Cell phone Use in the Classroom Evolves

From prohibition to cautious embrace: cellphone use in the classroom is evolving.
Brad Dahlman helps students Ricky Lagunas and Jonathan Bouldinwith their homework.

Edina High School teacher Brad Dahlman got his first cell phone when he was in the 11th grade, at a time when cell phones were mostly banned from classrooms. They were considered a distraction at best, a threat to education at worst. Today, Dahlman allows students to take quizzes and participate in classroom discussions using their smartphones.

“About 50 percent of my students have smart phones,” says Dahlman. “Not all of them are smartphones. A grant provides access to approximately 60 laptops for students who don’t have access to their own Web-enabled device.” Dahlman uses a student response application from socrative.com. “Kids can take quizzes in my class by submitting answers through their phones. They can also spark discussions by asking questions or making statements via smartphone. It’s great for getting students who otherwise would never raise their hand involved in classroom conversations.”

“Cell phones in schools continues to be a huge topic of discussion nationwide,” says Marla Davenport, director of learning and technology for TIES, a Minnesota software developer that specializes in education technology. “In the past, they were banned because texting caused many students to not pay attention. But today, a smartphone is almost like having a small computer right in the palm of your hand. It provides access to information and opportunities for collaboration. Activities that work well on smartphones are often audiovisual projects, things that incorporate pictures and video. But it’s still hard to create other types of information on a phone. As more applications become available, the more useful smartphones will become.”

“We want to turn what’s believed to be negative feelings about cell phones into a positive experience for students and teachers. We want to make students be good citizens of the Internet instead of taking a prohibitive stance. A smartphone can be a productivity tool. How best to use them? I think we’re still in the investigative stage of that conversation.”

Edina High School senior Alejandra Perez has had a smartphone for two years. “I use it to look up facts,” says Perez. “But I also use it to text or check Facebook and Twitter when I’m bored.” She says that most teachers allow cell phones in their classrooms but will make comments if they believe students are too distracted. Perez also owns an iPad, which she says is more useful for schoolwork than her smartphone is. “I’ve done lots of projects using Google Docs on my iPad,” says Perez. “It’s a good way to collaborate because everyone must do their part. There is no excuse not to because it’s right there on the screen. For example, in sociology class we were assigned a group project. Each person working on the project researched and completed their section of the document at their own pace and convenience, and it all came together as one assignment.”

Perez also believes that cell phones in the classroom can still be a distraction for many students. “Kids get busy looking at their phones and don’t pay attention,” she says. “Then they ask lots of questions and use up unnecessary time.”

Dahlman says teachers have varying comfort levels with cell phones in the classroom. “The fact is that mobile technology as a whole will change education,” he says. “Information is available at a student’s fingertips. It’s my job to get them to think critically about that information and how best to utilize the technology. When managed correctly, they can be a great asset to the classroom. The overall ability to create and collaborate through different avenues is immense. Thirty kids can work on the same document at the same time. It’s second nature to them. Some applications actually help students stay on task.

“The trade -off is that I have to be diligent and monitor students more closely than if I didn’t allow smartphones in my class. The school district has an electronic technology policy and I have strict boundaries in my classroom. If I’m giving a Socrative quiz and I see a student viewing a different website, it’s an automatic zero. I have to decide every day if my students are using technology properly.”