Wednesday, November 3, 2010

10 Proven Strategies to Break the Ban and Build Opportunities for Student Learning with Cell Phones

by George Engel, Rob Griffith, Scott Newcomb, Lisa Nielsen, Jason Suter, and Willyn Webb

Innovative educators George Engel, Rob Griffith, Scott Newcomb, Lisa Nielsen, Jason Suter , and Willyn Webb know that when it comes to preparing students for success in the 21st century you not only have to think outside the ban, sometimes you have to dive in head first and break it. The following is a collection of ideas each teacher implemented to successfully break and/or work within the ban where they teach in an effort to empower students with the freedom to use their cell phones as personal learning devices.

The Ten Building Blocks for Learning with Cell Phones

1) Build Relationships
Breaking the ban starts with the building of relationships with key constituents. Here is advice on how to get started.
  • with self:
    • Realize that leadership begins with example. There are those who are threatened by transitions and change. To break the ban, you will need to present yourself in ways that do not make your colleagues uncomfortable about their instructional methodology.
  • with students:
    • Let students know you care about making learning fun and relevant and ask them if they’d like the option to be able to do work using their cell phones. Most likely, the answer will be YES! If they are interested provide them with homework options that enable them to use cell phones.
  • with parents and guardians:
    • Start with the parents by using the cell phone as a tool to bridge the home-school connection. You can have a “Text-of-the-Day” to update parents on what’s happening in the class. You can text parents individually to share information about their child. You can poll parents with Poll Everywhere to get their input and show their opinions matter. You can read this article for more ideas 6 Ways to Use Cell Phones to Strengthen the Home-School Connection . Once parents are on your side and see the value personally, your job convincing other stakeholders becomes much easier.
  • with colleagues:
    • Try to establish yourself as an innovative leader when it comes to empowering students and teachers with technology. A focus on student centered learning is key. At grade or subject meetings, offer to support teachers in harnessing the power of cell phones for themselves, and if they’re ready, with their students. Get them started and model for them. Perhaps have a polling question in a meeting or gather input with a Wiffiti board.
  • with administration:
    • Start by working within the system to bring about technological change. Become known as someone that works with what your school has on hand and is flexible to administrative needs. When the opportunity presents itself, respectfully present the need for change and recommendations to update your school’s technological teaching processes.
  • with district:
    • Become known as a tech leader. Offer to participate in school and district-wide technology decisions. Offer to collaborate with the district technology coordinator and others to help establish a new acceptable use policy (AUP) that will allow the use of cell phones as a learning tool. (The AUP is a critical step toward technological change, many districts are still working with AUP’s developed in the late nineties.) Keep in mind that in most cases, what is acceptable in the physical world applies to the online world as well.
2) Embrace Research
In today’s educational climate providing evidence that the work you are doing is aligned to research and standards is crucial! Here are some ways to do this. 3) Plan Activities
  • Planning is key. Create and develop a plan, lessons, and activities that you can share with those who care and want to know what you have in store for the use of cell phones in the classroom.
  • Develop a well thought-out plan for embedding cell phones into instruction. Invite your students to partner with you in developing ideas to meet learning goals using cell phones. This plan can be shared on your class and/or school website as well as distributed to parents, guardians, and school community members.
  • Develop a well crafted outline and description of lessons and activities that could be used for learning with a cell phone.
  • Invite administrators and policy makers to observe the lessons. If possible, involve them as students in the class so they can actually participate and experience first-hand an activity that promotes student engagement and achievement.
4) Pilot Program
Be willing to start small, demonstrate success and work from there.
  • Meet with those key in your school and district decision making to map out an acceptable pilot program i.e. district technology coordinator, building principal and assistant principals.
  • Ensure that the pilot program includes all teachers interested in participating.
  • Make sure to invite administrators to observe and participate when you are incorporating cell phones into the curriculum. This can be one of the fastest ways to build relationships and get key stakeholders on board.
  • Film videos of what you and your students are doing. Publish on online spaces to celebrate the work your students are doing.
5) Access for All
Anyone interested in embedding cell phones into the curriculum has heard the argument, but what about the students who don’t have a phone??? Well, you do the same thing as you do when your class doesn’t have enough textbooks. You don’t say, I guess we can’t do our work. We find workarounds. Partner or group students. Have some extras on hand for those who don’t have. Reach out to the community for support, but don’t use that as an excuse to not innovate instruction. 6) Partnering with Students to Use Cells for Learning
When using technology for learning, Marc Prensky’s concept of partnering with students fits in well. Bring students into the conversation and ask them about ways they can meet learning goals in life, at school, and at home.

