How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom

| May 10, 2012 | 72 Comments
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A.P. Chemistry students use their cell phones to answer their teacher's question.

When we talk about using cell phones in class, we’re not just talking about using cell phones in class.

The idea of mobile learning touches on just about every subject that any technology addresses: social media, digital citizenship, content-knowledge versus skill-building, Internet filtering and safety laws, teaching techniques, bring-your-own-device policies, school budgets.

At its core, the issues associated with mobile learning get to the very fundamentals of what happens in class everyday. At their best, cell phones and mobile devices seamlessly facilitate what students and teachers already do in thriving, inspiring classrooms. Students communicate and collaborate with each other and the teacher. They apply facts and information they’ve found to formulate or back up their ideas. They create projects to deepen their understanding, association with, and presentation of ideas.

In the most ideal class settings, mobile devices disappear into the background, like markers and whiteboards, pencil and paper – not because they’re not being used, but because they’re simply tools, a means to an end. The “end” can be any number of things: to gauge student understanding of a concept, to capture notes and ideas to be used and studied later, to calculate, to communicate, to express ideas.

WHEN IT WORKS

In Ramsey Musallam’s A.P. Chemistry class at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, cell phones are a natural extension of the way he communicates with his students.

As soon as kids walk in, Musallam sends out a text blast through Remind101, asking them a challenge question that’s related to the day’s lesson. “First person to tell me the units on K for a second order reaction gets chocolate,” he types and sends off. His students know he does this regularly, so they’re constantly anticipating the question during the day, in and out of class.

“Sure, that’s kind of cute,” he says, admitting that it can be seen as gimmicky. “But more importantly, in my mind that’s saying, ‘You’re carrying around something that I can contact you with.’ It’s a fun ways to stay motivated in our day, which can be pretty dry sometimes. It’s a chance to think about what we’re learning outside the context of state testing.”

“I want it to be as rich and as visual as possible. I want them to see things, not just know it.”

Once the class settles in and things are rolling along, the steady hum gets louder when kids are excited or working together, then quieter again when they’re working out problems on their individual little whiteboards (to be clear, these are not digital).

Musallam constantly walks around, sending out directives – “Write the answer on your table!” ““I want you guys to come up with an answer now, and text it in,” “What’s the ridonculous choice out of all these answers here?”

Students work in groups, and when they have a question, they call him over. He arrives with iPad in hand and records his voice and his writing on the iPad, which he immediately uploads to the class website so other students can benefit from the explanations instantaneously. (This, by the way, is another form of flipped teaching, he says.)

“This way, if I need to explain a common question, everyone can access it,” he says. “I don’t have to repeat myself going from group to group.” But rather than stop what everybody else is doing so he can explain a concept, students can watch the video he just created if they need to. “I’ll just tell them to look at the online tutorials to find out about common questions,” he says.

Ramsey Musallam considers the online poll reflecting his students' answers.

During class, he asks students to take a multiple-choice quiz and send in their answers through a poll on their cell phones. The students’ votes are immediately displayed on the projector that’s hooked up to Musallam’s laptop.

This is key, Musallam says, because seeing the answers that get the most votes makes a big impression on his students. “If they all held up note cards that said their answers — A,B,C or D — the visual of the ‘distractors’ [the wrong answers] wouldn’t be as  powerful,” he says. “And this makes the experience more immediate. I want it to be as rich and as visual as possible. I want them to see things, not just know it.”

Musallam can list a litany of reasons why and how mobile devices spice things up in class. “The data integration wouldn’t be as rich, the experience wouldn’t be as dynamic, the cognitive load is higher,” he says.  But even though all but one of his students have cell phones and use them for polling and instantaneous quizzing, it’s clear that they would be just as rapt in the classroom activities without them; they’re not necessarily fixated on the fact that they’re using cell phones or that they’re seeing instantaneous results of their polls. Their eyes and ears are on him.

What makes Musallam’s class an interesting case study is that his teaching practice is based on a specific technique: he incorporates peer-instruction and inquiry-based learning, mirroring Harvard professor Eric Mazur. The videos and polls just help support that.

“I’m using it in the context of peer instruction, which is research based. You get anonymous feedback, which is great, and kids see all that information condensed,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just cute and fun and that wears off. But much more often, it’s more efficient and meaningful, and it makes the classroom feel like a bigger place.”

Seventh-grade history teacher James Sanders, who teaches at Kipp San Francisco Bay Academy, makes the analogy of the cell phone as a tool being used in a modern-day shop class: It makes things a lot easier.

As Mussallam writes on the iPad, it's being shown on the projector.

Though every student in his history class has a Google Chromebook, only 60 percent have what he calls “smarter” phones, and many have iPod Touches. So he has students work in groups of three or four.

Using Socrative, an app that shows real-time poll results for both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes, he challenges his students at the end of class to answer specific questions in order to get a broad look at whether they understood the concepts discussed that day.

