Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ideas for Enhancing Teaching and Learning with Cell Phones Even in Districts that Ban Them

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with colleagues interested in using cell phones to enhance teaching and learning in schools with a 21st century education focus. The question we explored was, "How can a school harness the power of tools that students already use and own (like cells)?"

This question is asked in the face of challenges including:
-Students are banned from bringing mobile devices to school
-Cells have a bad reputation as a distraction rather than an educational tool
-There are few well known and documented examples of cell phones being used to enhance teaching and learning
-Many teachers are not comfortable with classroom management issues that exist when students have cell phones in class

Despite the challenges, we came up with some smart ideas for beginning to incorporate these tools into teaching and learning in meaningful ways. The first thing to acknowledge is that while students in some districts are banned from using mobile technologies at school, teachers are not. This means that teachers have multiple opportunities to model and demonstrate best practices to students. The next thing to acknowledge is that few teachers have ever used cells or other mobile technologies as instructional tools so they need to develop comfort and experience doing so before trying to do this with their students. Next is that a great way to get students started in using mobile technologies as educational tools can be by incorporating them into their homework. This takes away two of the basic challenges: 1) Overcoming the ban obstacle. 2) Overcoming possible teacher discomfort with classroom management issues around mobile technologies.

Here are ten ideas for innovative educators and school leaders interested in allowing students to use mobile technologies to enhance learning.

  1. Establish (or become) an innovation facilitator at your school responsible for helping to spearhead the effort. Schools may consider having staff apply for this role, outlining benefits and responsibilities
  2. Provide hands on, concrete instruction on using mobile technologies to enhance education. You may want to consult with experts like Liz Kolb, Will Richardson, Tony Vincent, or Marc Prensky who have published books, and articles and can work with you, your teachers, students, and parents to learn ways to use mobile technologies to engage learners.
  3. Start small with concrete ideas that will not overwhelm your colleagues. For ideas visit:
    o Using Google as an Educational Tool Right From Your Phone!
    o Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning
    o Ideas for Using Cells in Education
    o Resources for Enhancing Education with Cells
    o Texting 101:Craik students using cellphones in classroom
  4. Integrate the use of mobile technologies into units of study and lessons
    o This can be collected on a wiki and shared with the community
    o Use the Unit tech integration tool to support teachers in thinking about how to incorporate technology
  5. Establish an acceptable use policy with students and teachers
    o http://www.wiredsafety.org/safety/chat_safety/phone_safety/index.html
  6. Deliver a school launch for students, teachers, and parents. The launch could include:
    o An exciting program overview including goals and expectations
    o An overview of acceptable use, educational value, and expectations
    o Educational activities that introduce students to ways they can begin using their personally owned technology devices to support learning
  7. Launch considerations
    o Consider integrating the use of technology as an instructional tool outside the school day. This enables schools to avoid any issues of bans on devices and enables teachers to become comfortable integrating this work, while internalizing the need and not worrying about classroom management issues. If your district has a ban in place this gives you time to address that.
  8. Parent Coordinator Collaboration
    o Provide a train the trainer for parent coordinators who can provide training for parents of project students and agree to deliver this training across the year to parents.
  9. Online/On demand Support
    o Work with students to video tape and post tutorials online.
  10. Online Resources
    o The article What Can You Learn from a Cell Phone? Almost Anything!
    o The book: Toys to Tools – Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education
    o The blogs: Cell Phones in Learning and Learning in Hand
    o The website: Learning in Hand (educator's resource for using handheld computing in schools)
    o The wiki: Cell Phones in Learning

    o The network: Cell Phones in Education Network providing a vehicle for ongoing conversation and support.
    o The post: Electronic Devices In Schools: PLEASE Allow For Teacher Autonomy
    o The collection: mLearnopia: The Latest from Mobile Learning


  1. Very, very interesting! I'm in the corporate world - not the K12 world - and I can see some exciting ways to incorporate the ideas you've shared here.

    Thanks for a post that contains solid design ideas.

  2. How do you overcome alienating students who do not have cell phones? That said, it seems like a great idea and a great way to use resources that are already present to bring learning in hand to the classroom.

  3. @nickhirt100 great question! I think the first thing you should do is try this with kids and see what kind of answers they come up with. In the meantime, I'll quote Marc Prensky for this one, "For those who raise the scenario of technology breaking down, or of someone’s forgetting, or not owning the tools, I remind those people of what we all do whenever we leave our watch at home, or when its battery runs down: we just ask someone else for the time. It is not doing this that would really seem “uneducated” in the twenty-first century." from http://theinnovativeeducator.wikispaces.com/file/view/Prensky-UsingCellPhonesForExams-OpEd-Australia(3).pdf

  4. @Sharon Boller Thank you! I do too and think many of the same lessons apply to adults and the corporate world as kids and education. I'd love to know some of the ways you are thinking.

