy is education and structured and guided use and anticipation of future problems, not bans.

Unfortunately, schools have not kept pace with technology and still largely operate using 19th century ideas. Yes, they have computers and Internet access and so on, but they mostly use them the same way as their 19th century equivalents. I see no difference between a teacher asking a class of students to open a textbook on a particular page and asking the students to go to a particular web page.

I believe that there is little place in modern education for traditional lectures – students should be tasked with absorbing knowledge in their own time, at their own pace, online and the classroom should be for experiments, presentations of research results and other knowledge sharing and socializing activities. I am also always very disappointed at the team skills of my university students and blame schools for this fundamental educational problem – schools focus virtually entirely on individual performance, but in reality most people work and live collectively and it is team performance that matters.

Also, very little of the current school curriculum teaches young people how to effectively create and use new technologies – personally, I think that they should be spending much more time on creative project work than on reading, writing and arithmetic. The future of work and life is not in being a good, obedient robot. If we want students to learn about problems like online bullying, we should be getting them to investigate it both globally (through reading, collating and summarizing available information) and locally (through student surveys, focus groups, role plays, etc) and getting them to formulate rules and guidelines for good online etiquette for themselves. Banning mobile phones from schools will not achieve the desired result of teaching young people to be knowledgeable, sophisticated and ethically responsible online users.

Few education systems and schools around the world teach young people about technology, or adequately prepare them for life in a technological world. This is especially true in the very traditional school systems of Asia. This must change, and Macau would be a good place to start.

Categories Opinion