But with subjective topics like world history, and a challenge like “Write one or two sentences why the Aztec Empire fell,” how can students convey a deep, meaningful understanding in just a couple of sentences?

“Writing concise paragraphs explaining complex concepts is incredibly powerful,” Sanders says, adding that the class also works on research papers and projects around historical characters in addition to these short polls.

The tool also allows students to read each others’ responses, which allows for a “deeper level of analysis,” he says. “I can ask them to write their answers on paper, submit it, review it myself, and then choose one or two to highlight in class, but the idea of having these tools is that it augments our skills as teachers. To be able to ask a question of 30 students and get response instantaneously just speeds up the learning process, rather than waiting for individual students to respond.”

IS IT WORTHWHILE?

But for every teacher who’s able to seamlessly integrate cell phones and other mobile devices, there’s another who doesn’t see the transformation as easily. Paul Barnwell, who now teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, decided to stop using cell phones in class after giving it a go with an eighth-grade class.

Barnwell bucked the school’s policy and used Poll Everywhere for both multiple-choice and open-ended exit poll questions. About three-quarters of the students had cell phones at the time.

“Writing concise paragraphs explaining complex concepts is incredibly powerful.”

“The kids were pumped up to use their taboo devices,” he says. “After a few trials, they quickly understood how to submit their answers, and the engagement factor was high since their responses popped up onto the projected screen.”

But he was uneasy with excluding those who didn’t have a phone or the ability to text. And, he said, some of the “class clowns” took advantage of the anonymity of the polling to text inappropriate statements.

“I decided it wasn’t worth the time or the hassle,” he says.

Barnwell doesn’t like the idea of letting students Tweet information to a common address and hasn’t found an application that “promotes efficient ‘best practice’ yet. “But I’m also not seeking it out,” he says, adding that because he’s got 10 desktop computers in his current class, students can use them for research projects and looking up facts online.

Barnwell hasn’t given up completely on cell phones, though. “If I can plan a lesson to ensure that high-level thinking is encouraged and greater participation, I might try phones again,” he says. “As far as polling and other simple uses, I see little benefit at this point. I can’t stand how most teenagers thoughtlessly and even belligerently use Twitter.”

TEACHING DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP

It’s not uncommon for kids to use cell phones for inappropriate behavior at school. But some believe that when students misuse the devices at school, teachers must step in.

“It’s our responsibility as educators to teach kids how to interact with the world,” Sanders says. “Those interpersonal human conversations are incredibly valuable.”

Cell phones are just another tool, like pen and paper.

At Sacred Heart, where Ramsey Musallam teaches, the school’s cell phone policy is shifting, as they try to sort out their social policies.

“Right now, kids can’t use cell phones unless a teacher instructs them, but that’s evolving,” says principal Gary Cannon. But if kids are using them to take pictures, they’re not reprimanded by faculty.

The staff fully recognizes that the cell phone is just a tool. Twitter and texting are just tools used to say or do what might happen in the hallways and dining halls regardless.

“The challenge is giving them a sense of a digital footprint,” Cannon says.

For Musallam, that’s all part of how he sees his job as an educator.

“I’m here to serve my students,” he says. “If we can leverage cell phones in a way that’s meaningful, I’m going to do it.”

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  • http://twitter.com/jmergy Jonathan Mergy

    Recommend PollEverywhere as well. http://www.polleverywhere.com We have used it in Assemblies (450+ students) too with great results. 

    • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Psbarnwell

       Jonathan, an assembly is one thing, where students aren’t expected to be fully engaged in rigorous thinking.  In the classroom, it’s a gimmicky tool.

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  • Gericar

    A perfect example of how it is hard to get through the day without a good justification…..and how you can find research to justify pretty much anything you might want to do. How about some social science on what is happening to the people who make this endless stream of technogadgets…….and some econ on how you can make something for pennies and sell it to gullible people who then get addicted to it….and who actually benefits from our inability to talk to people wthout a plastic intermediary…and I love the Big Brother aspect, that’s good too.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/michael.caruso.79 Michael Caruso

      This woman sounds amazing!!!

  • G Dog

    Idiotic.  It just legitimizes their addiction to their phones.

    • Fishbrain

       Your attitude and your view of the devices as merely “phones” reveal what a dinosaur you are. Welcome to the new world–your old one is dead.

      • ur momma

        u r smart fishbrain

    • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Psbarnwell

       G Dog, I agree with you.  Kids need less screen time, not more, as the balance of our lives is steadily shifting away from having some moments of true attentiveness, focus, and quiet thinking to a constant state of distraction.

    • Mikey P

      Even as an adult I’m addicted to my phone, however, my addiction is on information. What’s wrong with wanting to learn more when the need to Google search within a day seems necessary.

