The Positive and Negative Sides of Using Cell Phones for Teaching and Instruction in the Classroom
We are living in an age when phone communication is changing and improving. Most Americans have a cell phone, even most American students. With the increase in popularity of cell phones, there are more cell phones in the hallways and classrooms of schools. This increase in using cell phones has sparked controversy in American schools. Looking at both sides of the issue, there are positives and negatives to having cell phones in school. Cell phones have the potential to be a distraction in the classroom, but they can also be a valuable learning tool.
For years, the school I work in was almost exempt from the issue of cell phones in the classroom, because most people didn’t get any cell service in the school building. The building is in a rather isolated location, and until recently, there were no bars on anyone’s phone unless they ventured out near the flagpole in front of the school. Last year, however, a cell tower was installed somewhere in the vicinity, and suddenly everyone has service in school. And with service, those cell phones came out in force. After my first period class one morning, my co-teacher informed me that several students were texting during class. They were trying to hide their activities, but frankly, they weren’t very good at it. She noted it, and then we discussed it. More on how we dealt with it later.
An Issue of Fairness
If you plan to write lesson plans that incorporate cell phones, consider the idea of fairness. There are some students who don’t have cell phones. There are some that have simple phones rather than “smart” ones. If teachers plan to incorporate the use of cell phones in the classroom in a positive way, this is certainly an issue to consider. If all students don’t have access to this tool, it may not be the right time to bring in this particular technology.
It may be that in some classrooms, the negatives of cell phones will outweigh the positives. I don’t think that anyone can deny the fact that a cell phone can become a major distraction. If the phone rings, the whole class is disrupted. More often, the distraction comes in the form of students checking their phones for messages and sending text messages during class. On occasion, I have even had a student make the attempt to play a game during class. Instead of being on task, listening and engaging in the lesson, students find ways to check out and focus on their phones instead.
Those individual distractions are not the only problem that cell phones are causing in classrooms. If you know anything about teenagers, you know that they can often use technology better than adults and they are inventive, especially when it comes to inventing ways to get around doing schoolwork. One of the newest ways to cheat on a test or assignment utilizes the camera feature of cell phones. A student in my morning class may take a photo of the test questions and send or show the image to a friend that has my class later in the afternoon. Students are using photos of homework to copy off of their friends. Although I would like to think that this hasn’t happened in my classroom, I know that it is happening. The subject came up in a faculty meeting, and a teacher told the tale of how she caught a student copying a friend’s homework off of an image on the screen of his cell phone.
Many cell phones today come equipped with not only a camera feature, but they often also have a video recorder and voice recorder as well. In the past few years, I have watched news stories that described how teens were taking a video of a fight. Instead of getting help, they were participating in the violence by filming it and sometimes cheering it on. It is scary to think of all the negatives that a video or voice recorder could be used for in a school setting. Photos or videos taken in a locker room could lead to disaster. Videos of fights inside the school could be posted on the internet before the chaos has even settled. Inside the classroom, students could take video or audio clips of what is happening in their classroom. As a teacher, this thought is quite scary, as a clip taken out of context could ruin a career. (I do allow that this last example could be used for good as well, as there are always a few bad apples in the barrel.)
Allowing cell phones in your classroom? Check out randomcreative's article Cell Phone Manners and Etiquette Guide: Tips for Teachers
As an English teacher, we read, write, analyze, research and discuss in my classroom. It is important to me that the fundamental pieces of our curriculum stay intact, but I recognize that the delivery of that curriculum can change and improve by use of technology, even cell phones. Although I am still a fan of students using an actual dictionary to look up words, it is not the first resource students will go to outside of my classroom. Sometimes a student will ask permission to use a cell phone to access an online dictionary or thesaurus. Looking up a word, doing a quick calculator calculation, referring to an online map, or checking a fact on the internet are all tasks that students can accomplish quickly and efficiently on their phones without ever leaving their seats.
Last school year, I taught an introductory drama class. My class did a video project which focused on movement and non-verbal communication. We called it the “Silent Movie Project.” Although we had access to a small handful of flip video cameras, there weren’t enough to go around. I organized students into small filming groups to solve the camera shortage problem, but students still asked if they could use their phone cameras to help accomplish their task. Outside of our classroom time, students used their phones to create additional video clips for their projects. I can imagine that cell phone video cameras will be useful going forward when we create video projects in my classroom.
There are various online learning programs that students and teachers can access to support classroom learning. One of those programs is called Castle Learning. My school district subscribes to the Castle Learning site, which is a large database of questions for all subjects and grade levels. I use the site to assign homework on a regular basis. At times, I have students who finish a class work assignment early. I allow those students to use the remainder of their class time to work on English homework. Since I only have three computers in the back of my classroom, students have utilized their cell phones to log on to Castle Learning and complete their assignments. I can imagine a day where a teacher could use a site like Castle Learning to give a quick assessment checking on what students learned by having a whole class clicking away on their cell phones.
In the English classroom, utilizing e-books and audio books is becoming more necessary at times. I have had students in my general education classroom that have had severe learning disabilities in the area of reading. There is nothing more embarrassing for an eleventh grader than his peers knowing that he can’t read. It is nice to be able to assign an in class reading assignment where students who can’t read on their own can access the text using an audio version. Setting those students up ahead of time with the audio version on their phone could be a solution that allows them to stay in the classroom and do the reading on their own with the support that they need to be successful.
Recently I handed the summer exam schedule to a group of my students who were in for summer exam review. Within seconds, they all had their phones out to enter the information and set up reminders. In my opinion, that is a huge positive, because those students are not likely to lose their cell phones, and they probably wouldn’t have made it home with the paper copy. With that in mind, I recently found an interesting website that allows teachers to send reminder messages to students and parents. The site is called Remind101. I created an account on this site, where I can post reminders about homework assignments, due dates, parent nights, etc. Students and parents can choose to subscribe to my account if they want to receive the information. This is a great time saver for teachers, as now I won’t have to take the time to create a database of emails for my classes every semester. I’ll let you know how it works out.
The reality is that cell phones are not going away, so teachers can consider using them to support instruction and learning in the classroom. The list of possible uses is endless, especially as the technology improves. Over the last year, I have allowed the use of cell phones on occasion when they were used in a productive way. Going into this next school year, I am trying to think of useful ways to incorporate the technology into my classroom. At all times, I am keeping in mind that striking a balance is going to be the key to success.
Do you think cell phones should be utilized in the classroom.
Whether you decide to incorporate cell phones into your classroom or not, they can still be used in a negative way. It is important to manage the use of cell phones. Set the ground rules early regarding cell phones. Be vigilant and follow through with the consequences. As I stated earlier, we had an issue in my classroom with texting. After that morning, I set out a very clear rule in my classroom that students were not to use their cell phones unless given permission by me to use the phone in a productive way. I told them that I was going to have a no tolerance policy, which meant that if a student used a cell phone without permission, it would lead to an automatic discipline referral. No questions would be asked. I would not discuss it. Those were the consequences. For the most part, that policy worked. I had one student who severely resisted and received a few referrals. We ended that conflict with a negotiation. I would not take his phone. He would put the phone on my desk where he could keep his eye on it. However, it had to be turned off and out of his reach. That worked on most days.
As technology improves, I get excited about the possible uses for that technology in the classroom. I have to admit though, that I am not as excited about the use of cell phones. I think they may prove to be more of a distraction than an asset in the long run, but the jury is still out on that.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
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© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt