Their behaviour was appalling. I stood in front of the class, trying to teach a difficult but important lesson, desperate for the students to understand it. But no one listened.
I addressed a young woman at the front of the room who was smiling affectionately at her cellphone. She looked up at me with a confused expression on her face and blinked as if she had just awoken from a dream.
I had begun to encounter more and more of this in my classes. People constantly distracted by their cellphones, making teaching impossible. What made it difficult in this case was that there wasn’t much I could do. There was no principal I could report these learners to, nor was contacting their parents an option. These were not schoolkids. They were a group of data analysts from an investment firm.
I could not escalate the problem to the group’s supervisor because he was one of the attendees at my training. During the break I asked a young man if he found my lessons boring.
“No way, we love your training, and really learn a lot,” was his response.
I was totally confused, and wondered how they had managed to learn anything at all when they were not even paying attention. His next words were a great revelation to me, and radically influenced the way in which I looked at technology.
“We’ve already been through your content on YouTube yesterday.”
Of course. My YouTube tutorials.
Not long after that, I began lecturing Java coding at a private tertiary institute. My students were low achievers who barely made it through matric and couldn’t get into universities. On the other hand, Java is a difficult language to grasp. My problem was getting them to understand the concepts and complete their coding projects.
Day after day they would come with their projects incomplete. I could see they were as frustrated as I was.
I decided to conduct an experiment based on my experience with the data analysts. I knew each of my students had cellphones, and that the institute provided wi-fi in the common areas. I made video recordings of my lessons and uploaded them to YouTube. I then asked my students to watch the videos before coming to class, so that they could focus on doing the coding projects in class under my supervision.
The idea caught on, and my students were loving it. The experiment was a massive success, and they performed well. My tutorials are still online, and to date have attracted as many as 75 000 views.
Tiema Muindi, a journalism lecturer, has taken the concept further. He teaches at a low-income college and is faced with the same challenges, with the addition of very large class sizes. Out of necessity he decided to see if he could overcome some of his teaching challenges using his cellphone.
He began to record his lessons using his phone, and sending them to his students via WhatsApp, which uses less data than YouTube, and is hence more cost-effective. He also sends them notes on occasion. He is very active on the groups, answering questions through text, diagrams and even voice notes. The concept caught on, and his students are not just enjoying his lessons, but performing well.
Busisiwe Khawula teaches English as a second-language at Kwasanti Secondary School in St Wendolins, Pinetown. In her literature classes she found a lot of her time goes into reading, translating and explaining the prescribed books, leaving little time for class discussions.
To overcome her problem, she decided to do voice recordings of herself reading and explaining the stories, and to make these available via WhatsApp and other means. In this way, students will be able to listen to the stories out of class, and engage in discussions in class.
These examples are enough to make one wonder if the decision by so many schools to ban cellphones was a wise one or one borne out of haste and a desire for quick results. Either way, in doing so we are not just depriving our students of amazing learning opportunities, we are setting ourselves up for a huge logistical nightmare in trying to enforce the ban. Students will find ways to get those phones into classrooms.
A learner uses his tablet in the classroom.