Monday, May 12, 2008

The Value of Using Cell Phones to Enhance Education and Some Concrete Ways to Do So

I am offering a class through the Office of Instructional Technology this Friday that among other things shows educators how to use Google SMS to enhance teaching and learning. When participants ask questions and colleagues (in this case the class facilitators) send emails like this one or this one that inquire why I offer a class informing educators how to use sms texting as an educational tool even though cell phones are banned in NYC schools, my answer is easy. I am fortunate to work in an office that believes in being leaders rather than followers in providing innovative support to educators. With technology changing at lightening speed, many of our educators don't yet know what it is they need to know in this vast and ever-changing 21st Century landscape and it is the responsibility of our office to help inform the educational community.

So, even though cell phones are banned (and I don't endorse not following a mandate), I promote teaching how technology tools can be used to enhance teaching and learning because we must prepare our students and teachers for the world of today, not the classrooms of yesterday. Even if our teaching is guided by certain mandates that cause the world inside school walls to be very different from the world students encounter after dismissal, part of our job as educators is to help prepare students to succeed outside the classroom. 

Once they leave the building many students plop down their 3 bucks to bodega owners to collect their stored phones and jump on social networks that they access outside of school on a filterless internet. (Note: Imagine what else that $15 a week could be used for: home internet, college fund, books???). If we don’t teach how banned and filtered technologies can be used then we are not empowering students to operate in safe, appropriate, and acceptable ways with or without technology whether inside or outside school walls.

Additionally, teachers need to experience, understand the educational value, and be comfortable with technology tools before using them to enhance teaching and learning. If we are exposing teachers to ways in to incorporate cells into the classroom, we are providing that teacher and classroom with tremendous power and access and an ability to model for students how to use a cell phone as a learning tool. At a recent school visit Will Richardson wowed students when he took out his phone and had them ask a question that they thought he wouldn’t know the answer to. After a few colorful attempts the question ended up being “What’s the population of Spain?” They watched as he sent a text message “Spain population” to 46645 (GOOGL) and got the answer back about 10 seconds later. Amazement ensued as Richardson showed them how they had the access to nearly any information they wanted in their cell phones…unfortunately they wouldn’t be able to reconnect with that learning until they handed
$3 over to the bodega owner who stored their phone while they were in school.

Some teachers I speak with think they have a case against using technology in education after they explain that if students have access to all this information they’ll be able to cheat on tests and other assessments. I tell these teachers that in a “Whole New Mind World” we need to begin engaging in “know where” (to find it) rather then “know what” (the answer is) teaching…meaning it is more important to teach students how to access any information rather than memorize it. Ideally they’ll do something with the information that is more meaningful and authentic then placing answers in a test booklet. The other big argument is about safety and that technologies such as cells can be used to coordinate fights or drug deals. Yes, this is true. This is one way they can do it, laptops are another, word of mouth is another. Perhaps one of the most popular ways of coordinating the details of a fight is communication via passing a paper note. However, educational technologist Alan November once shared an interesting observation. If students were passing inappropriate notes in school (about fights, cheating, or anything else) should schools ban paper???? Banning the tool rather dealing with the actions may not be the best option.

Educational gaming expert Marc Prensky joins me in encouraging educators to reconsider their view of using mobile technology—and to imagine a pedagogy that embraces this potential. Essentially small computers, cell phones can support language lessons, display animations of medical and chemical processes, be used for polling and testing, serve as the gateway to larger learning resources—and so much more.

He also explains to educators that in a Flat World, while U.S. educators are busy banning cell phones in schools, millions of students in China and Japan, the Philippines, and Germany are using their mobile phones (respectively), to learn English; to study math, health and spelling; and to access live and archived university lectures. Prensky shares that the average cell phone now a days has more computing power than many of the computers of 10 years ago. He goes on to ask, “how can we harness that power in education?” Below are some ideas.

10 Ideas for Using Cell Phones in Education
  1. Student response polling or pop quizzes (no need to invest in additional devices)
  2. Use sms to find definitions, currency conversion, math equations, translation and more
  3. Use as an internet browser to access endless information
  4. Research
  5. Read news articles and current events
  6. Read books
  7. Download and use education programs such as Google Maps and use as GPS
  8. Use as a digital or video camera to accompany school projects, publishing, etc.
  9. Educate students on appropriate and acceptable social use
  10. Use the voice technology to share engaging lectures or lessons
Here are a few places educators can visit to learn more about how to use cell phones to enhance teaching and learning.

