Classroom Tech, Part VI: Cell Phones

iX-Ray, by slowburn (on flickr)

iX-Ray, by slowburn (on flickr)

I’m nearing the end of a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

As I wind down this summer’s Classroom Tech series, I want to focus a little bit of time on a tool that most students are not even allowed to use in their classes – cell phones.

Before sharing some ideas and resources, though, I have to preface this. I don’t like cell phones. I never have. I’ve always felt that they allow people to get a hold of me whenever they want, that I am on a sort of electronic leash that can be yanked back anytime I’m doing something I want to be doing. I’ve felt this way since I was in high school, when cell phones were becoming more popular (we had one cell phone in our family car for emergencies only). Since high school, I’ve had three cell phones that I have called my own. The first was a very basic flip phone that came free with our family plan. The second was also a basic flip phone, but with free calling over wi-fi. Both were simple and easy to use, but weren’t really special. I’ll share about my third (and current) phone shortly.

Last school year, I was asked to try experimenting with cell phones in the classroom by our district’s instructional technology coach, Kimberly. She was really excited about some of the possibilities and had no idea about my cell-phobia. I took her up on it, as it was a chance to try something new and get pushed out of my comfort zone. I used a couple of the tools described below – PollEverywhere and Wiffiti – to experiment with SMS polling. I asked groups to submit discussion questions via text message, which then appeared on the projector screen. I asked students to vote on who they blamed for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, and the results appeared in a nice bar graph. And I asked students to vote on whether they thought cell phones could be really useful in school, and their votes were also tallied and graphed.

In hindsight, I am very impressed with that one possible application for cell phones, but several sources have continued to push my thinking on using cell phones. The gist of what I read and hear is simple: 90% of my students have very functional, very powerful computing devices in their pockets/backpacks. Some have cell phones with internet access, others have iPod Touches, while still others have smart phones. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this unprecedented access?

This summer, I chose to embrace this new thinking as my wife and I changed cell phone carriers. We weren’t happy with the customer service at T-Mobile, and my wife’s sister (who works at AT&T) told us about the 15% educator discount, so we decided to take advantage. I wasn’t content, however, with another simple flip phone. Instead, I decided to put a high-powered computer in my own pocket. In spite of my personal cell-phobia and even stronger Apple-phobia, I turned to the Dark Side and invested in an iPhone 3Gs.

While the iPhone isn’t without its problems, I have quickly realized the unprecedented power I now carry around with me. At any given moment, I have access to the internet, email, instant messaging, social networks, telephone, up-to-the-minute news, and a whole host of other unbelievable tools ranging from the practical (maps with GPS location) to the completely useless (my custom purple light saber, complete with Star Wars music).

The realization that I have this kind of access at any given second is yet another reason why I have to ask myself a simple question: why not? Why not use this amazing device in school? Why not take advantage of what they already have? Why not quit whining about not having a netbook cart and, instead, get students to use their cell phones for *gasp* learning? While I’m looking forward to increased computer access for more frequent computer-based writing activities, we do a lot of things on computers that kids can do on their phones.

So that’s where I’m at heading into the new school year – with a fancy new phone and some new ideas on how to use cell phones in the classroom. What follows are a couple of those ideas and some resources to check out if you’re interested in learning more about using cell phones to help students learn.

  • Obviously, I intend to continue using cell phones as feedback devices. I found it quite helpful to get student feedback over the course of a class period, and polling like this is a great way to formatively assess students as they are learning. Websites like PollEverywhere and Wiffiti are excellent resources – they provide a digital bulletin board that turns text message responses into visible results (usually either written text or tallied votes). Of the two, I prefer PollEverywhere, as it offers more options for formatting your poll. Feel free to check out a couple of polls I ran last school year to see what it looks like.
  • For students who are so inclined, most cell phones have some sort of audio-recording feature that could be used to record lessons or notes. While it may be something that students can choose to do themselves, it might also make sense for a teacher to use his iPhone to record lessons and post them to the class website.
  • As nearly all cell phones now include integrated cameras, students could use their phones to take photos pertaining to a class assignment and either bring them to class or post them (via MMS) to Facebook, flickr, or their blogs (Blogger and WordPress each have this functionality). This would work great for vocabulary – students are each assigned a vocabulary word and have to take at least 3 photos that help others understand the meaning of the word (I saw an example of this idea using the word “dilapidated” that was very cool).
  • Students could utilize the wi-fi/web functionality of their phones or iPod Touches, or even utilize educational apps, to look up words, use a thesaurus, or find an answer on Wikipedia. These are all things students do in their classes already – now they are simply using a different tool to accomplish the same goal.
  • My iPhone has an Animoto app. I can create Animoto videos anytime, anywhere. Example: visited Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast and created this Animoto video on my iPhone from the pictures I took…on my iPhone. Think students might enjoy doing this with their free Animoto account and their iPod Touches?
  • Usage is a big issue when considering cell phones in the classroom – costs for texting, minutes, and data are relative unknowns. Why not make it an assignment for students to understand how much their use costs? Have them calculate their dollars per minute of talk time, or average their text messaging habits? This will help them develop some basic math skills, but will also help make them aware of the cost of cell phones and plans.

