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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learn2luvcell: A Powerful Multipurpose Mechanism for Learning

Once the scourge of classrooms, cell phones are now part of the lesson plan.
By Burr Snider
Credit: Getty Images

Query most secondary school teachers on the subject of cell phones, and you're likely to get an impassioned rant about the device's insidious ability to provoke distraction in the classroom. All that giggly sub rosa texting not only robs students of attentiveness, they say, but also presents an inveterate disciplinary problem. It's why most school districts have strict cell phone policies, and most teachers are grateful for it.

But some forward-looking educators have begun to push the subversive idea that the high tech wizardry of mobile phones can be a powerful multipurpose mechanism for learning. Podcasts, video interviews, polling, quizzes, even homework assignments, can all be accomplished via cell phone to enhance students' learning experience, while the phone can also act as a versatile electronic aid to the teacher.

"Kids mostly see their cell phones as a social toy, not as a learning instrument," says Liz Kolb, adjunct professor at Madonna University, in Lavonia, Michigan, and author of Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education. "But if you can get them thinking of cells as an anytime, anywhere, Swiss Army knife-type data-collection tool, it can open up a whole new world. If their phones work so well for them outside the classroom, we need to get them thinking about bringing these tech tools inside and putting them to good use."

Kolb cites the example of a student studying ecosystems in science class. When he goes on spring break, his teacher can instruct him to take pictures with his cell phone camera of the various insects he encounters and upload them to an Internet site such as Flickr. When he comes back to class, everyone can share his pictures and discuss his findings.

Moreover, by downloading data to schools' Web sites, kids don't even have to bring their cells to class. The phone can accomplish much of what a computer can do, even while it stays at home. "In schools, we're saying no to cell phones when instead we should be telling students that this thing they use to text their friends could actually become something that's helpful in the twenty-first-century job force," says Kolb. "Instead of banning their use, let's put structures around them and create learning activities with them."

This could prove a hard sell to teachers who see cells only as a bane to good order. "Unless they see the instructional potential, teachers feel the same way about cells as they did about television way back when -- that it's just a distraction," says Hall Davidson, a director of the Discovery Educator Network, an online learning community dedicated to digital media. "But there's a shift going on, and once teachers realize the immediate impact of texting, plus all the other things you can do with a cell phone, more schools will come around and see that this is a really good, really serious tool."

After all, adds Davidson, just about every kid you know has one, and it doesn't make sense to squander their potential by prohibiting them in school. "About the only organizations that have a ban on cell phones anymore are the Taliban and your local high school," he says. "Anything that plays media can be used instructionally, so we shouldn't deprive our students of their own personal messengers, photo storage units, video studios, and radio stations right in their pockets."

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Chuck Robbins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Economics is a required class in California, usually taken in the senior year. Many of my seniors are not taking math, so they don't have calculators. I find that allowing them to use their cell phones as calculators is a simple way to solve the frequent math problems we do. It also subtly changes the cell phone dynamic...the kids do start to see thm as a tool. I've had fewer problems with cell phone interruptions of the distracting type in the last couple of years that I've done this. I haven't taken the next step of actually building a lesson around them, but I generally agree with the article's thesis.

Valerie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kudos to these educators!

The shift Davidson mentions is described in the now somewhat dated book Nine Shift, in which the authors parallel our change from the industrial age to the technology age with the change from the agrarian age to the industrial age of the early 1900s. Our students are quite prepared for the ninth/final shift of the technology age, but schools (mine included--this summer the board passed a BAN on cell phones during school hours. They "cannot be seen, heard, or used during school hours") have rejected this technology and DOWNshifted, rather than re-direct technology's use for educational purposes. What a great opportunity we we're missing to teach technological ethics. Our loss. The kids will move on and leave brick and mortar schools behind. Technology allows for seamless collaboration (especially with googledocs), simultaneous engagement of ALL students, synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to meet the needs of ALL students (especially those late-to-bed and late-to-rise teens), and an authentic audience for the products they create to show their understanding of content and mastery of skills.

They have more technology in their hip pocket than I had in my entire high school.

Timothy Rankin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would add that while students view thier cell phones as a social toy, they also are possessive of them as a personal communication tool, almost as personal to them as their lips and ears. I have observed that asking a student to give up his or her cell phone is like asking for their ear or mouth. When we begin to teach students the appropriate use of these communication devices, and stop pretending that they will go away if we just say so, we will be doing ourselves and tomorrow's leaders a big favor, educationally speaking.

Delaine Zody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My students use their cell phones to call businesses to make appointments to sell ads. They call their friends to get names and spellings for their pictures on yearbook pages. They call coaches to find out if there is a game on a certain date. Sometimes, if they have to stay late or go somewhere after school, they call their parents to let them know. I think cell phones are a great tool and teachers need to adapt their thinking about how to utilize them in class. The kids are going to be working on jobs that allow those cell phones so we need to teach them how to use them correctly.

Stephen Dolle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Much has been written about mobile phone applications, and this new paper proposes how such phones might find new and innovative roles in education and learning - and I applaud this. So it is time to put our thikning caps on! On the whole, more recently I have been quite critical of phone and PC designs and accessibility. PCs were initially conceived to meet business application needs, like accounting and inventory managemnent, and later email became a primary use. On the youth side, PCs and now mobile phones have primarily been marketed as gadgets and social networking, and there have been limited marketing and product development efforts to enable phones and PCs to serve more in learning, which I term "artificial intelligence" (AI) apps and "assistive technology." It is thru assistive technology that we can really begin to challenge the boundaries of system designs and usability, but also where we might reap the greatest rewards. I am currently working on a proposal to help make mobile phone designs and usability more conducive to learning, i.e. more as assistive technology. I hope to complete my proposal and new web content in the coming weeks, and will be marketing to industry.
Stephen Dolle
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