Cell Phones for Learning


The cell phone debate rages in classrooms, staff lounges and kitchens around the world: How can we keep these devices of the devil from derailing learning? Cell phones have the power to disrupt a classroom in many ways: students forget to turn them off and they ring in class, students use them for sending and receiving text messages (whose content may be innocuous and social or may sometimes be more serious, such as personal threats or drug deals), they get stolen or lost and instruction time is lost to their retrieval.

Literature Review

A review of the literature reveals two sides to the discussion. On the first side are the people who reluctantly admit that campus security requires that students have cell phones with them turned off and inactive except in emergencies. Opposing this view are the people who believe cell phones should be embraced as classroom tools that can engage and motivate students better than traditional methods and tools.

Historically, as cell phones became smaller, cheaper and more commonplace over the last 15 years, phones were clearly disruptive in the classroom and had no redeeming value; schools throughout the country banned them outright. After the events of Columbine and 9/11, Beth Lynne points out in her essay “Cell Phones and the Classroom: Schools and Parents Should Adopt Clear Policies to Benefit All,” parents and students began to push for more moderate policies, recognizing the safety benefits of having personal devices for instant communication (Lynne, 2007). However, the school districts’ limited acceptance of cell phones in schools raised as many questions as it resolved. Lynne’s article enumerates a few of these:

  • Should students be able to call their parents during class and have them listen in on the teacher’s reprimands to the class?
  • Should camera phones be allowed?
  • Should students be required to leave phones at home during state-mandated testing (makes cheating easier)?
  • Have there really been emergencies in which a student’s cell phone has been the savior?

Collette Georgii (2007) recommends the simple step of checking in phones with the teacher on entrance to the classroom, the purpose of which is to minimize disruptions due to confiscation or students’ sneaking phone activity. Apparently, this is practical for her, with cell phones previously labeled with name, address and homeroom.

As some teachers have noticed, although we block YouTube and confiscate MP3 players, there is a lot of truly dangerous technology that we allow students to work with, including rulers, solvent-loaded markers, and pencils. In an essay in TechLearning.com, Wesley Fryer (2007) lists the rules we have developed over the years to accommodate having scissors in the classroom:

“No one (regardless of age) is permitted to run with scissors. Use of scissors to threaten or injure others is not tolerated. We keep scissors available in our classrooms to use at need, but we recognize the menu of uses for that tool must be limited by the attitudes, language, and actions of multiple stakeholders in the educational learning culture, not merely the teacher of record in the classroom.”

Outside the U.S., restrictions against classroom cell-phone use have fallen; in fact, many countries have embraced the new technology, especially in the university setting (Chinnery, 2006). Pilot programs in Korea, New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan have used SMS (text messaging) for polling and, most commonly, for second-language learners.

In contrast to the American teachers and administrators who reflexively restrict cell-phone possession and use, many teachers have made themselves into cell-phone proselytes. One of these is Marc Prensky, who has built an entire industry (web site, online persona, consultancy, dozens of articles throughout the web) around his own personality of Web 2.0 expertise (Prensky, 2006). Among other cell-phone ideas, Prensky suggests poetry games, phone-in caption contests, and classes conducted only via text messaging.

Probably the queen of cell-phone proponents is Liz Kolb, a former classroom teacher, district technology coordinator and current university professor. In her one-hour presentation, “Cell Phones as Classroom Learning Tools” (2007), she makes the case that cell phones have the capability to become the “Swiss Army Knife” of technological tools for the 21st-century classroom. Among the many creative cell-phone applications Kolb discusses on her blog, are the following:

  • “buzzers” (as used in classroom performance systems such as Qwizdom) where individual students or teams text messages to a special email account set up by the teacher;
  • cameras to be used in scavenger hunts (especially over winter and spring breaks);
  • clients for Powerpoint presentations;
  • mini-recording studios for oral history and other audio projects;
  • instant recording and upload devices for video projects (in conjunction with free video-storage sites such as YouTube and Eyespot.

Position Statement

Kolb’s enthusiasm and creativity is infectious. Her presentation takes viewers through many examples of integrated cell-phone use, in full detail. I was able to set up and use a free account at Gabcast in less than five minutes; I then called an 800 number from my cell phone and recorded an “episode” on Gabcast that was automatically published with a simple URL. She even addresses what you would do when you have a classroom with less than 100% cell phone ownership (give group assignments) and makes suggestions about minimizing families’ costs for cell phone use.

Unfortunately, Kolb doesn’t address two huge issues:

  • How will you get administration buy-in for in-classroom cell phone use?
  • With students using cell phones in the classroom, how can you keep them on the assignment, vs. playing around?

I suspect, the first issue would be simpler to address. You could begin by integrating cell phone assignments into your plans where phone use is only outside the classroom and work your way toward in-class use. When you’re ready to use phones in the classroom, you could either not mention the cell-phone use to the administration or fully document past use and your upcoming plans, overwhelming the administration with your massive organizational skills.

Regarding the second issue, how do we keep students on task currently? Whatever the system is, we know it’s imperfect: students continue to pass notes, throw paper airplanes, chat with each other, and … yes, even discreetly use cell phones for texting.


Chinnery, G. (2007). EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES. Going to the MALL: Mobile Assisted Language Learning. Language Learning & Technology. 10(1). 9-16.

Freyer, W. (2007). Scissors and Cell Phones. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://21centuryconnections.com/node/262.

Georgii, C. (2007). Teacher tips: How to deal with student cell phones in the classroom. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://www.helium.com/tm/699852/dealing-student-phones-classroomcell.

Lynne, B. (2007). Cell Phones and the Classroom. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://teachingtechnology.suite101.com/article.cfm/cell_phones_and_the_classroom.

Kolb, L. (2007). Teen Content Creators and Consumers. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://k12online.wm.edu/K12_Kolb_Cell.mov.

Kolb, L. (2007). From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Schools. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://toytotool.blogspot.com/.

Prensky, M. (2006). Using Cell Phones in School for Learning. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://www.marcprensky.com/blog/archives/000043.html.



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