Using Cell Phones for Learning in High School

I don’t cover the K12 beat here very often since my experience and interest lies primarily with the use of classroom response systems in higher ed contexts, but I wanted to share a recent article in the Harvard Education Letter, a publication of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, that presents a down-to-earth picture of the use of cell phones in high school classrooms.

The article, titled “Dumb Phones, Smart Lessons” and written by Colleen Gillard, focuses on so-called “dumb” phones, cell phones that don’t allow users to install applications. Gillard reports that 85 percent of high school students in the United States own such phones, making them ubiquitous enough for teachers to leverage in the classroom. Since funding for more sophisticated technologies, like laptops and smart phones, is limited in many school districts, taking advantage of existing student technology makes a lot of sense. Moreover, some students who have cell phones have no Internet access at home through laptops or other computers, so their cell phones become their link to the open Web.

Gillard describes a couple of in-class uses of cell phones that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. In one example, a 9th-grade English teacher has her students text in their thoughts on aspects of Romeo and Juliet. Their texts are displayed on the projector screen in the classroom, creating a sort of backchannel in the classroom using SMS messaging.  In another example, Gillard cites Poll Everywhere as a tool that allows students to respond to multiple-choice and free-response questions posed by their teachers during class. High school teachers have found that many students are hesitant to admit they don’t understand something in front of their peers, just like college students often are. The anonymity provided by a classroom response system comes in handy here, as Jimbo Lamb, math teacher at Annville-Cleona High School in Pennsylvania, indicates:

“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.”

My focus here on the blog is on in-class uses of technology, but the article includes some tips from Liz Kolb, author of Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education, on productive uses of cell phones outside the classroom, too. Kolb suggests having students use the still camera, video camera, text messaging, and (shocker!) phone call tools on their cell phones to report and reflect on connections between their studies and the physical world outside their classroom walls.

Gillard’s article points out that schools often can’t afford to purchase smart phones for their students, particularly with the monthly data fees these phones have. But there’s certainly interest in K12 settings in using smart phones for even richer in-class experiences. And, according to a recent Ball State University survey, about half of all college students now own smart phones. That’s likely to have an effect on technology use in college classrooms now and in high school classes in just a few short years as more younger students own more powerful phones.

Are you a K12 teacher who uses cell phones in the classroom? If so, what have your experiences been?

Image: “My phone lightens my load” by Flickr user Esther Gibbons, Creative Commons licensed

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