A template might look like this:

Use Cell Phones for Real Life

Use Cell Phones for Learning Outside of School

Use Cell Phones In For Learning In Class

  • Sample from class whose student’s partnered with their teacher to develop ways they could use their phones for learning.
Invite your students to partner with you around a conversation of cell phones and learning. Capture their answers, then share these answers to see if there are any other ideas students may want to add. The ideas can be posted on the classroom website, blog, or wiki, with credit given to the students who are able to take more ownership of how they learn both at school and independently on their own.

7) Parent/Guardian Permission
Before we use cells with students, we must have parent approval. By the time you ask for it, you’ve hopefully already begun some home school connection strategies with cell phones so you are on your way. 8) Acceptable use
Just like any other classroom tool, teachers need to work with students to establish acceptable use policies. In some classrooms the teacher just explains how the general policies apply to the use of cell phones, in others they create a new policy, in some schools the students help create the policies, and in some classrooms they invite parental input as well. Collecting everyone’s thoughts on acceptable use is easy when you use cell phone tools like Poll Everywhere and Wiffiti to do so. 9) Cell Phone Etiquette
Adults often complain that cell phones are a distraction in class, but how much time have they really devoted to discussing proper etiquette? This can be weaved into a general discussion around behavior and etiquette in different situations. Inviting students into the conversation about appropriate etiquette and what to say to those not exhibiting polite behavior usually works better than telling students how to best behave.

10) Classroom Management
As with the use of any technology in the classroom, when using cell phones in the classroom you must have classroom management procedures in place. The nice thing, however, about cell phones is that you don’t have to worry about distribution, collection, storage, imaging , and charging of devices. Consider working with your students to develop this plan, you may find that they build a strong, comprehensive policy of which they will take ownership and be more likely to follow. Once developed, the plan should be posted in advance of using cell phones in the classroom. --------------------------------------------------------------------------
This article was collaboratively written by George Engel, Rob Griffith, Scott Newcomb, Lisa Nielsen, Jason Suter, and Willyn Webb using Google docs. For information about each of the authors
visit texting teacher biographies.


  1. Entrepreneurs are introducing technologies that provide a platform for social networks, user-focused learning, and real-time participation. Will this disruption occur from the bottom up or top down?

    MIT/Stanford VLAB presents: De-Classifying Education - How entrepreneurs are expanding the boundaries of global learning beyond the classroom (

    Come network with our panelists: * Lisa Petrides, ISKME * Sal Khan, Khan Academy * Glen Moriarty, Nixty * Osman Rashid, Kno * Phil Bronner, Novak Biddle

  2. Using cell phones in the classroom can definitely be a powerful way to get important concepts across that were previously more difficult to accomplish. Thanks for this practical information! I will pass it on.

  3. Thanks for the useful guide to getting started with these devices in a classroom. They can be a powerful tool if learning activities are well thought out and well planned. I have posted about it on my blog ( hope to continue the dialogue that you have started here.

  4. Great post! This is a great resource for my teachers - we are in a district that has begun to embrace the concept of "Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT)", and cell phones are a big part of that.

    I think that over the next decade, we'll see a move away from district-provided, large computing devices (desktops and even laptops) and move more towards the smaller and the personal - iPads, phones, netbooks, tablets, etc. This is causing such a huge revolution in education, teachers who want to remain employable, effective, and relevant really have no choice but to keep up with the changes.

    I plan to share this article and many of the links in it with my teachers.

  5. What about parents without cell phones? Wouldn't they be left out of the process? Doesn't this create a larger divide between have's and have not's? Coming from a very rural area with limited cell phone service and low socio-economic status among many families, using a cell phone for communication between home and school would eliminate a significant percentage of parents from the 'information loop'.

    As far as using cell phones in the classroom, we do not have cell coverage in the school. For urban schools where all students have phones, coverage is consistent and available, perhaps some of these ideas have merit.

    For my school, trying to use cell phones as a consistent part of the school process would be impossible.

  6. @Cossondra George, great question. The point is at the very least we should embrace the technology that is the most ubiquitous in America today. In my book, there is more time devoted to what to do for households without access to cell phones. This includes connecting students who have the tech with those who don't, providing devices for students to share, connecting students with mentors or adults who could support their learning, providing opportunities at school and in the community for students to access technology before school, after school, during lunch.

    As far as your particular school community and not having access, I believe if we value student learning, providing access to connect outside our school is of utmost importance and partnerships need to be formed with service providers, community organizations, and education providers to ensure students are empowered with the resources they need to succeed. You can read about New York City's plan to bridge the digital divide through partnerships here

  7. Great advice. I like the idea of partnering with parents and students alike. Very useful advice on how to help raise these issues district-wide and help ease others into 21st century learning.

    I have some research information to share on teens and texting. I interviewed the top researchers around the world on this topic. Here's the site:

  8. This was very interesting! Giving cell phones a purpose within the classroom and educational value outside the classroom is excellent advice.

  9. Times are changing and educators need to use the tools that work the best even if that includes cell phones.


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