Before moving on to some resources, I want to mention that there are management issues with cell phones. I am not naive enough to deny this. In my own brief experience, I had a student take a picture of me and post it to his MySpace (I heard this via another student). Another student texted a rude comment about a friend instead of a discussion question. But there are management issues with anything. Students throw balled-up paper and paper airplanes and give each other paper cuts and write mean things on paper, but we don’t ban paper from the classroom because it’s a valuable tool. Instead, we try to teach students how to use paper responsibly – cell phones are no different. Like all technology, students must learn how to be good citizens with their cell phones. They need to understand the amazing possibilities, but must also realize some of the consequences of their actions (once again, all the news around “sexting” comes to mind).

It is this management/citizenship issue that I am currently learning more about. There are a number of resources I’ve used, both for the instructional and management pieces, that are out there to help others who are interested in using cell phones in the classroom. Here are a couple of great resources if you’re interested in learning more.

Just a few resources, but hopefully enough to get you started.

Only one more post remains in this summer’s Classroom Tech series, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Next time: Everything’s Amazing…Nobody’s Happy.

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12 responses to “Classroom Tech, Part VI: Cell Phones

  • Brian

    You mention iPod Touches a few times in the post. Just a note to those interested in this topic; the Touch does not have a camera and does not have an always-on Internet connection. So, the use of it with Animoto is not so easy.

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  • Melissa M.

    Kevin,

    You don’t mention if you faced any struggles from administration. Did you? Also, have you received any feedback from parents on your cell phone projects?

    How have the students responded?

    -Melissa

    • thehurt

      @Melissa: I’ve actually been very fortunate in that I work with a very forward-thinking district, and my administration has been very supportive. In fact, it was our instructional technology coach at the district office that encouraged me to try working with cell phones in my classes. Thus far, I haven’t heard anything from parents, which I hope is a good thing. Students, of course, like to have their phones out. As I’ve mentioned before, there is typically a little extra excitement the first time around, but they have been very good about putting their phones away when we’re done. Thanks for reading!

      • Terry

        I’m curious. What is the socio-economic level of your students using the cell phones in class? How do you address the differences in functionality in student phones, and students who do not have phones because they are economically disadvantaged?

  • Vanessa

    Have you come across a student without a cell phone in the classroom, and how do you deal with that?

  • Helene James

    Hello,
    I was going to ask the same question about students without a cell phone or without access to Internet. I am learning about new technology in the classroom. I can see how it can change our way of teaching and interacting with our students. I teach in a middle school where 70% of our students are on free lunch. Not all my students have access to internet at home, which to me, makes it difficult to integrate technology since not everybody will be able to use it. In addition, our school has one computer lab, and it is difficult to find a spot for my students to use computers.
    I am hoping that in the future, schools will be able to buy more equipment so all our students will be able to use the new technology.

  • Teresa

    This is such a great concept. I am just now thinking of all the different ways I can incorporate cell phone use into my daily lessons. You gave a lot of great resources here (I have already loaded Animoto onto my phone!) As we are getting close to the end of the school year, and as you have had all year to experiment, I was wondering if you had any insights as to what didn’t work well or specific pitfalls to watch out for. I have a tendency to be so excited about something I gloss over the negative. It would be nice to factor that in beforehand.

    • thehurt

      @Teresa: I’m glad I could help out. As far as insights and failures go, the biggest one is balancing anonymity with responsibility. On the one hand, I want kids to post things anoonymously so they aren’t embarrassed about being wrong. Unfortunately, when they can post anonymously, they have a habit of doing unseemly things they wouldn’t do if their name was attached. This was particularly prevalent the first couple of times we used their phones – as they get more comfortable (and when the idea isn’t new and exciting), it flows a little better.
      The other pitfall I ran into is that a lot of my kids either don’t have cell phones or didn’t want to use them in class. Making sure there’s always a way for those students to share (and feel like they have a voice) is a pretty critical part of the experiment.

  • Mort Dunder

    HI Kevin

    I just found your blog and I LOVE your the way you think! Your ideas really make sense and I was particularly intrigued with the way you make the case for introducing cell phones in the classroom. I am at a bit of an “old fashioned” institution of higher education whereby the administrators would “frown” upon this type of innovation. I tried a blog a few years ago and you would have thought I turned the world upside down. Anyhoo, I like this idea but how would you advise me in protecting copyrighted and privileged information and more specifically photos! I am involved in allied health education and some of my content cannot be disseminated to “the masses” via these types of communication devices.
    Thanks and I am going to keep following your blog and see what other great ideas you promote!!!!
    Best regards
    Mort

  • Jackie Matos

    Cellphones is another educational tool if it is used appropriately in the classroom. The problem is that teachers may not feel comfortable allowing students to use it in the classroom. I have had students use their phone to take a picture of the notes on the board or the SmartBoard instead of having to write the notes. I have no problem with that as long as they go back and print it out. The only reason for that is because cellphones are banned in the building so I don’t think I can use it for educational purposes. It is not a good idea to have the students constantly take out their cellphones so that they can look back at their notes. I don’t think the administrators would like that. They do not even want them to use their earphones in the computer lab because it may mean that the IPODs will be out too. I think it should be up to the teacher to monitor appropriate usage of the electronics in the classroom. I liked the idea of posting reponses and have it tallied and graphed. It is a great use of a cellphone for a statistics project.

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