If you are serious about blended learning – give teachers a mobile phone

In 2002 when I was working as an FE/HE lecturer at a college, the team leader made a decision to provide all staff in the team with mobile phones. The team in question was a PE and Sport team, which due to the nature of the subject, we were often teaching on the field, in the sports hall or at non-college facilities. Health and Safety had insisted that when in these locations the teacher had to carry a mobile phone – so we had a bank of (I think) 4 such phones for this purpose – but logistically this was a nightmare. No-one took ownership of the phones, so they weren’t set up for individuals with useful numbers stored in memory – they were often not charged, and the mechanism of having to return phones after the session (when you didn’t always go straight back to the college after a session), was a nightmare, as well as someone having to co-ordinate a booking system to make sure staff took the right phone, to make the logistics work.

So to partly overcome this problem, and to try and improve communication within the team (which had expanded so much we now occupied 4 staff rooms rather than 1) – the team leader managed to argue the case to provide all staff with a mobile phone. At first it sounded very expensive, but the college managed to get a deal with their provider, so the handsets themselves were quite cheap, and the package was basically a pay as you go – but at a reduced rate due to the number of devices. Any private phone calls that staff made – they paid for themselves – and all in all this was a highly successful model of working.

What we realised very quickly after deploying this model, was because these were work mobile phones, we could pass the number onto students. This had numerous advantages:

  • If a student was running late due to traffic, bus broken down etc. They could text the tutor with an apology/explanation – which saved you disrupting the class to deal with their late arrival. They could now just sneak in, without the tutor having to stop.
  • If a student wasn’t understanding part of an assignment – they could either text or call – even out of hours. The beauty of a work mobile phone was I (as the tutor) had the choice as to whether I wanted to take that call, or to ignore it. If I was happy to take the call, and I could help the student, this would probably save me (as the tutor) time in the long run, as the assignment would be quicker and easier to mark, if it had been completed the way I had wanted it.
  • Logistically – if for example a venue changed at short notice – we had various mechanisms to get messages to students (email, VLE, SMS bulk messaging system, notice board) but we didn’t have a mechanism for the students to easily reply to these messages to enter a dialogue. Having the mobile phone in our possession meant we could pick up these queries even when not at our desks.
  • There are then the numerous teaching and learning things that we can do with mobiles (which I cannot cover here, but have discussed previously on this blog).

In 2002 I knew that our team was ahead of the game in this way of thinking, but I thought that within a few years this would be norm, it horrifies me that in 2014 with the cost of mobile telephony being as cheap as it is – hardly any institutions provide their teaching staff with mobile phones. We waste huge amounts of money setting up complex landline based systems with a phone on a desk, then ask teaching staff to spend 28+ hours a week teaching – not at their desk. They come back from a 5 or 6 hour stint in classrooms at various locations, to find not just a mountain of emails, but also half a dozen voicemail messages from parents, students, other colleges etc. all needing a response a few hours ago – and now they have to spend the next 45 minutes trying to chase things up. Had they been able to take the call in the 10 minute gap they had between lessons – the issue could have been resolved quickly and instantly which is better for them and better for the students.

As FE and HE institutions look to increase the amounts of online learning within the provision – one part of being an online tutor is we need to have as many methods of communication between student and tutor as possible – as different students will have different preferences as to how they communicate. Not all will like using email, and even less will want to use the inbuilt communication tools within the VLE. I recently worked with a college that conducted a survey asking learners what their preferred method of communication was, and as I expected – SMS (texting) still came out as the learners preferred method of communication. For them it is cheap (most contracts will offer at least 2000 text per month), it is quick, and they have a record of the conversation in their phone. When we offer online learning we need to provide students with the ability to communicate by phone (and a proper number not a 08 number to a switchboard that costs the learner), email, and SMS as a minimum.

We don’t have to provide top of the range phones. A basic mobile that does calls and texts would actually suffice, and cost hardly anything – although for a little extra you could get a basic Smartphone which would then cover the email, VLE and Skype communication options as well.

If teams are unsure how to fund such an initiative – here is an idea: Most teams that I talk to have weekly meetings, that last at least an hour. If we assume that the staff time at that meeting is worth (estimating low here) £10 per person per hour – why not agree that in the first week of each month, there is no meeting. We could then get a contract on a basic Smartphone for £7.50 per month, leaving £2.50 per month spare to cover any out of contract calls, or data usage. If there is any really important information that staff needed to get at the missed meeting – why not write this up as a summary and send to the team to read on their new mobile phones.

As colleges start to seriously look at elements of online learning – the provision to staff of mobile phones is the easiest, and cheapest thing we can do – the efficiency benefits it brings, easily outweighs the costs, and should be a no-brainer for management to see and action. I hope that in the coming months and years there is a wake up in the sector that paying lots of money to tie a phone to a desk that a tutor is hardly ever at – is absurd, whereas spending money to provide a communication mechanism that follows the tutor around, is what students and tutors want, will increase efficiency and staff morale, improves health and safety and is an essential thing that needs to happen.

If anyone would like to discuss further then please comment below, or via my work mobile phone 07922115678.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful blog post, Dave. I am sure part of the problem here is that organisations find it easy to continue to spend money on things they have always traditionally spent money on, e.g. an expensive multi-extension landline phone system and the hidden costs of weekly staff meetings; but they find it much harder to spend money on new ideas, e.g. mobile phones for teaching staff.

    However, I also wonder if the issue goes deeper than just tradition. I suggest it is also about power. The logic of the current state of technology is to move to ‘one person one device’ solutions. As you point out, the hardware is amazingly cheap and (going back to your 2002 experience) sharing devices just doesn’t work. But for a school or college to give each member of staff their own phone represents a huge step in terms of relinquishing centralised power and extending trust. (How do we know they won’t use our phones to talk with their friends abroad?) Historically the management of schools and colleges exerted power by placing restrictions on the availability of resources, and this made sense when educational resources and educational expertise were rare and expensive commodities. (One could even make a case that part of the reason that schools, colleges and universities were invented was because of the need to ration and frame access to scarce know-how.) But the Internet has moved us out of the age of scarce educational resources: free dictionaries; translation software; TED lectures; ‘how-to’ videos; problem-sharing forums. It’s all out there for free.

    If I wanted to be controversial (and I often do) I could make a case that the locked down VLE represents the last desperate attempt by universities, colleges and schools to control access to learning resources and communication, and to shore up their power in the face of the onslaught of cheap devices, free content and SMS. (I notice with interest that you make the point that communicating via VLE is far from being the student’s method of choice.)

    If I wanted to be even more controversial, I could suggest that once teaching staff and students have the ability to communicate with each other as effortlessly and conveniently as you describe, then they might come to realise how little need they have for the administrative and managerial infrastructure that the college provides. Perhaps that is what the ‘top brass’ are really scared of:-)

  2. As always an excellent reply Terry. I agree that the control element and the fear of letting go is a major part of this issue – and I think now with finances (in FE in particular) being so tight, the providers with strong management and leadership ability will realise the need to use money wisely rather than wasting it, and I hope that there is a form of natural selection in the coming months, with weak managers/organisations being removed and the strong ones thriving.

    I am experiencing from a lot of senior managers in FE there is a sense of “not knowing where to start” – what I am offering here is a simple easily implementable first step – give your teaching staff mobile phones. It doesn’t require lots of pre-thought, planning, or infrastructure change – it would cheap and easy to implement and would be a great step to getting teaching staff “on-side” – making the more difficult decisions a little easier to manage.

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