Traditionally, cell phones have been the bane of teachers’ existences. Even with bans and threats of consequences for using cell phones, students have developed an arsenal of tactics for maintaining access to their devices during class: They peek at them under desks, text without looking at the screens, and pretend to rummage around in their backpacks while checking their messages.
In New York, such covert cell phone use will soon be unnecessary. The city’s disposal of its stringent cell phone ban in its 1,800 public schools (the School District of Philadelphia has a more nuanced policy) is partially a simple acknowledgment that cell phones are here to stay.
It’s also a whole new educational horizon.
Many teachers nationwide have already been experimenting with innovative and productive—and fun—ways of integrating mobile phones into the classroom. Several educational apps and programs are designed for this purpose. Some, like Socrative and Poll Everywhere, are tools for in-class polls and quizzes with nifty features for displaying and analyzing results. Others, like Remind and Celly, help teachers communicate with students through classroom-specific social networks or scheduled text messages prompting students to complete assignments.
And cell phones are naturally creative implements. They can inexpensively film, photograph, and record.
Craig Watkins, professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that using new technology in schools is especially important for black and Latino youth, who—research shows—are more likely than any other group to go online via a mobile phone or use new social networking tools like Twitter. But, Watkins said that although these teens use mobile phones as social, recreational, and entertainment devices, they need help viewing their mobile phones, cameras, and iPods as learning devices and as “tools for critical citizenship and engagement in their communities.”
Jose L. Vilson, an eighth-grade math teacher in Washington Heights, told the New York Times he often asked students to use their phones for projects in class.
“Why would you limit kids from having access to technology that could perhaps enhance their learning?” Banning phones “just keeps pushing the disparity forward,” he said.
This philosophy has given rise to BYOT (bring your own technology) programs in some schools, which we’ve written about in the past. BYOT means students can bring a phone, a tablet, or a computer—whatever they’re comfortable with—to use in class on a given assignment.
And, as Watkins notes, afterschool programs and community groups are in many ways leading this charge, helping kids use their mobile devices in ways they can learn from.
So how can educators devise new mobile-positive curricula and policies while keeping in mind the circumstances that gave rise to phone bans in the first place?
There are, undoubtedly, risks, including cyberbullying and opportunities for theft. And there is certainly potential for distraction—but some research shows that cell phones can actually increase classroom participation, particularly among shy students.
This summer, we wrote about how educators were using KQED’s “Do Now” program to discuss social issues in real time on Twitter, helping young people build critical civic engagement and digital literacy skills.
As more schools experiment with mobile use, we’ll figure out the kinds of rules and limitations needed to ensure safety and privacy, and more teachers will continue to discover how the technology does or doesn’t work in their classrooms.
But in an educational environment where one-half of the nation’s high school students already carry smartphones, it’s time to pursue creative and positive ways to incorporate the inevitable into the classroom.