  5. Seriously? A liaison for this? Yes phones are banned at many schools (as was passing notes when we were kids) and yes teachers need to learn to use them well and appropriately if they are to integrate any technology but no need to create so many hoops. Why not start simply by using them to do a poll at a staff meeting and letting those teachers who want to participate in the poll do so? Then let them trickle the use into their classrooms after giving them some suggested blogs/podcasts to explore such as Liz Kolb's work. As for the students that don't have a phone, no worries. Have them work in groups or those who have phones with unlimited texting can let others borrow their phone for the seconds it takes to send in the necessary response. Or look for apps that allow other ways of submitting a response like via landline or computer. It isn't about the technology, it's about the learning. Make sure those goals are clear first.

  6. Anonymous. Thank you for feedback. You have interesting points to respond to. Let’s start with your comment about cell phones bans being akin to banning notes when we were kids. It’s not. Banning cell phones is akin to banning paper and pen. That’s the difference. The tools (pen/paper) weren’t banned. The behavior was banned. You question having a liaison for this. This suggestion comes from my perspective as someone who launches programs across the largest school district in the country. If a single point of contact is established at each school (a.k.a. a liaison), you then have someone to share information with, invite to professional development, inform of upcoming opportunities, etc. This would not be the person’s only job of course. It’s not a hoop, but rather a method of assisting schools in making the layup into the hoop. Your idea about starting simple with a poll is a good one and is exactly the type of activity planning in launching this program. Same with the trickle idea as well as using Liz Kolb’s work which is the book I recommend in the post. Your suggestion about what to do for kids that don’t have phones is directly in alignment with my response to nickhirt100. Take a look. You might like the quote I share from Marc Prensky. Regarding your statement that it’s not about the tech, it’s about the learning. I agree, but we do need to focus attention on helping to infuse the 21st century tools that engage children today to support the learning because little of this is occurring in schools today. Great insight. Thank you for your contribution to the conversation.

  7. Thank you for the response. I agree with you, and your tenacity is a great encouragement. I am concerned that the socioeconomic rift that exists in the united states will only grow wider if we do not level the playing field for all students. If there are school systems that struggle to put books in the classroom while others are incorporating cell phones and laptops into the curriculum, we will be producing graduates with very different educations and in comparable capabilities. So while I like your quote, it is important to remember that on some buses, there may be no one who can afford a watch on the day you forget yours.(perhaps a bad example, but you get my point). That said, I do no believe these economic differences should slow or limit the progression of technology in the classroom, but rather that it should progress and there should be a demand for equal and adequate funding for all of our schools

  8. I also agree with what Nick said. What will happen with and to the students who do not have cell phones? Yes, a lot of children have cell phones, and I think that the ideas of having and putting them to use are excellent. But what happens with the chldren who don't have them? Would the school provide cell phones to those that don't have one?
    It goes along with the old saying,"if you can't beat them, join them!" I would love to hear more about this!

  9. I still don't agree with the rationale on banning cellphones... that they're a distraction, etc. etc. etc. Come on, there's nothing more distracting than a disastrous teacher in school without adequate lesson plans!

  10. Great idea! Let’s also integrate the mobile phone in class! Cool opportunity to take advantage of all its functionalities and apply them in the educational realm. Just as teachers did with TV a long time ago, right? and the video recorder too, I guess. Although we can’t forget to get to the core of how to use interactive whiteboards… oops, I almost forgot… computers, we have to fit them in somehow. Sheez… let’s sit back and think for a minute here. Do we really need all of this?

    Mobile phones and texting implement a very fast paced lifestyle and, although it is true texting has become part of students’ lives, why not consider school a break from that? Why does school have to be the continuation of what seems to be a very shallow form of communication. Why text your classmates when you can actually talk to them? Developing people skills is a fundamental aspect of school, don’t you think? Sure, some might say having a video recorder as inexpensive like that facilitates the creation of videos, but we’re not reinventing the wheel here… we’re actually going back to the introduction of video in class, something that has already been dealt with to some extent - the mobile phone is just a different form factor.

    What I think we, as teachers, should be worried about?

    Knowledge & Creativity. That’s all there is to it… how to use creativity to build knowledge. Am I oversimplifying??

  11. @ Tiago Tavares I think the reason educators such as yourself question this, may be because you have not had experience or professional development in effectively using technology with students to enhance learning. Why wouldn’t we want the world inside a school to prepare students to communicate, collaborate, connect, and have access to resources beyond school walls with the same tools that are prevelent in their daily lives outside of school? Why not teach students to harness the power of the technology tools they have to do more than just texting with their friends? Why limit supporting students with developing communication skills to just face-to-face with those that happen to be sitting in their same school rather than supporting them in connecting with those across the world who might share a unique interest? Why not allow students to use all tools accessible to them to demonstrate their knowledge and creativity and produce content and connect in ways that are not possible without it? A break here and there might be nice for some if they chose to take one, but forcing it upon students who have to power down to come to school and are screaming out “Engage me or Enrage me!” leads to disconnected students and educational settings that are disconnected from life outside the brick and mortar.

  12. Hi,
    My husband is a professor at a local college just outside of Birmingham and I was hoping to bring some
    people to the blog to give there thoughts and opinions on the educational resources I have been
    providing (both amateur and professional).
    It is (appropriately) named The Top Education Journal. You can visit it by going to
    I hope you decide to check it out, so far friends and colleagues have been very supportive. Thank you.