Break the ban: Learning and teaching with cell phones

Disruptive. Noisy. Annoying. Frankly, cell phones in the secondary classroom are considered by many educators as anything but wanted. Last year, for example, a New Haven, Conn. high school suspended nearly 100 students predominantly for violating its cell phone ban. One year later, a Barco, NC high school followed similar suit by confiscating more than 30 cell phonesthe first day it instituted its ban. Yet the evolution of these electronic devices to include smartphones, apps and other useful functions is slowly convincing educators to rethink cell phone bans. Advocates specifically point to the many learning opportunities educators can harness by integrating cell phones into the curriculum as both a teaching and learning resource.


Studies: Teachers like app-les

A British study suggests secondary schools shift the focus away from the devices themselves and toward the positive learning impacts they proffer to students and educators. From a financial perspective, the majority of students already own cell phones thereby eliminating a district’s need to invest money into a new technology, reports the study, “How mobile phones help learning in secondary schools,” which published online in 2009.

The study recorded 15 educational uses for third-generation cell phones, including the following:

  • Bluetoothing project material between group members
  • Timing experiments with stopwatch feature or app
  • Receiving SMS & email reminders from teachers
  • Connecting remotely to school learning platform
  • Photographing apparatus and results of experiments for reports
  • Recording a teacher reading a poem for revision
  • Downloading and listening to foreign language podcasts
  • Transferring files between school and home

“While the eventual aim could be to replace policies that involve blanket bans on devices, we do not recommend whole-school change at the outset, rather a gradual adoption as attitudes and behaviours align with purposeful learning, until the school [and the community] reaches the tipping point, and mobile phone use is as natural as using any other technology in school,” states the study.

Similarly, a Canadian high school revised it curriculum to incorporate cell phones following a successful experiment testing its usefulness as a learning tool. Among the many innovative uses by the school’s educators, one literature teacher found she could better monitor her students’ small group discussions regarding book assignments. Students used their cell phones’ video functions to record their discussions and, in turn, Bluetoothed them to the educator so she could watch each discussion without missing anything, reports

“It’s a stereotype of teenagers—that you can’t trust them with a cell phone. Our experience was that if you give them the opportunity to use them, and you give them guidelines to go with that use, you won’t have problems,” the teacher told the publication.

Of course, there’s always the option to maintain strict policies about cell phone use during exams, although some educators are finding ways to incorporate cell phone use into an exam, such as one free pass to use it. One Australian school, for example, allow students to “phone a friend” to receive help on a single exam question stumping the exam taker.

Cell phones as a learning tool is gaining so much momentum across the world, there is an entire wikik12cellphoneprojects, dedicated to listing past and current curriculum uses.


Integrating cell phone use into a curriculum takes a widespread acceptance and tolerance, as well as lifting any existing wholesale bans. The aforementioned British study notes it also takes careful consideration of the following points in order for the integration to become a viable and sustainable learning tool. These are:

  • Recognizing leadership and the cultural factors influencing cell phone use in a particular school
  • Understanding teacher and student attitudes toward its usage in the classroom
  • Infusing appropriate curriculum activities through cell phone usage
  • Using professional development to train teachers to view cell phones as helpful learning devices
  • Schools taking ownership or acknowledging the use of student-owned devices and supporting it accordingly, including enabling access to school networks
  • Providing the necessary technical integration and support for students to ensure data security and access to school networks and learning platforms, as well as engaging the community to support access to Wi-Fi availability when students are outside the classroom

When it’s time to power down

“Some of the factors raised during the project were usability and software issues, costs, school policies and culture, and student behaviour,” the British study also states.

There are also the proverbial disadvantages of having cell phones in the classroom because they may erode academic integrity, which is why some schools implemented bans from the get go. These range from the potential of cheating to socializing during class time, among other concerns. Educators may need to retain or institute some usage restrictions—such as personal use of the devices—in order to successfully integrate cell phones into the curriculum.

Marissa Yaremich, UOPX Writer Network

| March 9, 2011

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