  • KRockwell

    Try looking at Schoology.com

  • KRockwell

    Try looking at Schoology.com

  • Me

    My issue is that they are using an AP class as an example.  How is a standard or remedial class going to be able to handle the responsibility of staying focused and on track while they are allowed to have their phones out??

    • Lily

      standard shouldn’t be allowed to use the phones. they don’t have the personal goals that ap and honors students have. I am not saying that they are less addicted to their phones, but they certainly have the drive to succeed in life. plus, its an incentive in kids in lower classes to do better. 

    • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Psbarnwell

      Disclaimer:  I’m the teacher quoted in the article who is hesitant to fully embrace mobile gadgets and constant connectivity in the classroom.  And I also teach remedial and low-tracked high school students.  You’re right to point out that it is, indeed, a major struggle to have lower-functioning students use their gadgets responsibly.  The default is  Twitter, YouTube, and texting.  You’re lucky to get efficient and timely responses from many non-AP students when you allow them unfettered access to their distractions.

      • chris

         Remedial and low-tracked students are not naturally more irresponsible. They are behind, insecure, and/ or just not engaged. I work with English Language Learners who are very far behind. We use ipads, cell phones, and social networking daily. I have the best class control on my team and grade. Engagement and authentic learning.

  • Gene Carboni

    Socrative is an excellent tool for short quizzes. 
    http://www.socrative.com/quizzes

  • Guest

    At what age are cell phones required?  We turned off cable and only allow approved DVDs for our 8 yr old. No cell phone but he did place 1st in a climbing event. We spend our weekends camping and climbing. Our son is about to graduate from the 2nd grade with As or check-pluses, as far as his grades, behavior and testing.
    Maybe, by high school? Maybe, home schooled? 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/wu.yungda Wu Yung Da

    It’s world’s trend, isn’t it?

  • http://twitter.com/MargaretGiacalo Margaret Giacalone

    I read the article and I think that using cell phones when you teach in inclusive classrooms would help teachers bring small groups together.  Every group cold have a cell phone and that would eliminate the fact that some students are without a cellphone. Guide lines and rules can be written and signed to keep the use of the cell phone compliant with  educational  goals.

  • http://twitter.com/AnswerUndrgrnd Answer Underground

    Answer Underground, an iPhone app for students is helping solve this problem. worth checking out.

  • Lucy Crane

    In my student teaching, there were some wonderful uses for cell phones in the classroom, and students seemed to respect when the teachers would let them use this tool.

  • http://twitter.com/TeachBytes TeachBytes

    Using cell phones in the classroom can be a great tool, but can also affect retention and attention spans. I find that the Traffic Signal approach is a good way to handle classroom management of mobile devices: http://teachbytes.com/2012/08/07/classroom-management-of-mobile-devices-the-traffic-signal-approach/

  • http://www.learneverywhere.com/ Joshua Johnson

    Empowering students to turn their cell phones into learning devices is absolutely critical.  Mobile learning will play a significant role in education from here on out.  The real questions is, how long will you hold your students back and keep them at a disadvantage?

  • Quentin

    For those adamantly opposed to phones you have two choices: put your head in the sand and hope this is a “passing fad’ or except that this technology is here to stay and actually develop a use for it in your class. The idea of “teaching digital citizenship” is a powerful one – if you just ignore phones, or treat their use as abhorrent behavior, kids will never learn how to be responsible with one!

    Check out some thoughts on how I use phones in my classroom: http://stemroom.blogspot.com/

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  • MOO

    Just shut up and live with it. k???

  • jkern

    But isn’t it better that we teach them appropriate uses for these “distractions” than the ones they will inevitably find on their own. Teach them that if they want to look up more information about the scientist we’re learning about in order to follow their natural curiosity and thirst for information, then this is actually a GOOD thing. Proper use of “screen time” isn’t passive. Good teachers will make it active, learner-centered, and culminating in a quality learning experience

  • http://twitter.com/EastSideCartel_ Born Winner ™

    hounds

  • Doug Lapsley

    If you like this kind of thing then you will definitely like zondle Team Play. Whole-class teaching based on neuroscience research and using mobile devices for teams of students to submit scores to the game on the whiteboard or projector screen. It can even be played between teams in different schools via video linkup. Zondle Team Play is totally FREE. You can find out more about it here: http://www.zondle.com/publicPages/zondleTeamPlay_guideStart.aspx

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  • 420_National_Weed_Day

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  • Dayamonay

    The school should have some iPods someplace for those who don’t have cell phones so that they can participate.

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  • wiz. cantiflas

    A Perfect Example Why Student Should have A Right To Use Phones in school. Why? Because In Case Of An Emercency O Trying To Get Help.

    • pollo jr

      I like Ur name

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  • james

    kids should be able to have cell phones

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  • ricardo

    i like this alot even the asian pictures

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