GUEST BLOGGER: Why GES is wrong about mobile phones

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Economic historians would tell you that the clash between technology and society is as old as mankind’s struggles over the millennia to meet his material needs. The inventor of the typewriter, for example, was violently attacked by calligraphers who felt their very livelihood threatened.

The list of such clashes is long and will continue to grow as the world moves into a new phase of rapid information-communication-technological development which challenges contemporary ways of thinking and doing things and alters, in a fundamental way, traditional social relations in ways that would once have seemed unimaginable, even taboo.

The debate over mobile phones in schools is only the latest such clash, and it has been going on in schools around the world long before students at Ghanasco and Navasco rioted over seizure of their phones by the school authorities. While the violence of the students must be condemned in no uncertain terms, the episode should also serve as a catalyst to begin a national conversation on “technology and (Ghanaian) society”: How best to tame the excesses of technology while embracing its potential for national development, including education.

Given that culturally we are more inclined to emphasize the negative side of things and act upon that only (or do nothing at all), such a conversation might itself require a revolution in thought and in our world view.

Whatever debate we’ve had so far, championed by the Ghana Education Service (GES), has been (mis)informed by a wanton disregard for fact and reason; a narrow and retrogressive conception of telephony; and a disturbing lack of appreciation of what the future world of information-communication technology holds and how we can take advantage of it. The following are aspects of the debate as it is now – and how it may evolve in the future.

Mobile phones are disruptive for students
: True, but they are disruptive in many other social situations, too, including driving, office meetings, and conferences. In all these situations, the proper response has been to regulate their use and punish those who violate the regulation – not outright bans. To raise responsible citizens, we must give our children responsibilities (for example, “if you bring your phone to class it will be seized”). Outright bans, at best, breed recalcitrance and rebellion, without addressing the underlying problem of indiscipline. At worst, they retard social and technological progress. The seizure of fountain pens and calculators from students in the past, ostensibly to improve education, only encouraged sneaky and dishonest behavior among students and ultimately left them technologically backward. Education standards fell. The wholesale ban on mobile phones risks repeating history.

Mobile phones are responsible for falling educational standards:
In the Ghanasco case, students were said to have been spending long hours on their phones at night and showing up tired for class the next day, but it is disingenuous to blame this aberration for the age-old problem of plummeting standards in Ghanaian education. The 2008 Education Sector Performance Report tells us that “the percentage of trained teachers in public schools has decreased over the years both nationally and for the 53 deprived areas”. In fact, the percentage has been falling since the mid-1990s. The report also tells us: “…the official school year has 197 days, but effectively…only 39% of this was actually used for time on instructional task, one of the major variables affecting student achievement. Ghanaian students had the least number of contact hours with teachers” in a 4-country study quoted in the report, with “teacher absenteeism” listed as a “major cause of time loss”. When Ghanaian students, including those from schools that do not allow mobile phones, placed last in international science and math tests, it turned out that they were being taught syllabi that were 10 years out of date. It’s time our educational authorities took responsibility for their failings and stopped scapegoating students.

Mobile phones promote immorality among students:
A Daily Graphic headline of December 8, 1978, blared, ‘A School of 92 Pregnant Girls’ (out of 103). This was nearly 20 years before the first mobile phone was introduced to Ghana. Taking phones away from two students bent on having sex only defers the inevitable; teaching them the values of chastity, self-control and the dangers of premarital sex in the age of HIV-AIDS would serve them best for the rest of their lives.

True state of morality among our children:
Despite the loud lamentations about the immoral ways of the “youth of today”, research – not unsubstantiated outbursts – shows that the current generation of Ghanaian youth are actually less promiscuous than their peers of old (now their parents and grandparents). This is something we should be proud of and celebrate as a society, rather than use the transgressions of a few children to demonize all Ghanaian youth.

A 2003 USAID study of “adolescent premarital sex” in some 30 countries stated: Repeat surveys in Colombia and Paraguay reported increases of 18 and 12 points respectively. In contrast, levels in Ghana fell 19 points—nearly by half—between 1993 and 1998. The 2003 Ghana Demographic and Health Survey also noted: “Nine percent of women and 4 percent of men reported having sexual intercourse by age 15…. Sixty-one percent of women and 80 percent of men age 15-19 have never had sex.” The study looks at factors like education levels, urban/rural locations, and gender, which should interest policy makers and their moral crusader.

Real threats to our children’s morality: Based on recent news reports and loose media standards, mobile phones may pose the least moral threat to our children. The raping of school children by perverts posing as teachers has become so commonplace that some radio presenters even make sick and callous jokes about it. The proprietor of a secondary school who impregnated a student still prances around on television with other children – in plain view of the GES and an unconcerned society. During the trial last year of the proprietor, an anguished student from another school asked at a public forum: What do you do when the teacher standing in front of you has proposed to you? Beside actual sexual violence, one can only imagine the kind of emotional and psychological torture that these teenagers suffer at the hands these perverts in classrooms across the country. Our television screens and “mainstream” papers, too, are chuck-full of pornography. The list goes on. Where are the “moral phone” crusaders when you need them?

The future is here! Mobile phones and national development: Those opposing mobile phones in the hands of students appear stuck, subconsciously at least, with the outdated notion of the phone as a mere talk piece (“If you want to talk to your parents, do that through the House Master or Mistress”). Of course, the world of communication has changed drastically since these defenders of the old order went to school. Besides freeing us from the shackles of the conventional phone, the modern phone can also serve as radio, television, still and video cameras as well as mini-computers, all of which hold massive potential for advancing the cause of education and national development. Unlike conventional radios, for example, 10 students in a dorm can listen to 10 different radio stations on their mobile phones to upgrade their knowledge on any number of subjects without disturbing each other. If I were to type “Yaa Asantewaa war” or “history of DNA” into my phone, for instance, I’m likely to get more information to write a class essay than I would get from all the country’s secondary school libraries combined. This is something that would have been unimaginable only five years ago – and it’s going to get even better as the global ICT revolution intensifies.

The future is here, and in that future computing would literally be reduced into the palm of our hands, if news from Japan is anything to go by. Over there, laptop ownership is declining in favor of smart-phones, which are used for everything from education research to monitoring one’s home for intruders (while at the office) to switching your house lights on or off from anywhere in the world. This is all part of the exciting concept of “internet of things” (Google it and take a peek at the future), where a stalled car on a highway in Germany, for example, could be repaired by a mechanic in Zabzugu, Ghana, using nothing but a smart phone.

Invariably, the issue of cost and affordability comes up in matters like this and, invariably, we begin to whine, “Oh, but we are a poor country. How many parents can afford expensive phones for their children? blah, blah, blah”. The excuses are endless, but true visionaries are never deterred by the cost of their dreams; they always find a way out. Imagine if the two penniless student founders of Google had let financing constrain their dreams. And imagine if we had written off mobile phones in the late 1990s, when only a handful of rich Ghanaians could afford it. It wasn’t long ago that the wrist watch was the preserve of the rich, and the vast majority of Ghanaians could only dream of owning a television. Mankind has indeed made much material progress in a single generation.

Let’s be bold and progressive. If we want to be part of this amazing technological revolution, the old ways of thinking and doing things must give way to the new and the visionary. Leadership – true leadership – is about solving problems not accommodating them through coercion and excuses. Between the Ministries of Education, Finance, Communication, services providers and the private sector generally, we can join this revolution in an affordable, equitable and safe manner – not just for students but for the larger Ghanaian population. That’s the strategy; now let’s put out a plan. If others can put a man on the moon as a matter of will, the least we can do is make smart phones affordable for all Ghanaians, as a matter of policy.


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