Lift the Cell Phone Ban

Stop thinking classroom disruption. Start thinking powerful (and free) teaching tool.

Cell phones could become the next big learning tool in the classroom. So why have schools been so slow to embrace them?

Without a doubt, cell phones can cause serious disruption in the classroom. From urgent text messages flying across the room to lessons interrupted by rap-song ringtones, these gadgets are responsible for nationwide frustration among educators. And, in extreme cases, students have used their cell phones to cheat on tests and harass other students, even during class time. While such disturbances are certainly a nuisance in school, not all teachers see cell phones as the enemy. In fact, for some, they’ve become a teaching solution.

Cell Phone Solution
between the alarms, calls, and text-messaging, it’s easy to see why some classrooms have implemented a no-cell phone policy. But educators know that with students, cell phone use in inevitable, so why not use the devices for good? Many schools in Asia and the United Kingdom—where they’ve been using high-speed 3G, or third-generation, cellular networks years longer than the United States—have already turned cell phones into teaching tools. Recently, several school districts in North America have done the same. At the Craik School in Saskatchewan, Canada, such an experiment turned into an integral part of the curriculum.

Craik’s program started with a discussion in the staff room between the school’s principal, Gord Taylor, and teacher Carla Dolman. Many of the children had received cell phones for Christmas, and the phones had become a distraction. “So we tossed out the idea of rather than looking at them as an evil thing,” says Taylor, “that we look at them as a tool for learning.” They realized that the text message and alarm functions would be useful for reminding students of homework assignments and tests, for example. They decided to run a pilot project with eighth and ninth graders.

Testing the Waters
initially, only about 40 percent of the class had cell phones, but kids who had them were willing to share. The text message function was mainly used at first, but as Dolman became more familiar with the myriad functions, it became clear that these gadgets had a lot more classroom potential. Video and sound recording came into play, and the phones’ Bluetooth networking capabilities allowed for easy information sharing. Dolman found they worked perfectly for her classes’ “lit circles,” in which the students divide into smaller groups to discuss different aspects of a particular book. Previously, she found it difficult to monitor each of the different groups simultaneously. But kids who had video functions on their phones could record their discussions then Bluetooth it to Dolman’s phone, and she could watch each individual discussion, without missing a moment.
Dolman says such problems like class disruption were minimal. “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.”

Principal Taylor agrees. “The one thing we really stressed with the kids was the whole idea of appropriate use,” he says. “They make darn sure that the volume is turned off. A lot of adults need to learn that.”

As for the kids, they loved using the phones for class work, but parents in the district have had mixed reactions, says Taylor. “Some thought we were crazy, and were very strongly opposed to it, and some embraced the idea initially. As time went on, about 90 percent came to say it was a good idea. They didn’t see it as a gadget, or as a replacement for learning, they saw it as a tool for learning.”

Taylor’s colleagues have been more enthusiastic. “In our school division there are about 90 principals and about 600 teachers, and I would say that out of the principals, there were about 15 to 20 that really were gung-ho and wanted to know what we were doing.” The rest, Taylor says, thought the program was innovative and at least worth a try. “There were no negative thoughts on it whatsoever.”

Learning Curves
Taylor sees the cell phone as a necessary tool to teach to kids. “We would be burying our heads in the sand if we said that cell phones were not a part of everyday life,” he says. “I don’t know a businessman out there who doesn’t carry a cell phone. I don’t know a lawyer or accountant out there who doesn’t carry a cell phone. Why wouldn’t we have them in schools?”

Given the example of the Craik School, why haven’t more American teachers embraced cell phone use in the classroom? In fact, few U.S. schools are even considering their use. Liz Kolb, author of the recently released book Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education (ISTE, 2008), says that Americans have traditionally seen cell phones as nothing more than a social toy. “We hear stories about students using cell phones in negative ways, like posting videos of teachers to YouTube, or cheating via text messaging,” she says.

Many teachers simply don’t know the teaching potential cell phones have, Kolb says. “There are some teachers who have never sent a text message, so the fear of their students knowing more than them about a tool in the classroom is often very inhibiting.” Professional development, Kolb says, is a necessity for normalizing the idea of classroom cell phones.

Corporate Help
Matt Cook, a math and science teacher in the Keller Independent School District, near Fort Worth, Texas, knows his cell phone inside and out. He’s used it to document results in his classroom. In fact, his familiarity with cell phone tech sparked his imagination, and led him to get in touch with Verizon and AT&T, as well as software company GoKnow, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All three companies have agreed to donate technology to the district for a pilot program to use cell phones in fifth-grade classrooms. (Other cell phone companies are certainly interested in classroom possibilities. Qualcomm has a similar program in the works called K-Nect.)

“I firmly believe that to prepare kids for their future, we need to start speaking the language of kids,” says Cook. “They’re using this stuff anyway—let’s teach them how to use it productively.”

The GoKnow software turns the students’ smartphones into computers, allowing students to use word processors, spreadsheets, and art programs, among others, on their cell phones. For example, every child learns the concept of the water cycle: how water moves on, above, and below Earth’s surface through the processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and so on. With GoKnow’s cell-based applications, a student could draw a concept map showing the relationship between the processes, create an animation illustrating how it all looks, and write up a text report on what they’ve learned—all centralized on a desktop-like interface on the smartphone’s screen.

At the end of the day, the students can upload all their work online. “The kids sync their phone up to the server. The parents can look at the work they’ve done, and the teachers can make annotations and grade the work, all online,” says Cook.

Elliot Soloway, founder of GoKnow, sees the key to popularizing cell phone use in classrooms is to make it easy to integrate into a school’s existing curriculum. GoKnow’s software has been engineered to make the process as easy as possible, he says. “We can do this in eight minutes with a teacher. Sit down with your paper-and-pencil lesson, and we’re going to show you how to transform that lesson into a cell phone–based lesson you can integrate with your existing curriculum.”

Soloway says that if the Keller program is successful, smartphones could become a part of the curriculum in neighboring districts. “We’ve talked to other districts in Texas that are watching,” he says. If cell phones in classrooms do catch on, the schools would, in effect, be getting low-cost computers into their students’ hands.

Dolman thinks that the possibilities for cell phones will only increase as kids become more familiar with the technology. “The more we discover what we can do with them, the more valuable they are. If you can harness what students are interested in, you have massive amounts of potential. And if you can get that into the classroom, you’re set.”

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