September 2nd, 2010

Cell Phones in the Classroom: Is It Time to Reconsider Your Policy?

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My class had just finished covering three chalkboards with a rather dazzling array of concept clusters, illustrations, and links among disparate ideas. Clearly, a lot of learning had been generated. As I picked up the eraser to clear the board, I mentioned it was too bad that Chelsea and Eric (who were absent) had missed this vibrant discussion.

“Well if you promise not to bust me, Dr. E, I could take a picture of all this and send it to them,” offered Claire. She pointed at the laminated sign in the front of the room that said in huge font, complete with helpful picture, NO CELL PHONES ALLOWED IN CLASS.

Now, I am just as annoyed as the next person by the rude, thoughtless use of cell phones in public and have no patience with the thought of students using them to talk or text during my class. But Claire’s comment reminded me that most cell phones today are powerful little handheld computers and, like any tool, I could put them to use to facilitate and enhance several aspects of the teaching and learning I want to happen in my classroom. That was a new insight for me. It motivated me to start using cells phone in class rather than just being offended by them.

Let me share three simple ways they’ve helped my students and me:

  1. Archive content from the chalk or white board by taking a picture of it, as in the vignette referenced above. Sure, interactive Smart Boards offer the same option, but for those of us who do not teach in rooms equipped with those, the cell phone camera is a fine low-tech option. Sometimes classes yield tremendous spontaneous insights that we may want to draw upon later. Claire sent the pictures to her classmates who missed class, and although I do not advocate making it easier on students who are absent, neither do I want them to miss out on crucial content. We have also used the cell phone cameras to capture 3-D structures and role-plays that have come up in class to which we know we will want to refer later without necessarily saving the original items. The real coup was using my own cell phone camera to document the board notes from a freewheeling faculty meeting that would have otherwise vanished. My most anti-technology colleagues were pleasantly taken aback.
  2. Time small group activities using the built-in clock functions. In any group of three or four students, at least one (if not all) will have a cell phone. When we break out for intimate discussions or application tasks, I have the phone holders synchronize times and timers, and then let the groups do their work. This frees them from having to keep glancing at the room clock and keeps them more focused on the task. I have also experimented with all students using timers set on “vibrate” to monitor timed reading and individual in-class exercises and am pleased with the sense of calm this elicits, quite different from the tenser “countdown” atmosphere we have when I am the sole timekeeper.
  3. Google it. There are times when what’s happening in class veers in an unanticipated direction and we need a fact I simply do not have at my disposal, nor does anyone in class. If it’s true that “all of us are smarter than one of us,” then literally bringing in the world via the Internet capacities of my students’ cell phones makes us collectively brilliant. We can do a quick search to find the missing details, and then move on. It has also been instructive to probe and push and ponder when diligent students come up with differing facts. These are great teachable moments that help me underscore why their research must not begin and end with Wikipedia—and the evidence is right there in their hands.

The list above is hardly exhaustive, but perhaps it can help us begin to refocus the cell-phones-in-class conversation. New technologies require us to harness our wisdom and imagination. They also challenge us to think differently about what we do and why. Based on what’s happened in my classroom I now propose that there are pedagogically defensible alternatives to silencing cell phones in our classrooms.

Karen Eifler, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland, Oregon.

Excerpted from Three Things to Do with Cell Phones (Besides Confiscate Them), The Teaching Professor, vol. 23, no. 7.