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May 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 8

Teaching with Cell Phones

Research suggests that students are eager to use their cell phones for learning. Are schools ready to catch up?
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Cell phones need not be a distraction in schools. Instead, they can be tools for sustaining engagement, supporting real-world cooperative learning, and empowering learning on the go.
Students already know this. According to a Project Tomorrow survey (2013), 78 percent of middle school students say they use their cell phone to check grades; 69 percent credit it with helping them take class notes; 64 percent enjoy its aid in accessing online textbooks; 56 percent say it helps them write papers and do homework; and 47 percent say it helps them learn about school activities. If students are doing all these things on their own, just think how much more they can accomplish when educators incorporate cell phones into instruction.
Students are ready for their schools to get on board. According to Matthew West (2013) of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution,
Studies show that students are more open to using technology for learning and that they are aware of these new learning tools such as text, illustration, and audio and visual recordings, all of which provide children with a more holistic learning experience.
Here we look at just a few of the ways teachers can use cell phones to support learning—specifically, the research-based learning strategies described in the second edition of Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (Dean, Hubbell, Pitler, & Stone, 2012). These examples demonstrate why the benefits of using cell phones for instruction far outweigh the risks.

Increase Memory and Meaning Making

Information is stored in the brain in two forms: linguistic (as words) and nonlinguistic (as images and sensations). Research shows that instructional strategies incorporating mental pictures or the physical senses—such as sound, movement, or smell—"provide students with useful tools that merge knowledge presented in the classroom with mechanisms for understanding and remembering that knowledge" (Dean et al., 2012, p. 63).
Today's students are highly attuned to nonlinguistic communication. Outside school, they're watching Vine videos, Snap-chatting, and sharing photos on Instagram and Facebook. Cell phones offer a wealth of tools for providing nonlinguistic experiences, thus tapping into humans' natural tendency to construct meaning through multiple modes.
For example, after students have studied a short story, divide them into groups and assign each group one section to act out. Give students time to practice their scene and, when they're ready, use a cell phone to record it. These videos can be sent to the class Flickr account and tagged with the title and section of the story. The class can watch the videos together and can even make them public to others who are reading the story in their school or elsewhere. Watching the videos also enables the teacher to get inside the students' heads to assess their understanding of the material (Nielsen & Webb, 2011).
A social studies teacher might read aloud an excerpt from a famous speech, such as Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" and ask students to reflect on the image they see in their mind when they hear the excerpt. Students can then share their visualization by sending a text describing it to the teacher's Google Voice number or by tweeting using a specific hashtag. They might want to describe the feelings the speech evokes and record them on a phonecasting site, such as iPadio. Students might want to take a selfie to show how the speech made them feel and use their cell phone to send the photograph to Flickr.
Today's students are more visual than ever. Cell phones provide an immediate, easy way for students to create nonlinguistic representations and publish them to an authentic audience who can view, compare, and discuss their work. The results are deeper understanding and better recall.

Support Cooperative Learning

As one of the most thoroughly researched instructional strategies, cooperative learning "helps teachers lay the foundations for students' success in a world that depends on collaboration and cooperation" (Dean et al., 2012). Cell phones can support two essential elements of cooperative learning groups: positive interdependence and individual accountability. The digital platforms created to be used with mobile devices (like, TodaysMeet, and Twitter chats) make cooperative learning more manageable for teachers than ever.
When students and teachers communicate using one of these platforms, they don't need to exchange cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses—an important consideration for teachers who want to keep their personal and professional worlds separate. Additionally, the sites maintain a record of sent and received messages, providing accountability and safety. The teacher can also control how texts are sent and received—from one-way blasts in which everyone's response goes just to the teacher, to paired interactions, to groups of any size who can openly text with one another (with the teacher, of course, always participating as a member).
The teacher also has the ability to read through the conversations among the group members as they are happening and to view an archive of everyone's input, from pictures to polls to research facts to questions to ideas. No more groups in which one student does all the work and everyone gets the credit!
Here are some ways teachers can use group texting to support collaborative learning with various types of groups.
  • For paired groups, end class with the assignment, "Text your partner three important takeaways from today's lesson."
  • For formal groups, ask students (either in class or at home) to "text all the members of your group a one-sentence reflection on the meaning of the poem read today. After each person has texted in his or her sentence, have a discussion."
  • For informal groups, ask students to "create a math word problem using the formula we learned today, text it to the whole group, and then pick one that someone else has texted to solve."
Today's students are used to constantly engaging with others via their phones (thus educators' concern about these devices being a distraction in the classroom), so it makes sense to design lessons that empower students to interact about the content of the lessons, the curriculum, and the learning.

