Can Cell Phones be used as Instructional Tools in the Classroom

Jul 15, 2009
by: MrsGaskin

Current Department of Education policy prohibits student cell phone use in schools. "You come to school to learn not to play games or send text messages," responded Mayor Bloomberg when asked to address the ban on cell phones in New York City public schools.

The battle often begins when that hip-hop ring-tone sounds during some class activity. We all know the student will claim its his or her mother calling. (Isn't it always?) Time is taken away from instruction and the students are reminded of the rules and policies regarding cell phone usage. The cell phone is either confiscated or placed back into the pocket or bag of the offender. Does it have to be that way?

The Battle with the Cell Phone

For the most part there has always been a hate-hate relationship between most teachers and students using cell phones in the classroom. Teachers often view cell phones as an unnecessary distraction or as a means to organize some future wrongdoing. Students view cell phones as an important part of their social lives complete with the sounds, images and phone numbers of those important in their lives. Teachers usually don't want to see cell phones in the classroom and students often don't want to stop using them. Does it have to be that way?

Imagine a Classroom where cell phones are Welcomed

My interest in this topic started coincidentally enough, on Tuesday afternoon while I was checking my email messages using my iPhone3Gs. Below is a screen shot of the email massage that captured my attention:

How interesting. Can Cell phones be used as instructional tools? Should they? U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying, "Kids are on their cell phones the 14 hours a day they are not in school." Could some of those fourteen hours be harnessed and directed towards some academic improvement? I wonder. Is it logical to ignore this powerful technology?

Cell phones are our Friends - Right?

Are cell phones "the new paper and pencil" or "the new laptop" as proclaimed in the email inviting me to participate in a webinar titled "Cell Phones as Instructional Tools"? Yes? No? Maybe? I don't know. Some innovative teachers have tried to find ways to incorporate cell phones in their teaching.

Why might some school districts rethink their position regarding cell phone use in the classroom, you might ask? Money, plain and simple. Computers break, maintenance is expensive, so the best way to prepare students for a future where they can compete is to use the technology that is already there--cell phones. A series of searches using a variety of keywords, search engines and links brought me to this interesting article: Get Cell Phones into Schools. I found a lot of information in support of allowing students to use their cell phones in the classroom.

For example, rather than spending a bundle on building a sophisticated wireless infrastructure and another bundle on maintaining it, a school could make use of cell-phone computers and the telecoms' existing wireless infrastructure for Internet access. Besides connectivity at school, the students would then have wireless access to the Internet at home—which significantly helps the poor who don't otherwise have wireless access at home.

These tough economic times force schools to think about practical and innovative ways to teach students how to be effective information managers. Why not start with the technology students already feel comfortable using. The cell phones and smart phones with Internet access are a way students can access current and useful information quickly and relatively easily. The connections on students' phones are often light years ahead of the poorly maintained desktops or laptops available in classrooms and computer labs. Students are given some control over their education.

Show me the Money

Who pays for the cell phones? Who benefits? Should we be suspicious if the cell phone industries are the ones telling us to try this because it works. A New York Times article "Industry Makes Pitch that SmartPhones belong in the Classroom," questions the motives of research conducted by the maker of cell phone chips.

"At a conference this week in Washington called Mobile Learning 09, CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, plans to start making its case for the educational value of cellphones. It will present research — paid for by Qualcomm, a maker of chips for cellphones — that shows so-called smart phones can make students smarter.

Some critics already are denouncing the effort as a blatantly self-serving maneuver to break into the big educational market. But proponents of selling cellphones to schools counter that they are simply making the same kind of pitch that the computer industry has been profitably making to educators since the 1980s."

Is this data reliable or just an attempt to increase revenue? There is plenty of money to be made in the educational market as school districts work to find the must successful methods to improve test scores, graduation rates and student literacy.

Another article, How Mobile Phones help Learning in Secondary Schools, discusses how three schools were able to use cell phones to improve student achievement. Cell phones were used in a variety of way.

