Tuesday, June 22, 2010

5 Steps to Harnessing the Power of Cells in Education Today

I often get emails like this one from a teacher interested in harnessing the power of cell phones, but believing she can't.
Unfortunately, I will not be using cell phones with my students because: 1. My district bans them and 2. my 4th grade students don't have them. I would love to have access to cell phones especially for things like PollEverwhere, but at this point it isn't going to happen.
Even teachers like this can begin harnessing the power of cell phones to enrich teaching and learning starting now...even if they're banned, even if your students don't all have them, and even if you haven't done anything in advance to prepare introducing them into your class. You can begin today by following these five steps which you can implement in your own classroom as well as share with administrators and other teachers so they can begin doing the same.

The five steps are:
  • Step One: Teacher Use of Cell Phones for Professional Purposes
  • Step Two: Teacher Models Appropriate Use for Learning
  • Step Three: Strengthen the Home-School Connection with Cell Phones
  • Step Four: Students Use Cell Phones for Homework
  • Step Five: Students Use Cell Phones for Classwork
Guide to taking your first steps...

Step One: Teacher Use of Cell Phones for Professional Purposes

Remember, just because some schools and districts ban students from using cell phones, this does not apply to teachers. Begin harnessing the power of your own cell phone today as an instructional tool.

Three Ideas for using cell phones for professional purposes.

  • Use Polleverywhere to conduct staff surveys that would be useful and interesting to share with students and the school community.
  • Use Twitter and have the updates feed into your class or school blog, website, or wiki to reinforce the home/school connection and build class/school pride.
  • Set up Google Voice to serve as your personal secretary who will transcribe your messages and enable you to easily share with others.

Step Two: Teacher Models Appropriate Use for Learning

Once you're comfortable using your cell phone as an instructional tool, you can begin modeling best practice and instructional use of cell phones to your students. Let them see ways they might consider using their phones to support instruction.

Three Ideas for modeling appropriate use of cells for learning

It goes without saying then when modeling appropriate use of cells you do not have your phone ring or make any type of noise not related to instruction. With that as a given, here are three ideas.
  • Model for your students how you use your cell phone to support your work using the phone for basic features like alarm clock, calendar, calculator, stop watch, note taking.
  • Demonstrate how you can use your phone to gain information instantly using Google SMS or ChaCha.
  • Use your cell phone as a camera often to capture student work and events and load them to Flickr so they can be embedded in your class or school website, wiki or blog.

Step Three: Strengthen the Home-School Connection with Cell Phones

Cell phones provide a terrific means for connecting with student's parents, family, and guardians. Begin using phones to develop and strengthen those relationships. This provides a foundation and helps develop understanding around the benefits and value of cell phone use in general and later for use with students. The first thing you want to do is get a list of phone numbers from your student's parents, guardians, and/or family members. Once you do that there are many ways to use cells to support the home school connection.

Three Ideas for using cells to strengthen the home school connection

  • Use group texting through your phone provider or through a service like Swaggle to send out reminders to parents.
  • Show parents/families/guardians their thoughts and opinions matter. Poll them or request open response using a tool like Polleverywhere.
  • Text home to celebrate student success or reach out via text if there is an area of concern. This can be done quickly with minimal disruption to either party.

After you've introduced some parents to ways cell phones can streghten the home-school connection, you might want to consider holding a workshop showing them how they can use cell phones as an educational tool to support student learning. If you do, invite some students to help you plan and deliver the workshop.

Step Four: Students Use Cell Phones for Homework

Before using cell phones in your classroom with students, begin giving students the option to use cell phones to complete their homework. This gives the teacher the opportunity to allow students to use cell phones for learning without classroom management concerns. This also gives students experience in using cell phones for learning. In most cases students can do the same work on a cell that they can on a laptop so if they have easier access to one over the other at different times they can choose what works best for them on that particular evening. Especially in families with limited technology resources, providing these sorts of options helps break down the digital divide. Suddenly the amount of technology available to a student for learning has increased dramatically.

Three Ideas for enabling students to use cell phones for homework
Using cell phones to enrich learning makes a lot of sense for schools and districts that ban students from using personal learning devices at schools and enables educational leaders interesting in changing policy to gain some evidence of how these tools can benefit student learning.
  • Use ChaCha to connect your students to a free network of thousands of guides who can help them when they get stuck and/or have no one around to help.
  • Have students do their oral reports using Google Voice. If they don't like how they sounded the first time, they don't have to send the message. They can re-record until they have something with which they are happy.
  • Test prior knowledge of a unit your class is about to study and use Wifitti to have students share one thing they know about the subject.

Step Five: Students Use Cell Phones for Classwork

Once you, your students, and their parents/guardians/families have become comfortable using cell phones as instructional tool and if your school or district empowers classroom teachers to make instructional decisions, you are ready to begin allowing students to harness the power of cell phones for learning. The first thing you'll want to do, even if your district or school has a policy is discuss acceptable use with students. Using a tool like Wiffiti or Polleverywhere may be a smart way to capture student ideas on acceptable use. You can have them contribute outside of school and once all students agree to the ideas shared they can sign a contract with a link to the resource containing the policies to which they developed and agreed. In many cases you'll find student rules and consequences are more stringent then those outlined in the school or district policy, but it's written in language everyone can understand. The results can be posted on the classroom or school website as well.