Facilitate Learning On the Go

Across the United States, teachers are being required to cover more content, with larger and more diverse classes. One way to address these issues would be more class time, but that's rarely feasible. However, we can take another cue from Matthew West (2013):
We need to think of education as an individualized and year-round activity, not just something that takes place in bulk form within schools between 8:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Monday through Fridays when schools are in session. Content should be ubiquitous and customized so that students can follow their learning passions and figure out where to get answers to basic questions.
Assigning homework and providing opportunities for practice are two important strategies to promote student learning—yet research shows mixed results for both, according to Classroom Instruction That Works. One way to increase the effectiveness of homework assignments is to make sure they have a clear purpose—to "help students prepare for instruction, to review or practice, or to extend learning opportunities" (Dean et al., 2012, p. 106).
The connectivity of cell phones can help ensure that both parents and students are aware of the purpose of homework assignments. For example, teachers can send a group text to students and their parents at reasonable intervals, perhaps once or twice a day, giving them information about homework—including the purpose of each assignment, the due date, and the ways parents can help. (For example, the teacher might include a list of questions parents could discuss with their child.) This keeps parents in the loop, increases student accountability, and keeps the lines of communication open (Nielsen & Webb, 2011).
Teachers can also support learning outside school hours by ensuring that students are practicing skills as efficiently as possible. For example, suppose that a class wants to use regular homework practice to increase fluency in a foreign language. Students could text in responses to interesting questions in the language they are studying each day using a response service like Poll Everywhere or Back in class, students can read and discuss responses, increasing fluency while having fun.

Provide Recognition

Research suggests that recognition can be a powerful motivator—if it's personalized and contingent on a stated goal or standard (Dean et al., 2012). Cell phones make it easy to provide such recognition.
For example, to recognize students' achievements and engage families, teachers can capture student work using cell phones, and then tag and post it on a Tagboard that the school sets up using the school hashtag for student work. Tagboard lets you capture social media posts from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Flickr, and Vine and put them in one place. Students and their parents are thrilled when their work is featured. Schools can take this even further by creating hashtags for specific performance standards as well as holding recognition ceremonies.
Although teachers can be the ones capturing and publishing these posts, students can learn to do this as well. When a student meets a goal or standard, he or she can use the class account to share it on social media, thus gaining recognition from the entire school community.

Time to Move Forward

Mobile devices are a ubiquitous part of students' lives, and the evidence is mounting that cell phones can promote research-based instruction. Yet many school districts still ban them, fearing student distraction and citing concerns about the lack of teacher training.
It is educationally irresponsible to let the inaction of adults keep another generation of students from realizing the powerful learning opportunities available to them when they have access to mobile devices. To make educationally beneficial use of cell phones in the classroom a reality, administrators and policymakers have some work to do.
  • Get rid of outdated policies that penalize students for using their own devices.
  • Remove network obstacles that keep students from connecting. Airports, coffee shops, hotels, and more have figured this out. Schools must, too.
  • Talk to students in your school. Start celebrating the ways they learn with their devices. Ask them for input on policies and guidelines.
  • Prepare teachers to manage a device-rich classroom and to use technology as a tool to engage students.
  • Ensure that those who evaluate teacher performance understand how technology increases instructional effectiveness.
  • Implement digital citizenship instruction in your school. <LINK URL="">Common Sense Media</LINK> has a high-quality curriculum available to schools at no cost.
  • Connect with others who have had success. You can do this by following the hashtags #byod, and #byotchat, and #mlearning on social media.
Although embracing student devices for learning will require schools and districts to do some work, the payoff for students will be well worth the effort. By accepting that cell phones are here to stay, that more young people have them every day, and that they are wonderful supports for learning, schools can align better with the world in which we all live.
Authors' note: For detailed descriptions of how to use Flickr,, iPadio, and the many other online digital tools mentioned in this article, see our book Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. B., Pitler, H., &amp; Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Nielsen, L., &amp; Webb, W. (2011). Teaching generation text: Using cell phones to enhance learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Project Tomorrow. (2013), From chalkboard to tablets: The emergence of the K–12 digital learner, Speak Up 2012 national findings. Irvine, CA: Author. Retrieved from

West, D. M. (2013). Mobile learning: Transforming education, engaging students, and improving outcomes. Washington, DC: Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. Retrieved from

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