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Education Opinion

The Powerful Computer in Your Pocket: Using Smartphones in the Classroom

By Jody Passanisi & Shara Peters — December 10, 2013 5 min read
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We sat through a recent staff meeting with our smartphones in our hands. As the presenter went through her deck, we took pictures of the slides with the Evernote app, adding our own notes as we went along. Later, one of our co-workers commented to the group that perhaps those of us with our phones out were being rude. We can certainly empathize with her complaint—we’ve all had the moment of seeing someone using a smartphone in public and inwardly rolling our eyes. But why are the rules different for a smartphone than they are for a computer?

Really, the word “smartphone” is a misnomer—at least as we see it. Of the myriad functions that our smartphones contain, we use the “phone” part the least. We use it as a computer. We use it as a library. The same is true for most of our students.

Many schools though, ban phones in classrooms. Why? Well, students may text with the phones—they could be sending messages from their pockets and under the desks during lectures. They could play games and go on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, disengaging from what they are supposed to be doing in the classroom.

For sure, students could and may do all of these things with a smartphone, but they can also do all of these things with a computer—including texting and instant messaging. Students’ computers are tools, as smartphones are powerful tools. Both these tools can be used to research, engage with material, imagine and create, share and contribute to the larger conversation ... and disengage in class while chatting with friends, uploading pictures, messaging, and more.

So the main difference is simply of size; it just happens that the smartphone carries with it the burden of the education community’s anxiety about technology.

Tech Reticence

Some teachers are still reticent about bringing technology into the classroom at all (see the pencil chat video for a satirical take on some of the main concerns usually raised). Some teachers feel that the minimal gains from technology do not make up for the imposition that technology has on the classroom.

But many of these worried teachers are only looking at one side of the equation: They know the risks of using tech, but they don’t know how to measure the potential rewards. And they may still be teaching in the paper and pencil model. Education consultant Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) model of technology shows the different levels by which technology integration can be employed in a classroom. Substitution is the most basic level, using technology as a direct substitute with little or no change in function, and redefinition is the “highest” level, using technology to imagine what was previously impossible or unimaginable before. With this model in mind, teachers who are using technology only for substitution may become frustrated.

And it makes sense: Why use a computer to do something that can be done just as well with paper and pencil? Technology can be complicated, and the payoff can often be elusive for teachers encouraged to use substitution. If what a teacher was doing for years is working beautifully, why use technology to do the same thing? Why not leave well enough alone?

The smartphone’s plight is compounded by the reality that there really is no substitution in the old classroom model that would require a student to have a smartphone in class. To even imagine the uses of a smartphone in the classroom, a teacher would need to begin climbing up the SAMR ladder pretty quickly from the substitution level. And so, if the benefits of technology seem to not outweigh the risks, teachers and administrators can come to the conclusion that there is no reason to employ them in the classroom.

Student Connectivity

But there are reasons. With smartphones, students can quickly use apps like Socrative to input answers, allowing teachers to gather more quantitative data about what students understand in the moment. Students can more easily engage with information on a creative level, taking pictures and video and incorporating them into the way they demonstrate understanding and share what they know. Students can connect with their teachers via text to clarify assignments, video chat with teammates who may be in another class or absent from school, and share ideas on Twitter and other social media.

Additionally, with smartphones, students can use a cellular connection instead of wifi, so that there are fewer hindrances to connectivity. And smartphones are physically smaller, and therefore less of an obstacle to interpersonal interaction, than laptop screens. Teachers are looking for technology to enhance learning, not dominate it; the minimalist nature of smartphones can help tech to be more seamlessly integrated in the classroom.

See Also

Previous pieces by Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters:

What Motivates Teachers: It’s More Than Money

But what about the concerns? Teachers and administrators should be concerned about how students interact using social media, how students treat each other online, and how they can appropriately engage with respect for themselves and others. Best use, respect, and community norms are concepts and skills that need to be modeled by teachers, both face to face and online, says Sam Patterson, teacher and technology-integration specialist at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif. We need to help students cultivate the skills they need to safely and respectfully navigate the online community, not block it off for fear of their interaction with it. How else will they learn?

The anxiety and fear that the smartphone represents is real and powerful. But how do we move beyond this fear? Because, truly, we must. As Sam Patterson said in our Twitter conversation: “Kids carry powerful computers in their pockets, I want learning happening there.” Once we move beyond this idea of scapegoating the phone and realize that computers and phones can do the same things, then perhaps we can begin to see the applications in the classroom for these powerful computers. Even more, we can begin to reimagine the classroom, taking into consideration all of the things that a smartphone can do for our students’ learning.


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