"... for activities such as: timing experiments with the stopwatch; photographing apparatus, models, and experiments for reports; blue-toothing project material between group members; receiving SMS & email reminders from teachers; synchronizing timetables and setting reminders; connecting remotely to the school learning platform; accessing revision sites on the Internet; creating short narrative movies; downloading foreign language podcasts; using GPS to identify locations, and transferring files between school and home.

The teachers learned that they had to plan and anticipate a variety of class room and technological issues, but overall the cell phones were a good tools for computing, communication and photography.

An Example of how teachers can use cell phones in class

Craik School in Saskatchewan Canada is exploring the use of cellphones as learning tools. This video, produced by Dean Shareski, highlights the work of Carla Dolman and Gord Taylor and the grade 8 and 9 students of Craik School.

Can teachers somehow? 


"Get Cell Phones into Cellphones into Schools,", January 14, 2009.

"How mobile phones help learning in Secondary Schools," Becta: Emerging Technologies for Learning. January 21, 2009.

Email Image: "Free Live Webnar." Email to the author. July 14, 2009. Image 1 (Uncle Same):

Cartoon Image 1 (Girl on cell phone): Wills, George. 2002.

Cartoon Image 2 (Girl Talking to mom):

"Industry Makes Pitch That Smartphones Belong in Classroom," Richtel, M, The New York Times, January 15, 2009.

"The Innovative Educator: The Value of using Cell Phones to Enhance Education and Some Concrete Ways to do so" Nielson, Lisa. May 12, 2008.

"Pols Ending Bans on School Cellphones," Edozien, Frankie. New York Post. July 26, 2007.


Once I was on a long bus

mwhitehouse's picture
Submitted by mwhitehouse on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:45.

Once I was on a long bus trip with my students and it was totally silent for about 10 minutes.  As a teacher you know this can only mean trouble.  So I got up to see what was wrong.  What were they doing?  Texting each other and the kids on bus #2.

I agree cell phones can be used to facilitate learning.  However, I mostly see them as a classroom distraction.

I agree. I like to smash

EvilArtTeacher's picture
Submitted by EvilArtTeacher on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

I agree.

I like to smash them too.

Check your voice mail for my

wdhaverstock's picture
Submitted by wdhaverstock on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

Check your voice mail for my thoughts.

Crystal, I look forward to

livesacrifice's picture
Submitted by livesacrifice on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

Crystal, I look forward to reading this more and looking at it in depth.  Looks like it has a lot of good potential for changing the future of classrooms.  Thanks for posting this!

-- Amanda Kay

Great humor.  Wonderfully

Submitted by Feliciag on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

Great humor.  Wonderfully focused argument for using cell phones for education.



Thank you for your patience

Susan Harts's picture
Submitted by Susan Harts on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

Thank you for your patience in answering all of my questions these past three weeks.    You are so kind!

More responses to come!


Cell phones are banned in

JABenitez180's picture
Submitted by JABenitez180 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:47.

Cell phones are banned in schools and yet kids still bring them into the building and use them in the line of sight of teachers. I totally agree with you. The kids will not fall into line with the banning of them so there should be some development on how to incorporate them into the classroom.

Thank you for this posting,

jryanw12's picture
Submitted by jryanw12 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:47.

Thank you for this posting, Crystal.  I look forward to looking going through this with a little more time.

As a rescent convert to

CharlieTeachHayground's picture
Submitted by CharlieTeachHay... on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:48.

As a rescent convert to iphone. I'm totally behind this. my only concern is that everyone elses phones suck. For field trips the voicemail download that paul showed us would be great for instant podcasts.

What a charming

CHimmel2's picture
Submitted by CHimmel2 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:52.

What a charming presentation!  This will certainly invite lots of dialogue among students andStaff!

I think using a cell phone

klevy's picture
Submitted by klevy on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:53.

I think using a cell phone is a great idea for teaching.  I'm not sure yet how i would use it but I will definately look more closely at your discussion.  I once heard about small tape recorder being used in schools.  And also there's the new computer book format that is becoming more popular eventhough it's expensive. 


Karen Levy, Library Media Specialist Columbus Campus H.S. 925 Astor Avenue Bronx, N.Y. 10469