In Santa Ana, Calif., Judy Pederson smiles when she sees her ninth-grade English Literature class bent over their cell phones, furiously texting. They are engaged and on task, and she will soon have their thoughts on the possible consequences of Friar Lawrence marrying two star-crossed lovers in sixteenth-century Verona. The students’ texts go from their phones to a website to the white board on her classroom wall.
“Before, it was difficult getting them to write,” says the Valley High School teacher, who has decided to exploit rather than fight the oft-observed teen addiction to cell phones. “But now when I ask them to compose back stories or give advice to conflicted literary characters, they’re into it.” Her only requirement is that her students, who generally come from first-generation immigrant homes, use standard English.
Only four years ago, 19 percent of computing devices in K–12 schools were mobile devices, according to the report America’s Digital Schools 2006
. That number has increased to 57 percent, according to a national survey of nearly 1,000 school principals and technology coordinators to be released in September by the research group Project RED
. Cell phone ownership among students has increased as well. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study
, 85 percent of high school students, 69 percent of middle school students, and 31 percent of eight- to ten- year-olds now own cell phones.
Seizing on What Kids Have
For educators concerned with the digital divide, or with their districts’ ability to afford technology upgrades, the popularity of cell phones among students has come as an unexpected resource arriving in their classroom. “The beauty of cell phones is that you don’t need a certain demographic; all kids have them,” says Liz Kolb, a University of Michigan education instructor, who wrote the 2008 book Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education
. Kolb is a proponent of teaching with the plainest tech device in mind. “You focus on what [most] kids have at the moment,” she says.
When Pederson discovered that many of her students did not have computers or Internet access at home, and yet 88 percent had cell phones, she realized she was onto something. Having her students use their phones for in-class activities simply meant simply organizing them in groups to cover those without, and ensuring that homework assignments included technology-free options.
She focused her lessons around the capabilities of the dumbest phone—not too great a handicap since even the plainest phones could access websites through simple calls or texts, and download podcasts or other content. Blog sites have also made such actions as the posting of texts or recorded material onto class or individual blogs easy (see sidebar, “Using ‘Dumb’ Phones in School”).
A Tool For Teachers, Too
Teachers, in turn, are finding that having students text answers to questions via websites allows them an on-the-spot gauge of student understanding. For such quick assessments, many teachers use the free Web tool www.polleverywhere.com
to get instant feedback from short multiple-choice tests as well as from responses to more open-ended questions. The website enables teachers to post or graph student answers on electronic whiteboards in real time—fast results that both students and teachers like.
Jimbo Lamb, who teaches math at Annville-Cleona High School in rural, central Pennsylvania, uses www.polleverywhere.com
to let him know when to move on to the next lesson. “With many students too shy to admit what they don’t understand, it’s always difficult to get a clear sense how a lesson is going. But with a tool that enables student anonymity, I get a quick and accurate picture.”
Making use of cell phones in the classroom—rather than banning them—creates an opportunity to structure their use in a positive way, and to talk about cyberbullying and other inappropriate uses of the technology, teachers say. Judy Pederson believes that having students help compose classroom rules for cell phone use encourages compliance. In her classroom, cell phones that aren’t put away when not being used are confiscated until a parent can come to retrieve them. Kolb advises teachers to ask students to leave their cell phones at the front of the room until needed for classroom activities.
Smart Phones May Be Next
Meanwhile, pressure to expand cell phone use in the classroom continues to come from the kids. After New Milford (NJ) High School principal Eric Sheninger bought his staff an iPod cart with 28 iPods and an iMac computer for downloading curriculum-enrichment materials from the Web—he was chagrined to hear from students that they would have preferred smart phones instead. Smart phones comprise only two percent of mobile devices used in schools, according to the Project RED survey, but their presence is projected to increase in the near future. Since smart phones require Internet data plans, which currently cost around 30 dollars a month per phone (in addition to flat usage fees), they represent a sustained investment few schools can afford.
Nonetheless teens keep asking—something Shawn Gross, managing director of Digital Millennial Consulting, learned in 2006 when his educational-technology advisory group teamed up with the U.S. Department of Education to survey 300 disengaged students in the Washington, DC, metro area about how technology could improve the teenagers’ interest in and understanding of math and science. Students told researchers that they learned best when collaborating with peers and, when asked to name their choice of technological learning tools, overwhelmingly chose smart phones over fancy new laptops. Students complained about the “hassle” posed by laptops: having to retrieve them from backpacks, finding somewhere to open them, and then waiting as they boot up. “Teenagers today want instant and continuous access to the Web,” Gross says.
The research team heard, but wanted to see if such complaints held up across socioeconomic and regional differences. Gross partnered with an educational nonprofit, Project Tomorrow
, to ask a national sample of 350,000 students for their learning-tool preference. They received the same response: a clear majority favored smart phones over any other technology, including laptops. “The critical factors for these kids seemed to be instant, continuous access to the Internet; easy, immediate access to the device; and quick, simple contact with their peers,” Gross says.
For the time being, not a lot of schools are pursuing the smart-phone route unless it is with outside funding. But over time, if fees come down, Gross notes, schools may be seeing more and more students show up in class with parent-financed devices.
Colleen Gillard is a freelance education writer based in Cambridge, Mass. She frequently writes about education technology for the
Harvard Education Letter.