Friday, June 29, 2012

How an innovative educator became interested in mobile devices for learning

In September 2005 the decision to ban cell phones in New York City public schools was enacted. At the time policy makers saw cell phones as nothing more than a distraction and tool for academic dishonesty while parents viewed these devices as a lifeline to their children.

The “No Cell Phones” rule was strictly enforced with the help of the New York City Police Department, which was enlisted to conduct random sweeps, complete with metal detectors, and to confiscate technology from kids, many of whom were reduced to tears. There were educators on both sides of the issue.  Some were relieved by the policy but others not only trusted their students to behave responsibly, but also understood that cell phones could serve as powerful learning tools.  My friend and thought-leader, Marc Prensky was outspoken on the issue, explaining in his presentations and writing, “What Can You Learn from A Cell Phone? Almost Anything!”

In his blog, Weblogg-ed, my friend and mentor Will Richardson shares some important lessons students learned as a result of the ban.  
“First, the cell phone ban teaches students they don’t deserve to be empowered with technology the same way adults are. Second, the tools that adults use all the time in their everyday lives to communicate are not relevant to their own communication needs. Third, they can’t be trusted (or taught, for that matter) to use phones appropriately in school.” (June 1, 2007)
Despite the ban, I joined Richardson, Prensky, and other educators, parents, students, and even policy makers in being keenly aware that cell phones are an important part of the way kids communicate and learn. We know that if we don’t model and allow students to demonstrate the appropriate use of these technologies, for accessing information, for communicating, in safe, ethical, and effective ways, then we have no right to be surprised when our worst fears come true.

I was frustrated by the ban, and like the students and their parents, I felt powerless. However, while students couldn’t be empowered to use their technology in schools, what first inspired me to take notice of cell phones as learning tools was the day that I spent at the Google Teacher Academy. It was there that I learned about Google SMS, a tool I could use to harness anytime/anywhere without a computer, and without the Internet.  All that was required was the ability to text from my phone.  Exciting!  I could find definitions of words, translations of sentences, currency and measurement conversion, calculator functions, weather, and much more, all with just a basic cell phone.

Next up was when I attended Alan November’s Building Learning Communities conference.  I met up with other innovative educators after the first conference day and we spent an hour or two experimenting with ChaCha. Just text 242 242 on your phone and ask anything at all.  Wow! I thought.  With just a cell phone anyone could find out anything at all that they wanted to know. I saw this as a powerful tool for both teachers and students, many of whom had access to cell phones but not the Internet at home. It was then that I really recognized the power of cell phones as a tool that could help bridge the digital divide for students.

I began integrating the use of cell phones into my teacher professional development.  I showed teachers how they could use things like Google SMS and ChaCha and I also began using polling tools like Poll Everywhere, Text the Mob, and Wifitti.  Unfortunately, my excitement was not shared by everyone. A supervisor discovered I was allowing teachers to harness the power of cell phones and mandated that I refrain from using the banned student devices with teachers.  In 2008 it became a news story. The headline in the New York Sun read Despite School Cell Phone Ban, Course Sees Them as Aid. I was told I could teach the class, but that no one could use their cell phones!  

An expert at thinking outside the ban, while not thwarting outdated mandates, I didn't let that stop me. I used the Google SMS virtual phone and showed teachers how to use tools like Cha Cha and polling from their computers.  Then I explained all of this could be done with just cell phones as well. Teachers were empowered with ways to access knowledge and information through either a phone OR a laptop. They could use this knowledge for themselves and they could also model this for their students who may not have Internet at home, but might have access to cell phones.

Interestingly at the same time I was told I couldn't use real phones when teaching educators how to embrace their cells for learning, the Department of Education was working with Roland Fryer on  the Million Cell Phone program which provided thousands of cell phones to students as incentives for achievement in school.  When they heard of my work and direction, they brought me in to consult with them on how they could embrace the devices as instructional tools. Finally, we were empowered to use the devices in our pockets for learning with teachers, and students outside of school.  Progress!  

In 2009 it seemed we had taken another step back. The New York City Department of Education discontinued texting services for administrators which hindered our ability to build upon what we had started.  Not only were students not entrusted to use technology appropriately, but educational leaders were also suspect.  The lines of communication and strategies I had incorporated into my professional development were swept away in an instant.  

Many of us were frustrated, yet instead of accepting the ban, I worked to educate my superiors by sharing the ways we were using texting for educational purposes. I wrote an article explaining how cells could be used to enhance the work of educational leaders (these ideas are covered later in this book) that was shared both in my blog and in Gotham Schools, a local source for education news.  Good news! After sharing ways educational leaders were using texting to work more effectively, our texting ability was reinstated for those who indicated they were using cell phones for such purposes.

Today I embed the use of cell phones into the work I do with teachers and students.  At my training center I bring students and adults together in an environment of respect, trust, learning and we are a fully “No Ban Zone.”  I have seen first hand the excitement, creativity, and learning that occurs when adults and students are trusted and empowered to use the tools they choose. I’m not alone.  Educators across the world (many of whom you’ll hear about in this book) are harnessing the power of student-owned devices like cell phones for learning with great success.  

I believe we should empower school leaders, teachers, students, and their families to use the best tools they have available to them for learning. It is my hope to inspire others to not only think outside the ban but to work to break the bans that are unnecessarily and unfairly holding our 21st century children in the world of their teacher’s, leader’s, and policymaker’s pasts.  

Check out Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning for more ideas about thinking outside the ban to harness the power of student-owned devices for learning including policies, contracts, management ideas, and research.


  1. This is great stuff. You had a union to protect your job. It gave you greater flexibility than often exists in the independent school world. If you get too far outside of their box, they simply do not renew you.

  2. I remember in the 90s beepers were for drug dealers. That's what we were told. "Who else needs to be accessed so urgently?" Then cell phones came out and that too was for dealers. I started getting really jealous of these dealers. They had all the cool toys.

    Hopefully the new younger policy makers coming in will be more open minded. We have to educate them and you are doing a great job Lisa.

    I wonder why they don't ban a sharp #2 pencil? The most dangerous weapon of all!

  3. This pencil thing has got to go away. It is not clever or an an apt analogy.

  4. Governments ban mobile phones in education because school isn't about education, it's about molding citizens, Prussian Military-style. Having a device that can teach you stuff without having to sit in a prison and conform is a threat to the sovereignty of government that "Schule" imprints onto our developing psyches.