Monday, January 2, 2012

3 Ways to Use Cell Phones to Enrich Learning for Students with Special Needs

Guest post by Willyn Webb | Cross posted at Teaching Generation Text

Cell phones open a new world of tools that can be accessed and used for adaptations required by students with special needs.  Simple voice mail messages using Google Voice, texting, WeTxt notes, pictures to Flickr, Voki, GoogleSMS translator and any other tool depending on the phone are ways to assist students orally, visually, physically without any negative stigma.  Students love their phones.  They are an acceptable, even cool, device offering a variety of input and output capabilities.  Students and staff are already familiar with cell phone functions and how to use them.  This is adaptive aid with little or no cost to the school.  Not only for school use, but outside of school and into the world of work, cell phones can be used by students to serve special needs. 

Here are 3 ways to support special needs with cell phones.

1.  Classroom Story- Texting   
Gerald is a twenty year old student with cerbral palsy and hearing loss.  Gerald has a reading and math level of 5th grade.  With one arm not fully functional, he uses a word processor or scribe as needed.  He does not want either one of those options.  He was down to only needing to finish his Civics class to graduate, but he was stalling out and not making any progress.  He was in my counseling office continually upset over social issues, many of which involved text messages back and forth with peers.  I watched a couple of texts get sent while I took a phone call and he waited.  I realized that he could text one handed at an amazing speed.  So I talked to his Civics instructor and got it approved that he text in the answers to the review questions at the end of each chapter.  This resulted in an amazing transformation.  Gerald's depressed state became positive, hopeful and outgoing.  His progress through the remainder of the Civics class was steady.  He was able to complete the class on time and graduate, all thanks to texting.

He just sent the notes to my email, but since we have used notebook features through wetxt and celly that create a record of students’ texted notes that can be organized and searched.

2.  Classroom Story - Voki
A student suffering from extreme shyness was struggling in my Freshman English class.  We were doing oral reports and I knew she would be terrified.  Because she was an English language learner, the language barrier itself would make the assignment extremely challenging.  However, I wanted her confidence to grow and her oral language skills to be practiced and improved.  So, I set her up with a Voki and let her start calling the Voki number on her cell phone and saying her oral report, then listening to the Avatar say it back, and re-recording as needed.  She practiced her language skills repeatedly, made edits, and improved her report each night.  After about a week, she told me she was ready.  Her Voki gave her report to the class (and was shared with her parents and on the school wiki).   By the next oral presentation unit, after practicing on her voki, she gave her report to the class herself.  She gained practice, repetition, learning, confidence, pride, success, etc, all thanks to calling her Voki on her cell phone.  The ESL teachers jumped on this and all of their students are using their phones to practice their oral language skills, listening skills, and improving!

3.  Classroom Story - Flickr
We have limited electives at Delta Opportunity School, a new alternative high school.  Art is the only “elective” class we offer as most students earn their elective credits through work study.  Alex loved art, but was unable to do any of the projects due to some fine motor problems.  However, he wanted to take the class.  We thought about having him do art with pictures, find art in the community that were examples of the projects and create a slide show.  However, the family did not own a camera and we were nervous to let him use the school camera because we have no budget to replace it if something were to happen.  But, he did have a cell phone provided to him by our Student Work Alliance Program (SWAP-a program for SPED students through voc-rehab money).  The phone had a camera and we taught him how to take pictures and then send them to the Flickr address for the account he set up for art.  The subject of the message became the picture’s title and the message became the caption.  He could create a slide show through his phone (his one hand was able to text-a feat he had achieved on his own due to a strong desire to communicate with friends).  His final project was just as wonderful as all the others and he was very proud.

For more ideas about effective ways to use cell phones for learning, including research-based strategies, lessons, and more order Teaching Generation Text.


  1. Some teachers resist cell phone use in class because they think of it as a phone. Yes, those devices can be used as phones, but they are much more powerful than that, as you have explained here. Thanks for an insightful post.

  2. Teachers need to stop keeping students as prisoners of the past and provide them with the freedom to learn with the tools they own and love. A primary function of school is supposed to be socialization however, some teachers do everything in their power to prevent young people from socializing with the technology of the day.

    Hopefully teachers will update outdated practices and stop fighting and start embracing the tools of the world in which they are supposed to be preparing students.