5 Resources for Educators Interested in Enhancing Education with Cell Phones
1. See if your school district offers
classes like we do at the NYC DOE.
2. Read this article about
What Can You Learn From A Cell Phone? - Almost Anything! - How to use the 1.5 billion computers already in our students' and trainees' pockets to increase learning, at home and around the world
-Marc Prensky
3. Visit
From Toy to Tool – Cell Phones in Learning a blog dedicated to conversing on methods for integrating cell phones into classroom learning by Liz Kolb.
4. Access to a camera phone? Check out
8 Ways to use Camera Phones in Education by Jeff VanDrimmelen of
5. Check out this PowerPoint by Sharon Tonner about Mobile Phones In Education - Constructive Not Deconstructive!

  • Should we teach educators and students ways to unleash the educational value of technologies even if they may not be accessible in schools?
  • How will schools be impacted that are a part of Bloomberg’s pilot program that provides every student at certain schools with cell phones in an effort to increase student achievement? Should those phones just be seen as a reward and a tool to use after school or should those teachers and students have an opportunity to learn about, model, and implement ways to use these devices as powerful learning tools?
  • Should the decision of use of cell phones and other technologies be at the discretion of the mayor or should informed educators and building leaders be empowered to determine if they want to employ such a policy?
  • Should educators and students be encouraged to make an educational case for allowing various technologies to be used acceptably, appropriately, and educationally in schools?

Join the Conversation
Leave your comment on this blog.
Join the Classroom 2.0 conversation.
Join the New York Times Pogue's Posts conversation.

For further viewing visit
The Natives are Restless: Deneen Frazier, Educator/Actress
Take a uniquely entertaining and enlightening journey into the minds and hearts of today's digital natives. Using recent research, Deneen portrays a riveting cast of characters to reveal the students' struggle to connect what they do in school with what they do in the world.
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Who's Talking about this post?
The New York Sun
Despite School Cell Phone Ban, Course Sees Them as Aid

Read an administrator's opposition the district's cell policyAre We Still Talking About the Value of Cell Phones?


  1. Wow! you are brave to go against a cliché :) or traditional thinking, whatever they call it.
    I remember I learned English while my TV was showing movies in Russian :)
    I was born when TV was just getting into every household and I was one of the first multitaskers :):):)
    Now, my daughters cannot concentrate on their college work unless their music is playing and, of course, the phone must be next to the MP :) They read and speak at the same time. The quality of their work surprisingly is very good anyway, because their friends on the phone have an input into their work I assume :)
    Even my special ed students can multitask.
    My own phone is off and locked up when I am at work, but I am not proud, I am old fashioned :)

  2. Lisa-
    Now I have to say that you were the person who taught me about wikispaces, GoogleDocs and a whole bunch of other technological goodies. But you and I have discussed this issue before, and as a middle school principal, I have to respectfully disagree with you.
    Just because someone CAN learn from a device doesn't mean they WILL learn from a device. For example, I'm sure that a PSP portable featuring a game like Tetris COULD teach a student about eye-hand coordination, shape geometry and volume. But in real life, it would be a distraction, in direct competition with real learning that might be engaging but not PSP engaging.
    I'm for good ol' fashioned laptops as learning tools. If students have the need to communicate, MAYBE I could be convinced to allow gChat. But until I'm convinced that middle school teens will be learning something other than "whachu doin later?" from their friend across town, I'll be supporting the ban on cell phones.
    LOL ;>

  3. Thanks for joining the conversation Jason. We’ve debated this before and I agree with you…in part. I feel the same about cell phones and social networks in education as I do about laptops. I think a leader may be smart to ban the devices if teachers have not received the professional development that will enable them to know how to harness their educational value. Most educators in our classes had no idea cell phones or social networks could be used as powerful educational tools. I think teachers probably need 6 months to a year as users of these technologies in an educational way before they will be ready to use them with students. Once they see the value wouldn’t it be powerful if they came up with a project and also came up with an acceptable use policy co-created with students around using technologies like cell phones and social networks to enrich education? If you don’t buy into that, wouldn’t it be great for teachers to model and share best practices and the educational value of using these tools so students are prepared for the cell phoned, socially networked world outside of school? Check out some of the links on my post and challenge one of your teachers. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

