Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Missing Piece in the NY Times Cellphone Story

Yesterday’s New York Times story about using cellphones in the classroom presented the usual pros and cons, but neglecting to provide a practical missing piece in the conversation. In the story, Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers complains,

“Texting, ringing, vibrating, cellphones so far haven’t been an educational tool. They’ve been a distraction.” Ms. Bass says it is “almost laughable that the cellphone industry is pushing a study showing that cellphones will make kids smarter,” particularly during a recession that is crushing the budgets of many school districts.

As I shared in the article Despite School Cell Phone Ban, Course Sees Them as Aid, the key is in professional development for teachers. Of course by and large, cell phones haven’t been used as an educational tool. The teachers have not received instruction on how to do so. I have collected some ideas for doing this in my post The Value of Using Cell Phones to Enhance Education and Some Concrete Ways to Do So. As I share in the post, and cellphone guru Liz Kolb often shares in her http://www.cellphonesinlearning.com/ blog, a great way to have teachers see the value of cells and begin using them as an educational tool is to assign their use for homework. This way they’re not a distraction in class as teachers begin learning to use them, policies aren’t broken, and teachers can see if student achievement and engagement are increased. If you can’t imagine how these devices can be valuable, read my 20 Ideas for Using Cells in Education.

Ms. Bass also admonishes the cellphone industry for pushing devices during a recession crushing school budgets. Apparently an education in finance and economics would also serve Ms. Bass well. Cells are the most ubiquitous technology available in the U.S. This is an answer to the budget crises. No purchase necessary.

The article sites how the students used the phones for a variety of tasks, including recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site, where classmates could watch. It also points to the Digital Millennial study that found that students with the phones performed 25 percent better on the end-of-the-year algebra exam than did students without the devices in similar classes. It’s a bit difficult for educators to turn the other way with results like this.

One of the readers who commented on the NY Times piece says it best,

I wonder how teachers in 1970 would respond if asked, "I have a device that is cheap enough all of your students could have one of their own that allows free access to the wealth of all human knowledge, places more information in their pocket than exists in the entire school library, the ability to communicate with almost anyone, and the ability to get answers from experts in all areas of study. Do you want your students to have these devices in your classroom?"
— Carl Anderson, Rochester, MN


  1. Isn't there a lot of buzz about the future morphing of cell phones and laptops? For folks to have one mobile device? I am always texting googl for quick answers.

  2. @Liz, Thank you for the thumbs up!
    @booksRULE, Yes! That is exactly the point. There is little to no difference between cells and laptops today so we are essentially laying the foundation for politicians to ban technology in schools rather than trusting school administrators, staff, parents, business, community, etc. to make decisions on what tools best serve their students.

  3. I don't deny that cell phones can be a valuable tool in education, but, while many - maybe most - of my students own or carry cell phone, not all of them do. How do you foresee them being used? Or rather distributed? What about students who cannot afford the phone or the airtime to use the Internet?
    I would actually think that school's investing in mobile devices like the ipod touch, where students can hook up into the school's wireless connection (and still gain the skills in using a mobile device) as a more practical though not as affordable an option.

  4. @Elk, as I recommend in my post and Liz Kolb recommends in her blog and book, I would suggest that cell phones are first used outside of school to support instruction. As Marc Prensky asks, “Should we deprive the majority of students because a small minority doesn’t have access?” Prensky has several suggestions for getting students who need access which you can read about at http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky-Lets_Be_Digital_Multipliers-ET-01-09.pdf. Suggestions include, borrowing (from friends, family, mentors, etc.), setting up places for learning where technology is available in the school, library, with community partners, etc. If the day could come when schools would follow in the footsteps of Presbyterian Ladies' College (http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/phone-a-friend-in-exams/2008/08/19/1218911717490.html) where students use phones to enhance learning, schools could invest in a small number of phones for students without access, perhaps even through a partnership or grant with a phone company…or, students can share.

    The wireless connection suggestion, while good in theory, is usually flawed in reality as few schools have the infrastructure and bandwidth to support a large number of students online wirelessly. This can be done much more reliably with the phones already sitting in the pockets of many students.