And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually

One of the many issues that get raised in any discussion about the use of technology in education, particularly mobile technology is that of the impact of devices on student behaviour.

I have discussed before my view on the likely trajectory of technology in education and the inexorable rise of the mobile device. This recent article may well turn out to be exaggerated, but the direction of travel is clear. If I were asked to choose between two possible outcomes in the next decade:

Mobile devices will be barred from all classrooms


Students will be expected to bring a mobile device to school with them

Then I would say that the latter is far more likely to come to pass. Indeed I would wager a small proportion of my reputation on it. As the prices of devices fall, and the numbers of students with access to their own (phone or tablet-sized) device approaches 100%, as the cost of printing and of providing textbooks increases, and as textbooks cease to be produced other than electronically, and as blended learning models become mandated by budgetary considerations (especially post-16) my small wager will become closer and closer to being won.

This makes me think it is worth considering the nature of any problems that lie ahead. And I’ll tell you up front, this post contains few answers. It is just an attempt to set out some of the issues and start a discussion about how we get to where we are going. Wherever that may be.

Firstly, I think it is important to knock one thing on its head. It is often suggested, mainly by device proponents, that there are no such things as device-related behaviour issues. There are only behaviour issues. Tackle the behaviour but don’t blame the device. It is easy to be convinced by this argument. But it is wrong.

Whilst I strongly believe that students are responsible for their own actions we have to recognise that the device itself creates a difference. It allows things to be done that students were not previously capable of. Publish a photo to world? Easy. Video the teacher? Piece of cake. Chat to your mate across the other side of the school? Done! And we have also to recognise that having the ability to do these things is seductive, especially to children who are seeking their own boundaries.

All this is before we get to think about social media and its addictive nature. After all, you got to this page because social media beckoned you. You know how enticing it can be. To a fifteen year old, finding their place in the world, social media is like crack cocaine, it makes them come back for “just one more hit”.

So the device itself creates issues that have to be dealt with, even with a group of naturally compliant and well-behaved children.

None of this is to say that lovely Sally, who wouldn’t normally say “boo” to a goose is going to start cyber-bullying everyone the minute she gets her hands on an iPhone. But it does make it more likely that lovely Sally will get drawn into such things by her peer group, or may even suffer from it herself.

Of course, the first response in schools will be to fall back on the tried and trusted method of locking down every possible option on the device that would enable the student to misbehave. Well, there’s a problem with that. My expectation is that most schools will end up (through reasons of cost) going down the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) route. If the student is bringing in their own device, which could be anything, the traditional control approach won’t work.

As more and more of the school infrastructure moves into the cloud, the other traditional approach of filtering and blocking will become more problematic. Whilst it is possible to consider a completely walled-garden approach, that is from within the school only a specific sub-set of the internet being made available, the growing interconnectedness of services make this a much harder proposition. Simply put, it is really very difficult to know which services can be blocked without upsetting the whole apple-cart.

Consequently, the methods we are knowledgeable in using to control student technology usage are becoming less viable. With the infrastructure set-up I envisage becoming common, and their own mobile device in the hands of every child, there are few easily implemented technological ways of inhibiting the behaviour issues we know devices can promote.

Long term, we must move away from technology solutions to the behaviour issues created by technology. I think there’s a logic to that. The only way this will work is to change the behaviours of the children, to get them to change their own notion of unacceptable behaviour. I do not suggest that this is easy, nor do I believe that it can be done overnight. But I do know it can be done. And I’ll give you an example.

In my first year at primary school my extreme short-sightedness was finally diagnosed and I spent many years wearing the fabled “national health glasses”. As those of you who are old enough to remember, these were not pretty devices. They were functional. Consequently, I spent a great part of my school years on the receiving end of a considerable amount four-eyes related bullying (which only stopped when I went to secondary school and somehow the rumour got around that I was a judo expert *innocent face*). So I was concerned when, at the tender age of two and half my daughter started to wear glasses. Twelve years later I regularly ask her if she gets bullied because of them. She looks at me like I’m stupid. “Has anyone ever called you ‘four eyes’” I say. “Why would they do that?” she answers. This didn’t happen by accident, it happened because over many years many people worked hard to ensure that different forms of bullying became unacceptable to all involved.

Behaviours can be changed, but it takes a long time and needs to be well thought out. This is a win-win proposition. Many of the existing behaviour issues in school are exacerbated by the way that events that start out in the real world being continued into the cyber-arena. In my day spats that started in school on a Tuesday were forgotten by the Wednesday, after we all went our own way at the end of the day. Now, they continue overnight, online, brought back into school by children who have had no sleep.

To those of you who think I will win my wager I’d say this:

Sometimes the issue of behaviour is skated over and that has to stop. It’s real and it needs to be tackled. It’s the biggest single factor inhibiting the take up of technology in education.

To those of you who think I will lose my wager I’d say this:

You are wrong. And we badly need your help to work out how to help children to live in the world being made for them.

Whatever your position is on the idea more technology in schools I can see no benefit in not working towards the point where children are in control of their devices rather than the devices controlling them.

* For the avoidance of doubt by ‘mobile device’ I mean any device that has similar functionality to an Android/iOS style mobile telephone/tablet.