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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Pencil Is a Word Processor: Making the Case for Cell Phones in Class

Suppose I were to offer you a fantastic word processor, small, portable, battery free, readily available, capable of operating in any language, and easily used by people from ages one to one hundred. There is such a word processor. It is called a pencil.

A Pencil is a Word Processor

Now, suppose I were to offer you a personal computer so powerful that it could be used for any number of tasks and is portable and user friendly. And nearly every one of your students already has one, so you don't even have to supply them. It's the cell phone! It is the most pervasive computer in the world.

Most teachers are well aware of cell phones -- mostly as a nuisance in class, where educators spend a lot of time taking them away from students. Well, you wouldn't take their pencils away, so why confiscate cell phones? Instead of taking them away, I started leveraging them as tools for my classes.

The cell phone may be used as a computation device, a camera, a text-messaging device, a portable storage device, a music player, a word processor, and probably more. Why on earth would I take that from my students? Besides, as you probably already know, it's a losing battle, so why fight it?

Of my 150 students, about two-thirds have a cell phone. I have their numbers, and they have mine. If students are habitually late to school, I give them a wake-up call. If students are absent, I send text messages to ask where they are. If students have a problem they need help with, they get in touch with me directly. I remind them of upcoming assignments, and other teachers sometimes ask me to get in touch with students of mine who also attend a class of theirs.

The obvious objection from teachers is that cells phones are a distraction in class, but in my day, I doodled with a pencil. You know -- that other word processor.

Comments (64)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

DebbieK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
A big difference in a cell phone with text messaging and a doodle pad is the opportunity to share test answers with someone in another class. What high schooler wouldn't rather text message his/her significant other than listen to a lecture and take notes?
Wesley Fryer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I think Debbie's comment is the same thought that many educators have. My response is that we need to look at the types of assessments we are giving students, and strive to make them more authentic. We need to use formative and ongoing assessment methods (not just summative assessment that is so high-stakes) which students CANNOT FAKE. Which they have a very hard time cheating on, or can't cheat on at all. Performance based assessments, and group as well as individual projects which result in the creation of different knowledge products, need to be utilized more than simple multiple choice tests. We all know the world is not multiple choice in the simple way our tests assess: it is complex and multi-dimensional. Our assessments should be messier. The result can be a more authentic educational experience, and cell phones can fit right into that model. Wesley Fryer Lubbock, Texas www.speedofcreativity.org
Zaheer Kidvai's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The sharing of answers bit is a result of the type of meaningless tests we've devised. I can't imagine a student messaging long essay type answers and the other then rewriting them in her/his own words. As for messaging the significant other rather than listening to a lecture, walk into a lecture or a performance that engages a student. If their attention is grabbed, you don't see much text messaging going on. Some always will - but, then, so does note-passing, whispering and doodling. Heres a small incident - although not necessarily representative: Roger Schank lectured at a conference here (here is Pakistan!) where the school system organizing the event for hundreds of its teachers also invited high school students. Through the lecture students loved it (cell phones had been taken away to prevent disturbance). The very first student I met after the lecture said "I wish I'd had a cellphone. I'd have broadcast the lecture to my friends in another school."
Linda Polin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Passing notes or attempting to cheat on exams is not something new made possible by the cell phone. Kids have been passing notes, writng on their hands and shoes, and finding ways to communicate with each other in class for generations. Wesley is partially correct. If the evaluation process were better, the issue would probably go away. I would add that school is one of the few places where the worker is expected to complete tasks and demonstrate competence in doing so, without help of any kind. Most supervisors frown on colleagues who are unable to seek help in a timely fashion. Most workers find themselves interacting with others and collaboratively constructing solutions to tasks regularly. In the social world, again outside of school, people connect constantly and through a variety of electronic and traditional unplugged means. Only in school are kids urged to be quiet in class. Indeed, in my daughter's middle school lunch area, lunch duty aides yell at the kids to be quiet. Do YOU eat your lunch silently next to your peers? I think Ron's brilliance is his recognition and adoption of the main communication channel that his students use. (Did you know many students think of email as 'old school'?) When every new technology points to communication and collaboration, I grow weary of the predictable dark interpretation, offered by an educator, about how new technology (cell phones, podcasts, etc) will enable kids to cheat or otherwise disengage with the teacher's agenda. There is definitely a digital divide in this country and it is growing. It is the distance between digital culture (not exclusively a "youth culture" by the way) and school culture. I say, "You go, Ron!"

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