Opinion
Infrastructure Commentary

Class, Take Out Your Cellphones!

By Paul Barnwell — February 25, 2010 3 min read

I finally cracked. Even though I’m a huge proponent of educational technologies, employing blogging, moviemaking, and other digital literacies in my 8th grade language arts classroom, I have felt reluctant to integrate cellphones into my lessons.

Not anymore.

There are responsible ways to incorporate cellphone use into classrooms, and we may be doing students a disservice by allowing draconian anti-cellphone policies to persist in schools.

I teach 8th grade, and my biggest challenge is student engagement. If I insist on teaching in a manner that doesn’t reflect students’ reality of a media-, image-, and gadget-saturated world, then I’m potentially facing an uphill battle to capture and maintain their interest. I didn’t grow up with an iPod or a cellphone in my pocket, as my students do. But, as an adult, I sometimes can’t imagine going more than a few days without communication, information, and entertainment from tools like my BlackBerry or iPod.

So how might I encourage, or even require, students to use cellphones constructively in class? I could log on to the Web site www.polleverywhere.com and create open-ended questions for the students to use for brainstorming and then texting answers to the site. This would create a real-time, scrolling database of their thoughts and responses. (The other day, during a similar exercise in my 3rd period class, even the most uninterested students couldn’t wait to text in their sentences to see them on the projector screen, alongside the work of their more diligent classmates.)

I might have them text the ChaCha service at 242242, and teach them about information and validity: How do we decide what information is worthwhile and what is not? Or I could have them use the camera feature on their cellphones and do a scavenger hunt, taking pictures that relate to class concepts or to new vocabulary words.

There are other questions thoughtful school leadership teams should consider. Incorporating laptops or other technologies into a classroom can be time-consuming and frustrating, for example. At my middle school, we have a wireless network with mobile laptop carts. But the computers are fast becoming outdated, and the boot time is painfully slow on some machines. For a student with a cellphone, however, the time to “boot up” and retrieve, create, or share information is comparatively minuscule. This could be a major advantage for teachers wanting to incorporate quick Web searches, collaboration, or idea sharing, and it also lessens the pressure on school wireless-network infrastructures.

How cool would it be if school announcements were sent to students on their phones? Or, instead of using a blaring PA system, the main office could text a student to come and pick up the lunch he or she forgot on the counter at home? Or perhaps students could openly record cellphone video of teachers for test-review purposes. Or teachers could send texted reminders to students about homework assignments.

Opponents of this type of innovative approach are likely to bring up the potential distractions and abuses that cellphones in school can certainly create, like covert and sneaky text or picture messaging between friends. But guess what? We did the same thing back in our day, writing notes to our friends on actual paper. Inappropriate communication in school will never cease. I expect, however, that structured use of cellphones in my classroom would reduce the temptation to use them in irresponsible ways.

Information technology allows us to share, compose, search for, and disseminate knowledge in ways unimaginable only 10 to 15 years ago. The power of cellphone technology should be positively transformative in our classrooms, keeping students alert, engaged, and excited about what is happening there.

“Police state” school technology and filtering practices are shortsighted and need to be revised. In this regard, schools do not reflect the real world. The challenge is to create positive structures and practice for students’ cellphone use, remaining vigilant, protecting privacy, and constantly assessing whether or not the incorporation of educational technologies measurably improves teaching and learning.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Class, Take Out Your Cellphones!

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