Parents have good reason to remain in contact with students even as they attend school. We live in a world where gunmen have entered a school compound and held a student hostage. Additionally, the need to exercise vigilance over children travelling to and from classes is higher than ever before. Gone are the days when parents could comfortably allow children to walk to school.
In this context, the question of phone use in schools is an important matter for which it seems there is no easy prescription. The official position of the Ministry of Education is that phones with video are banned. If this is the position that has been duly arrived at after consultation with stakeholders and experts, then it is important that the ministry’s rules be enforced. Discipline starts from the top down: if the administrators of schools cannot conform to policy guidelines, how are students expected to obey rules?
Yet, there is more to this matter than meets the eye. Arguably, the ability of students to record incidents in their school environment has helped shine a light on matters which may have otherwise escaped national attention. All too often improper conduct by school officials and students alike has been revealed.
It is not only video that is relevant here, however. A major incident involving the homophobic ranting of a school official in south Trinidad was captured in an audio clip which was then disseminated via the WhatsApp platform. These technologies have not only raised the degree of scrutiny which all schools face but they have energised debate of matters which are affecting all of us.
Making students hang up their phones potentially brings an iron curtain down on school affairs. At the same time, there are good reasons why the ministry has banned video phones in the first place.
The use of social media within class can detrimentally affect the pedagogical environment. While smart phones allow quick and easy internet use, enabling students to very quickly research issues and verify facts, in reality these devices are predominantly used to monitor social media: to update Facebook, to check out Twitter and Instagram, and to indulge in the latest trending YouTube videos. This is not surprising since social media has been designed to be addictive.
The ministry has the option, however, of adopting a mixed approach. No phone use should be allowed during class but could be okay during breaks in-between. In practice, such a policy has probably been rejected due to its impracticality. Students may find themselves accidentally leaving phones on after recess or lunch, causing disruption to class.
There is also the deeper problem of the overall impact of social media on the mentality of students. There is something strange and disconcerting about students picking up their phones to record a fight between students. This may not only reflect a desire to capture the moment for the purpose of sharing, but also a kind of voyeurism. Instead of helping their fellow students or learning how to solve problems, students are standing to the side and recording.
When videos recorded by others are circulated on social media they also reach a national audience. This poses serious questions over the child’s right to privacy generally. It further has the impact of distorting the chain of command relating to schools and the Ministry of Education. The responsibility for the day-to-day management of a school should rest with its immediate officials. National-level politicians should not have to become involved unless the case is dire.
For now, because the rights of the child are involved and because we are yet to properly gauge the psychological impact of social media use, the current policy should probably be expanded to include smartphones generally. A balance between safety and privacy must be struck.