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Smartphones in schools? A balancing act for learning in Africa

Even the mere presence of a mobile phone with notifications can lead to a loss of focus on educational tasks. In some cases, it took students up to 20 minutes to regain their concentration after being distracted.
Smartphones Credit: UNESCO
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The 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report, ‘Technology in education – a tool on whose terms‘ has recently issued a call for the cautious use of technology, in African classrooms, emphasising that smartphones and other devices should only be utilised when they contribute positively to learning outcomes.

The report acknowledges that certain technologies can indeed support learning in specific contexts, but it also highlights the dangers of overusing or misusing them, especially smartphones, which can be disruptive in classrooms. A study conducted across 14 African countries, ranging from pre-primary to higher education levels, revealed that smartphones distracted students from their studies. Even the mere presence of a mobile phone with notifications can lead to a loss of focus on educational tasks. In some cases, it took students up to 20 minutes to regain their concentration after being distracted.

Interestingly, some African countries have already taken action to address this issue. For instance, Côte d’Ivoire, known for its vibrant education system and outside Africa, Colombia, a nation committed to improving access to education, have introduced bans on smartphone use in schools through laws or policies. Italy and the Netherlands have followed suit, aligning their education policies with research on improving learning outcomes by limiting smartphone usage.

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO director-general.

Data privacy, safety, and well-being concerns have also fueled the debate surrounding technology use in African schools, particularly for young students. Many are worried about the data being collected by certain applications and how it is used. Currently, only a small fraction of African countries, approximately 16 per cent, have explicit laws protecting data privacy in education. Alarmingly, during the pandemic, a study revealed that 89 per cent of 163 education technology products recommended could potentially survey children, raising serious concerns about data security and children’s rights in the digital realm.

In response to such concerns, some countries, like Denmark and France, have chosen to ban specific applications from educational settings to safeguard students’ privacy. Meanwhile, other nations like Germany have taken a broader approach by banning the use of entire technology suites from certain providers, such as Google Workspace and Microsoft products, within some states. Even in the United States, which is outside Africa but worth noting, some schools and universities have opted to ban the popular app TikTok due to privacy and safety concerns.

READ ALSO: AI and the Teacher’s Role: Enhancing Educators, Not Replacing Them

The 2023 GEM Report emphasises that decisions about technology in education should prioritise the learners’ needs. The report advocates for the careful and responsible use of technology, ensuring that its implementation is fair, scalable, and sustainable. While students must be educated about the risks and opportunities that technology presents, they should not be completely shielded from it. Instead, African countries should provide clear and effective guidance on what technology is allowed in schools and what is not, with a focus on supporting learning effectively.

In conclusion, the call for balancing technology use in African schools remains vital. By implementing thoughtful policies and guidelines, countries across Africa can ensure that technology, including smartphones, is a valuable tool for education without compromising students’ learning experiences.

Naturally, the usage of a smartphone can potentially promote multitasking and task switching while engaging in academic pursuits because it is not just for texting and calling but also for using the Internet, email, and social networking sites like Facebook. In the end, this causes academic performance to decline.

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