  4. Way to use that voice Maria!

    I actually don't see myself as going against traditional thinking but rather as someone who is pushing educator's minds into a way of 21st Century thinking that they may not have been aware of. Once I expose educators to some new "ways of thinking" it is up to them to decide what they think will be best for preparing their students for the world into which they will graduate.

    I'm glad you've joined the conversation and I hope you learn a lot from doing so. I definitely have!

  5. Hi Lisa,
    I think that you, as a teacher of teachers, are engaging in a form of social constructionism. You are saying to your students (teachers, in this case) that the the world (i.e. the NYC school system) is not right and it needs to be changed. I think that's wonderful.

    Jason wrote that, "...until I'm convinced that middle school teens will be learning something other than "whachu doin later?" from their friend across town, I'll be supporting the ban on cell phones." The point is not what students WILL be learning, but WHAT they will be learning. Furthermore, if teachers learn how to use the cell phones to advance learning, students WILL be using the phones for learning.

    Unfortunately, lots of policies related to technology in education are made out of fear and naivete. If policymakers can't see or imagine the benefits, of course they'll see the negatives outweighing the positives. YOU are making the benefits known. Good for you!

  6. Hi Jon,
    I have no problem with exposing students to technology that has merit and I am in generally in favor of allowing students more access as opposed to less. I do think that when tools and sites are introduced in thoughtful ways students can learn responsibly.

    However, I think we have to think of the function of a cell phone. Its core purpose is to talk to someone else, to communicate. Just because companies have thrown on some bells and whistles, some of which have some redeeming educational value, doesn't mean that we should rush to make them a part of our curriculum.

    For example, Snapple puts trivia facts on the inside of their caps. Should we allow glass bottles with caffeinated and sugary beverages all over school because of the Snappucation kids can get? Or could we agree that the primary purpose of Snapple is to quench physical thirst, not the thirst of knowledge?

    My point is that if a kid sees a TV, they want to watch it. Gum? They want to chew. And phones? They want to talk, text, AIM, bleep....We already have enough things to work on. Convincing a 12-year old that their cell phone can be used to find the same fact that they could get on a Snapple cap doesn't interest me.


  7. Imagine that! Jason and Jon…two innovative leaders with differing and respectable views that may be pushed through conversations like these to change and grow over time. Perhaps such leaders should be left to making policy and in the meantime, teachers could still learn to harness the educational power of filtered and banned technologies and model responsible ways of doing so.

  8. interesting discussion here ... I do feel that the point is being missed a bit though. Much of the 'ills' associated with mobile technologies of any kind (be it myspace, chat/im, cell phone etc) are ethical and moral issues and nothing to do with the technology! If someone is a bully they are a bully - the medium, technological, verbal or whatever is not relevant - they are still a bully. We need to stop the bullying, not get obsessed with the medium.
    Cell phones are a fact of life. Are the staff allowed to have them at school? If so how fair is that ... what sort of message does that send? Do what I say but I will do what I like? I am in charge here and can do what I like - you have to do what you are told.

    I struggle with why teachers are so threatened by the technology. We embrace laptops but not cell phones, digital cameras but not ipods. What is the difference? 20 years ago the same arguments about laptops and calculators were being put up that are now used to argue against cell phones etc. Now we see them for what they are ... simply digital 'pen and paper'.

    We don't get all excited about kids using felt pens .... why should digital technologies be any different. My goal for tech in our school is that it is sufficiently integrated that no-one is irrelevant and simply part of the way we do things. "The pen and paper of our times" (Warlick I think?).

    Lisa - I do think if we wait for the PD with technology things will not happen. Technology moves too fast. Lets just get on and do it. What's wrong with kids leading the way .... Inquiry Learning ....?

