Digitally Speaking / Cell Phones as Teaching Tools - ASCD
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October 1, 2010

Digitally Speaking / Cell Phones as Teaching Tools

At a recent conference, a team of teachers asked me an all-too-common question: How can we get the educators in our building to embrace cell phones as a legitimate tool for learning? The teachers told me cell phones were banned by school policy—and most of their colleagues wouldn't have it any other way.

Sound familiar? Despite the fact that 75 percent of all kids ages 12–17 have cell phones, educators have done their best to aggressively erase this tool from their classrooms. In fact, less than 12 percent of students attend schools where cell phones can be accessed at any time—and almost 70 percent attend schools where cell phones are banned from the classroom. 1

Don't get me wrong: Our efforts to control student cell phone use are—at times—noble. Cell phones can be a real disruption to learning when used improperly. With almost 60 percent of teens reporting that they've sent and received text messages and 25 percent reporting that they've made phone calls while in class, the disruptions are real.

But efforts to eliminate cell phone use are also short-sighted, especially in an era when fewer dollars are available for classroom supplies. With a willingness to experiment, teachers might be able to create classrooms where the cell phones currently tucked into students' backpacks function as important tools instead of incessant distractions.

Making the Case

  1. <EMPH TYPE="3">Make cell phones visible. Most cell phone skeptics I know are worried about sneaky students. "What if my kids text answers to one another during tests?" they'll argue. My solution is simple: Require students to place their cell phones on the top right-hand corner of their desks when they come into class. That way you will know if someone is texting or calling a friend when they're supposed to be learning.The best answer to students who act irresponsibly with cell phones isn't a blanket ban (which they'll probably ignore anyway). The best answer is to force students to act responsibly.

  2. <EMPH TYPE="3">Show colleagues and administrators one convincing classroom application. Convincing educators to embrace any new tool starts with demonstrating how it can improve learning or make our work easier—show us that, and we'll embrace almost anything. To make a case for cell phones, you might demonstrate a text-messaging-based polling system like Poll Everywhere, which allows users to create surveys that participants respond to via text messaging.By creating an account (free for groups of 30 or less) on <LINK URL="">Poll Everywhere</LINK>'s website, you set your class up as a polling group. You'll instantly have the capacity to create brief multiple-choice or open-answer surveys that you can show in class using a data projector. Students can then text their responses—either as short answers or predetermined codes automatically assigned to each indicator of a multiple-choice question—back to Poll Everywhere. Results are displayed instantly for the entire class to see, are updated in real time, and can be downloaded for future reference. (I've found that my class members are happy to share their phones with those few students who aren't carrying a cell phone or don't have a texting plan.)Poll Everywhere turns cell phones into student responders—something most schools can't afford—that teachers can use to gather information about content mastery in their class. For instance, science teachers curious about whether their students can accurately convert metric measurements into standard measurements can create quick multiple-choice surveys with Poll Everywhere and instantly see how well their students grasp the content and conversion procedures presented in class. Considering how important efficiently collecting data has become in today's classroom—and that 75 percent of all students with cell phones have unlimited texting plans—services like Poll Everywhere should be an instant hit in most schools.

  3. <EMPH TYPE="3">Use cell phones to replace needed supplies. I first became convinced that cell phones had a place in the classroom when my students were completing a science lab that required timing the melting rate of an ice cube. Students were excited by the lab, but we didn't have enough timers for every group. "Can I use the timer on my cell phone?" a student asked. "Sure," I said, pleasantly surprised. I hadn't even realized cell phones had timers.Over time, cell phones filled many functions in my classroom. Students looking for definitions to new terms or answers to basic knowledge questions started texting their questions—What is the capital of Cuba? What is the definition of onomatopoeia? What is the speed of sound?—to Google's dedicated SMS question service number (466453) and receiving instant replies. Students also began using the still and video camera features of their cell phones to record the results of their labs for future review and to insert photographs of procedures and materials into lab reports.Think of the money we saved! Using nothing more than the tools that the majority of students brought to school every day, we'd successfully replaced dictionaries, timers, and digital cameras—resources my principal would have loved to provide for every classroom, but couldn't afford in tight budget times.Embracing cell phones in schools is a logical step. Although the risks are real, the rewards are great—and not as hard to achieve as you might think.

End Notes

1 Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., &amp; Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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