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Cell Phones in the Classroom

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

It’s undeniable—cell phones, and, in particular, smartphones, are proliferating in schools. It is more of a norm for high school students to have them than not to have them, and increasingly teachers are worried about the impact of the ubiquitous little devices on classroom management and academic integrity.

I’m sure every teacher has heard at least one story about students cheating via cell phone, whether by texting or by photographing assessments. In fact, one teacher told me about a girl who repeatedly missed tests, only to have a friend photograph and e-mail her copies to prep from for the make-up exams. I’ve also heard plenty of responses by teachers (some of them highly entertaining) to the ringing of cell phones during class time. And I think we would all agree that unauthorized cell phone use in class is disruptive and distracting to a generation of students that already seems to have difficulty focusing.

Many schools and teachers have reacted by proclaiming bans during certain hours of the day, or throughout the entire school day. One teacher even wondered if cell phone blocking technologies should be allowed in schools. However, signal blockers are illegal in most places in the United States and Canada. Most smartphones can now operate via Wi-Fi, and a Wi-Fi signal is necessary for the computers used throughout our school. So the students would still be able to use their phones.

It would be nice to think that an outright ban would make something disappear. But history teaches us otherwise, and working with teenagers has certainly shown us high school teachers that the moment you ban something, the harder students work to get it (especially if they really don’t see a point to the ban). Students will always find ways to use technology that adults don’t understand or keep up with.

(Reading Cory Doctorow’s bestselling young adult novel Little Brother this year confirmed for me just how silly it is to try to enforce such rules and policies on students who are much more tech-savvy—and highly adaptable—than the adults who would prefer that their classrooms completely shut out the perceived insidious incursions of technology.)

In my opinion and experience, a total ban on cell phones is unenforceable, not to mention counter-productive, as phones increasingly become mini-computers that, if used judiciously and creatively, could become powerful tools in class.

So, perhaps the best approach to is to consult with students on effective detente measures that actually work to curb the cell phone behaviors that are genuinely destructive and distracting, rather than reacting impulsively with total bans that only cause students to push back any way they can, frustrating everyone. Draw up a set of class rules or procedures for cell phones in partnership with the students. Decide with them when cell phone use is appropriate and when it isn’t; discuss why it might or might not be and what repercussions there should be for inappropriate use.

You might also want to take a look at these comments from teachers about the creative and constructive ways they are using cell phones in their classrooms:

I’ve used smart phones in conjunction with where I can have the students respond quickly to a question about the previous night’s homework (maybe a “bell-ringer” assessment). Polleverywhere can be accessed via the Web as well, which is nice since not all students have the money to afford a smartphone. This type of quick survey Web app is a cheap and easy alternative to those expensive “clicker” sets. There is also and, of course, can be used to poll an audience (using a specific hashtag).

I, too, have let students use them on “collaboration” quizzes. In fact, I let them text each other but they couldn’t talk. Took them longer to complete the quiz. When they realized only one or two students had done the work, they knew no phone or text would help them.

—Paul, FL


My Popular Fiction class this year is going be doing most of their projects in Web-based formats. I have built in a portion of the curriculum where they will be able to take their smartphones out and take pictures and videos to use on their group blogs.

Right now, my use of smart phones and other technology is to enhance what we do, and also to do a little modeling of proper netiquette for the professional world. I’ve never had an issue thus far, as long as I explain and demonstrate to students, parents, and administration.

—Rebekkah Rhodehouse, Lehi, UT


I allow students to use the dictionary apps to speed up reading, vocab, etc. Most apps not only give the definition but also a pronunciation (which is sometimes more important).

I also use a Twitter feed as an add-on to my class Web site for quick announcements, interesting reads, reminders, etc.

I also encourage kids to download the free Shakespeare app that puts the plays at their fingertips (literally) wherever they are. Most Shakespeare teachers let the kids read the play on their phone instead of lugging around a huge book. It also helps to quickly look up the hyperlink for Shakespearean language.

We also use the video recorders a lot. They are much easier to navigate than the clunky cameras our district has and I don’t have to worry about signing it out. The videos are also easier to share when done on a phone.

—Ryan, PA


I’ve allowed students to use their smartphones in class when working on research or vocabulary exercises. In fact, last year I decided to “quiz” them on the material we’d been covering and I told them they could use any of the resources I’d taught them to use over the past couple of days, including my handouts, their notes, and Web sites. At first there were some confused looks because we were in my classroom and not in the computer lab, but I told them that if they had access to the Web, they were free to use it . They lit up and whipped out those phones and took their quizzes. I didn’t actually count these as quiz grades; we went over the right answers together, but I think it was a good learning experience and a good use of the smartphones in class.

I also think this use may be something that would need to be approved by parents— especially if the students don’t have an unlimited data plan. I’d hate for a parent to blame me for extra charges on their bill because of use in school.

—Teresa, Phoenix, AZ


I had my students use the calendar on their smartphones to record assignments due dates. Whenever I posted a new deadline or assignment, I told them to get their phones out and record the date, set alarms. I walked to the back of the room and they had to hold them in plain sight so I could see them. Anybody caught seizing the opportunity to text or play games lost their privilege of this organizing strategy for the rest of the school year. They thought it was very helpful.

—Patti, Houston, TX


I use my iPhone sometimes for classroom management. For example, I might put the timer under the document camera or use the student picker app.

—Trinity, CA

You might also be interested in this New York Times lesson plan, which focuses on the use of cell phones in schools and classrooms.

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