The unstructured proliferation of mobile phones and laptops in education settings, along with varying claims about the impacts of multipurpose technologies on academic advance, along with a paucity of policy on usage, has created a continuum of responses from industrial and emerging market countries in the clutches of economic globalisation.

In the un-flat parts of the world, the hope that the benefits of technology would augment productivity and human capital accumulation are dashed by the drawbacks and distractions stemming from un-readiness and misuse.

Snapchat, Instagram, smart watches, Google glasses and iPhones have perforated school walls into colonial fretworks, guipure lace curtains and rusted galvanise sheets with nail holes through which light, data, information, propaganda, fake news, alternate facts and forms of darkness stream in and out of the classroom and across the desks of students. The writing is through the wall.

Ambivalence is everywhere. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City, announced in 2015 that a ten year ban on cell phones on school premises affecting 1.1 million students had ended as they embark on promoting responsible ‘Digital Citizenship’ among students. The Mayor and the Chancellor argue that the new regulation, A-413, would reduce inequality since the ban on mobile-phones was enforced vigorously at schools with metal detectors in low-income neighbourhoods.

Discussion Paper No. 1350, published in May 2015 by the Centre for Economic Performance at The London School of Economics (LSE), notes that sanctions on multipurpose technologies have varying effects on different types of students. Prohibiting mobile phones improves academic outcomes for low-achieving learners the most (14.23% of a standard deviation) but has diminutive impacts on high achievers.

The LSE found that high achieving students are less likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones. For disadvantaged learners, smart devices become a source of distraction and indiscipline, while high performing students are able to enhance their productivity and improve academic achievement.

The LSE study shows that schools can significantly reduce the education achievement gap by prohibiting mobile-phone use, and so by revoking the ban on phones in schools, New York may inadvertently increase inequality in education outcomes.

Jean-Michel Blanquer announced on 11th December 2017 that mobile phones will be banned from schools in France from September 2018. The ban will be imposed across all primary schools and collèges that cater for the first four years of secondary education (ages of 11 to 15). However, phones would be allowed in all lycées which provide a three-year course of further secondary education for students between the ages of 15 and 18. Phones are already banned in the classrooms in France but from September next year, pupils will be barred from taking them out at breaks, lunch times and between lessons.

Emmanuel Macron put banishing mobile phones from all primary and secondary schools into his manifesto ahead of his election victory in May, 2017. In 2009, the World Bank conducted an impact evaluation study in Columbia led by Felipe Barrera-Osorio from Harvard University. Barrera-Osorio found that free home computers had no effects on educational outcomes.

In 2012, the Inter-American Development Bank Working Paper No. 304 on the ‘One Laptop per Child Programme’ reported no effects of free home computers on any educational outcomes. In 2013, Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson conducted a similar study on computer ownership. They found that computer use increased substantially but there were no effects on educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and discipline.

The future may no longer be in your book-bag. Perhaps, it is in the palm of your hand. But policy must precede presence if we are to restrict unstructured use of multipurpose technologies like phones in schools in the West Indies.