  9. Greg,

    Well said. Thanks so much for joining the convo! I agree about not "waiting for PD." However, if it is available it unlocks a whole new world of possibilities for educators and empowers them to lead the way now that they know how to unleash the power of their device. When we teach this class, or even when I model using a cell as an informational tool at work or beyond...I see many lights go off and know that I've just forever changed the way a device can be used. Btw…I recently learned my Blackberry (with cell technology only) can be used as a GPS and provide detailed traffic updates and just about everyone else I know now has joined me in using their cell in this way too.

  10. On some level, what's wrong with "watcha doin?" There is nothing inherently bad about connecting. The problem comes with the choices kids make as to when to connect (and to some extent, how.) But where are the ethics of connection with phones being taught? Where do students gain context for their use of phones? And again, I'm not suggesting we create a cell phone unit. Cell phones are already and will continue to be an important part of the way kids communicate and learn. We should make them a part of how we do our business when appropriate and effective, and we should have hight standards or their use.

  11. check out at about 3minutes!
    great wee video and makes the point well about preparing children for their futures.

  12. I'd like to point out that cell phones are not banned at work, so why should they be banned at school? The answer might be that kids don't know when to use them for personal use and for school work. Let's teach them! They will have to deal with it sooner or later in the work place or get fired. If you can teach a child how to deal with a bully in school, why not teach him how to balance personal and school-related cell phone use.

    I think the big problem lies in educating the teachers. There are many choices in technology today which leads many to throw their hands up and stick to "the old fashioned way".

  13. @cbcsdtech, well said! In fact I’m sure many of us have colleagues who we wish had been taught to use cells appropriately before entering the workplace. I also agree that teacher education is key. Once the teachers know how to capture the power of these devices they can start doing so with their students.

  14. wow nice I think this is worth doing, teachers really don't really know that technology can really help. They should make a type of "school fone service" that lets you use your phone but your teacher has to approve who u are sending messages too.. well nice work keep going on :)

  15. My students blogged about this today. Thanks for a great article.

    Some responses:

  16. this is so true. If I only needed to read like 4 pages for homework, then I'd much rather read it off of pictures that I took on my phone then to take home a 1200 page book for a 15 minute homework assignment.

  17. Interesting... this is a software / GSM modem solution that can bolster new attitudes about cellphones, and how they can be used as homework assignment tools when students are away from campus. Teachers self register and create their own log in accounts. They create and schedule SMS tests (content) sent to their own cellular classrooms.

  18. Interesting... this is a software / GSM modem solution that can bolster new attitudes about cellphones, and how they can be used as homework assignment tools when students are away from campus. Teachers self register and create their own log in accounts. They create and schedule SMS tests (content) sent to their own cellular classrooms.

  19. Hi,

    I was thinking how to best use the cell phone for educational purposes as it is the cheapest source. Here I found the answer, yes we can very effectively use this cheap technology which is available all over. Our students are having, kids are having and I have seen in Pakistan that a little grocery vendor is on the cell phone. Why not use it for educational purposes.

  20. Hi,i am Daniel Tshwagong from Soweto in South Africa,one of the fast growing or developing country in the world.Its true that cellphones are forming a most intergral part of our learning and teaching.As an educator in Soweto we came to realise that learners,(who are already in possesion of cellphones,are far ahead in information and knowledge than most of us educators).Thus i feel that WE need to utilise these technological resources.

  21. Hi, as indicated before I am Dan Tshwagong, an educator from Soweto.I was initially a stereotype of a teacher who would not even once use any technological device whatsoever,but my life of teaching now lately has begun to be easier by use of cellphones and computers in class.So why cant you guys out there use them?Today i am an excellent FRENCH teacher due to the help i got from this technology

  22. In South Africa the education gap is increasing, but the cell phone gap is decreasing. We are looking into the use of cell phones to bridge the educational gap. The strategy is as follows:
    1-Develop a cell-based learner management sytem (LMS). The system is now entering bet testing.
    2-Adapt content for using on the cell phone. Trials have shown that there are distinct differences between cell-based, computer-based, and video-based education.
    3-Combine short learning areas with exercises and self tests, giving immediate feedback.
    4-Content needs to be curriculum based.

    If you'd like to see some of the research info and be part of the beta testing of the LMS, I would be pleased.

    Ian McDougall

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