Should Spanish schools welcome cellphones into the classroom?

Teachers in Spain are making increasing use of new technologies but experts are highlighting the risks

Pilar Álvarez
Students at Madrid's IES Cervantes school try out Google Expeditions.
Students at Madrid's IES Cervantes school try out Google Expeditions.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

For the last 45 minutes or so, a group of high school students in Madrid have been on a virtual tour of planet Earth that has taken them from the depths of the ocean to the stratosphere. Along the way they have visited sites including the Coliseum in Rome and Aztec ruins in Mexico.

“I’m getting dizzy,” says one of the students as members of the class move their heads from side to side using cardboard glasses that contain a cellphone. “This is cool,” says another. And at the front of the class, art teacher Santiago González seems just as excited as his students. “This has tremendous possibilities,” he says as his pupils enjoy 360-degree images of the planet.

Phones are just like pencils: you can use them to draw or to poke someone in the eye Santiago González, art teacher

These 11- and 12-year-olds at the Spanish capital’s Instituto Cervantes school are the first in the country to try out technology giant Google’s new foray into education – the mobile app Expeditions. The technology giant will be visiting 20 schools in Spain in coming weeks to drum up interest in the project among teachers and students, lending the cardboard glasses, cellphones and tablets that are needed to take part.

“My heart has stopped beating,” says Fabián, one of the students in the class when the Google app sends them off into outer space In fact, he feels like he’s skipping class. “It’s not even work,” he confesses.

But there is a growing consensus among teachers, experts and educational institutions that cellphones can be work. That is, they can brought into the classroom and can be used to teach alongside books, whiteboards and films.

A student from the Cervantes Institute with virtual reality glasses.
A student from the Cervantes Institute with virtual reality glasses.Alvaro Garcia (EL PAÍS)

Almost all of the students in this Madrid high school have their own cellphone, a trend that only increases with age. One in three 10-year-olds has a phone while the rate is 78.4% for children aged 13. For children aged 15 and over, that figure is 90%, according to Spain’s National Statistics institute, the INE.

“Phones are part of everyday life and we have to make sure they are our allies,” says Mar Camacho, a researcher into educational technology at Tarragona’s Rovira i Virgili University. Camacho is the driving force behind a study currently being conducted into the use of these devices on learning and has spent the last three years carrying out tests at 29 public high schools around the country in a project backed by Samsung and the Education Ministry.

This is an emerging field, Camacho says, and there is still a lack of scientific evidence when it comes to whether use of technology boosts academic performance. But the researcher is more positive when it comes to devices and the development of other skills such as the ability to work independently or in a team.

“There are students who don’t usually get involved in group activities in class who will, however, join in if they are working with tablets,” the expert explains.

Camacho believes some concepts can be better explained with a cellphone. But phones, tablets and computers are only tools, she says and warns that people who “promote the use of tablets in class to get students’ attention are only selling smoke”.

“Teachers can’t just decide to go it alone when it comes to the use of technology,” says Félix Serrano, director of Spain’s National Institute for Educational Technology and Teacher Development (INTEF), part of the Education Ministry. “[The use of technology] has to be part of an institution’s educational project, and families have to be involved,” he warns, adding the necessary security safeguards have to be in place.

To date, there is no official data on the number of schools using cellphones in class, or on how many have prohibited their use. There is also a lack of information on how many teachers have the know-how to use these devices as an educational tool, although various sources suggest this group is in the minority. INTEF, for its part, runs courses for some 10,000 teachers a year, while Spain’s regions have their own programs designed to get teaching staff up to speed.

People who promote the use of tablets in class to get students’ attention are selling smoke Mar Camacho, technology researcher

“Technologies have huge advantages but teachers need to have good training,” says Javier Bahón, a teacher, educational theorist and teacher trainer. Schools need to “innovate without losing their way,” he regularly tells colleagues, adding that part of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of individual teachers.

“When electronic whiteboards became widespread, the government only offered a single morning of training on how to use them. A day and nothing more was heard about it. Some teachers got to grips with them, others only turned them from time to time as a bit of fun and others wrote on them as if they were a traditional blackboard,” Bahón explains.

Back at Madrid’s Instituto Cervantes, biology teacher and head of technology Ismail Ali Gago says he finds the Google project “interesting”. But he would like more time to examine possible benefits.

Gago already uses cellphones in other classes. “They are a real laboratory but it’s important that kids understand that cellphones are prohibited in class. It’s the computers they have inside that aren’t banned,” he says.

Meanwhile, many Spanish high schools have banned the use of cellphones in class altogether over fears of cyber bullying – now responsible for one if four cases of bullying in school according to a new study.

“Phones are just like pencils: you can use them to draw or to poke someone in the eye,” warns art teacher Santiago González, as his students continue on their virtual tour of the planet, unaware that the bell marking the end of class has gone and they are free to leave.

Digital divide

Just over half of Spain’s schools have desktop computers while 42.5% have laptops and just 3.6% have tablets, Education Ministry figures for 2014-15 show. Cellphones aren’t included in the statistics, and although their use is obviously widespread, there are families who can’t afford them. That is even more true when it comes to buying the latest models of smartphones, which can set parents back anywhere from €200 to €800.

Javier Bahón suggests that authorities hand over surplus phones to educational centers running technology projects for students who don’t own a device. Mar Camacho, meanwhile, believes students should bring in their devices to school and share them. She adds that such devices don’t have to be the latest models and highlights the fact that Unesco is currently teaching people in developing countries to read using nothing more than text messages.

The digital divide also extends to the question of internet connections. “I’ve seen schools without cables at all and with not enough bandwidth. This is the most frustrating thing for a teacher – having the equipment but not being able to use it,” says Bahón, who travels the country training teachers.

Education Ministry figures show 68.4% of Spain’s educational institutions have connections of five megabits of data per second and only a quarter can boast of a speed of 20 Mbps. By contrast, most internet providers already offer connections speeds of 100 Mbps for households.

English version by George Mills.

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