Now you're ready to begin using these devices in your classroom in much of the same way students have become accustomed to using the devices at home. You may however take this a step further and ask students to participate in designing their learning. You'll be surprised on what they might come up with if you lay out what it is you want them to learn.

Three Ideas for Empowering Students in the Use of Cell Phones for Learning
  • You're going on a field trip. Ask students to determine how they might want to use cell phones to meet the learning goals of the trip using tools most phones have. They may decide to Tweet for a scavenger hunt, send reflections to Wifitti or capture pictures with captures to Flickr.
  • You're about to learn about a new country or explore your own neighborhood. Ask students for ideas to meet learning goals using their cells. Have them use Google SMS to collect data about the area.
  • Students are asked to share how hard work impacted someone influential in their lives. Invite them to use cell phones if they'd like. Perhaps they use a Voki character with a phone to record their voice. Maybe they'll suggest a Drop.io account is set up where the subject and people s/he knows can share experiences. Perhaps they set up a Google Voice account to capture responses.

A sensible approach

Educators and administrators open to bridging the digital divide and empowering students (and themselves) to use the tools they have access to personally and/or in their homes are encouraged to start on this 5-step plan today. The plan provides a progression that enables educators to sensibly use technology for learning in a way that will make sense for students, members of their household and teachers themselves.

Starting with the instructional leader, the classroom teacher, use these tools to enhance personal productivity is a non threatening way to begin this process in a way that will pay off quickly and save time. Once the classroom teacher has comfort using the device they can begin modeling use for their students. As students see their teacher(s) using cells as an instructional tool it begins to make sense as a learning tool for themselves. Especially when they know their teachers use it to connect with those who care for them. At this point it's a natural progression to provide cells as an option for learning away from school. For those teachers who are fortunate enough to be empowered to make instructional decisions for their classrooms, they are now ready to start partnering with students to meet learning objectives with the tools they love. Students help their teacher develop rules and consequences and then not only will students be motivated and engaged, but schools will have a plethora of resources available to their students at no extra cost. Everyone wins!


  1. What a breath of fresh air this article is. I've long held the belief that we are not winning the war of "NO PHONES" in the classroom, so why not turn it around and use it for educational purpose, makes sense, 'doesn't it'?

    It's the old question, how do we get those in charge of the rulse to look the other way while an innovative teacher proves that they don't need to bash their heads against the wall!

    Great to see this article, and hope you don't mind, but I've added it to my Moodle site in the public viewable section?


  2. While I love this article and these basics for cell phone use, are you aware that there is already an award-winning mobile learning platform available for single time content creation and delivery to mobile devices and educational touchpoints such as iPhone, iTouch, iPad, Desktop, Laptop, net book, Android, BlackBerry, and more?

    As you are truly an Innovator in Education, I would love to tell you more about the product SIIA (the Software Industry Information Association) called the Most Innovative Product in Education for 2010 - Mobl21 from Emantras!
    You can find more information at www.mobl21.com or reply with a way for me to contact you directly to set up a demo of this outstanding product.

  3. Unfortunately some students will not have cell phones with as many capabilities as others. For instance, many students will not have internet access from their phones. The last thing teachers should do is create an environment for students where they go home and say 'I need a fancy cell phone and a data plan so I can participate in class.' That's expensive, and it makes kids feel like they are less priviledged than others when they can't have those tools.

    These cell phone tips may work with wealthier, suburban schools, but many schools will find cell phones in classrooms becomes a mini class struggle.

  4. @Anonymous, the plan and the ideas I share on my blog and upcoming book are specifically directed at lower-income families, not just wealthy, suburban schools. Did you know that text-enabled cell phones are the most ubiquitous interactive digital device in such households? Even if they don't have money for voice minutes, they often have a texting plan. In many cases it's their only communication lifeline. All the activities I share, help to bridge the digital divide for even in homes without internet, there most always is at least one cell phone with texting, and that's all that is necessary.

    Another point to be made is that we shouldn't deprive children of harnessing the power of technology just because a few don't have any access whatsoever. We need to figure alternatives for those students. Perhaps they can connect with a classmate. Business or community partnerships. Checking a device out of school.

    Just saying no is the easy way out, but it's ethically and morally the wrong thing to do.

    Harnessing the power of the tool that almost every home has or can find access to will help bridge the digital divide like never before and bring access not only to those wealthy suburban families, but also those from the inner-cities like where I work as well.

  5. This is a good article, thanks for posting.

    While searching youtube for how to integrate studying and technology, I came across a video called StudyBoost.com - Study Using Instant Messaging. Even thou I haven't seen it in action, since it launches in January, it does sound promising.