Should Students Have Cell Phones In School?

  • Flipd Staff
  • 15 May 2017
  • 08:13 PM

Have you considered a cell phone ban in your classroom or school? You're not the only one; many educators teaching at varying levels have, at some point, considered it or implemented one.

In fact, a University of Nebraska survey found that 7 out of 10 college students reported their professors had a cell phone policy implemented.

But is banning cell phones the way to go? After speaking with educators across North America, this is what we've learned:

Pros of a cell phone ban

1. An outright ban is respectful to students who want to pay attention

Cell phones have an unfair way of distracting both individual students from the lecture as well as their peers. Dr. Brynn Winegard, award-winning professor and brain-science expert, calls this the cone of distraction

The problem, she says, isn't students who get distracted; it's that those who want to pay attention are unfairly guided into the cone of distraction, while those operating the technology are able to freely tune in and out of the class.

This sentiment resonates with NYU media studies professor, Clay Shirky, whose article Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away went viral. Here he emphasizes the troubling cone of distraction:

"Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers."
- Professor Clay Shirky

Shirky goes on to cite that multi-tasking and technology design contribute heavily to a student's inability to focus in the classroom, whether intentional or not. He argues that the problem is no longer the student's choice not to pay attention, but rather that "students are trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction."

With a ban in place, students who are trying to listen get to do so without having to compete with unintentional or uncontrollable distractions.

2. Banning cell phones minimizes the chance of cheating

In a large classroom with hundreds of students, this risk is real and has major implications. Getting caught cheating can result in academic misconduct and expulsion, a troubling consequence for heavy-technology users.

While banning cell phones won't prevent a determined cheater to successfully do so, it can certainly deter unlikelier individuals from trying to. In competitive academic environments where grades are weighed heavily and students are under serious pressure, a cell phone can become a go-to crutch in some situations.

With a ban implemented, the risk of cheating, along with its potential consequences, are significantly reduced for all students.

3. It can improve student success

There is growing evidence that frequent cell phone use is negatively associated with academic performance. The study of 500 undergraduate students found a negative relationship between frequent cell phone use and grades, as well as lower life satisfaction, increased anxiety, and poor physical health.

Dr. Brynn Winegard strongly believes that technology overuse has led to a growing number of tired, frazzled, and distracted students. She emphasizes that students need to come prepared for class to be successful, which means present and well-rested. 

"Learning is challenging; you have to be ever-present for it. Students need to come prepared to be in the moment, to be mindful, to expend energy. They need to come prepared for how hard this is going to be."
- Dr. Brynn Winegard

By setting limits to technology use in the classroom, you're creating a space where students will come to unplug from their otherwise hyper-connected life and to focus on a single task.

4. It provides equal opportunity for all students

Not all students have access to a cell phone or other smart device. By eliminating cell phones from the classroom entirely, these students won't feel left behind or at a disadvantage compared to their peers. 

Cons of a cell phone ban

1. Phones are important in an emergency

Having quick access to a cell phone can make all the difference in a dangerous situation. If phones are turned off, piled at the front of the class, or banned from the classroom altogether, the potential risk is much greater.

Many schools use text alerts to notify students of important or urgent information, and if phones are turned off students simply won't get them.

2. Phones can be an effective learning tool

Cell phones and technology certainly offer an opportunity to engage students in a new way. There are many technological resources designed to make learning more fun and engaging, and to foster peer-to-peer collaboration and project management.

>>> Read 5 Ways to Engage Students (Without Technology) <<<

Moreover, many of these tools help educators identify problems in their lesson or among individual students, which can help educators take effective action. Polling apps, for example, can capture audience engagement and comprehension more easily than hands raised in a large class. Flipd is another tool teachers use to measure and maintain student engagement.

3. A cell phone ban avoids a teaching opportunity

By dismissing cell phones as inherently distracting tools, we discourage students from learning to manage their use intentionally, productively, and responsibly.

We are called to be more intentional about the use of technology and the value of conversation. We are called to be more explicit about where we are, how conversation can help, and what is likely to get in the way.

- Sherry Turkle, author, Reclaiming Conversation

Teaching students to be responsible and effective users of their devices, social media, and the internet is a valuable lesson at any age, and its importance only continues to grow. By banning cell phones altogether, this learning opportunity is lost, and students are less likely to view their devices as productive tools.

Education should help prepare students for their future, and an important part of that is preparing them to be both excellent listeners and highly intentional technology users.


Solution isn't black or white

Choosing to implement technology as an alternative to a cell phone ban is a misguided decision. A lot of technology is not effective for learning, and a semester can sometimes be too short to truly harness a new software's benefits.

On the other hand, we've learned that banning technology misses an important learning opportunity for students living in a hyper-connected world.

We at Flipd recommend these ways to foster authentic and low-tech learning experiences to improve student engagement and reduce distractions. Ultimately, the choice is up to the educator, but striking a balance between on and offline learning experiences is what will make for a successful class.

Are you considering a cell phone ban?

Flipd is an excellent tool that helps teachers frame their technology policy. The platform saves educators from implementing a cell phone ban while balancing technology use simultaneously. With Flipd, students are encouraged to unplug from their phones during class, while educators get unique insights on engagement, participation, and their lecture.

Click here to access a free Flipd trial