'Take out your phones...'


Mobile phones are increasingly being welcomed in the classroom. Earnie Kramer looks at how they might benefit learning and discusses some of the key issues to consider when lifting the ban.

"Put away your phones.” It is a message many pupils receive when they walk into class. It is easy to see why: students busy texting each other or trying to get to the next level on Angry Birds are not focusing on school work. 

In a world where people rarely sit through a meal without checking their phones, sending off a quick email, or reading a text, mobile phones are often seen as a distraction from listening and being truly present in a moment.

On the other hand, students forced to put away the technology through which they communicate, collaborate, research and learn outside class are not very engaged in technology-less lecture-style lessons, either.

And so more and more schools find themselves considering ways to productively incorporate mobile phones into the classroom and into lessons. When it comes to anytime, anywhere learning, mobile phones are the one device that typically does travel everywhere a user goes. 

And data suggests that more than 75 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds already has a mobile phone (add in iPod touch or other devices, and that number goes up). Think using mobile phones in the classroom seems like a stretch? Consider this:

  • Mobile phones contain calendars, notepads, calculators and more, and for some students this can help to organise school work and deadlines.

  • With several free polling services available, mobile phones provide an easy and fun way to poll students and collect answers.

  • While a distraction when used for personal purposes, a teacher texting reminders, updates, announcements or even intriguing questions can remind students of school work and deadlines.

  • Mobile phone cameras can capture photos for reports, essays, science experiments and more.

  • While text lingo is the enemy of any teacher, when forced to use correct spelling and grammar, the character limitations of texting can help teach conciseness and word choice.

When teaching 21st century communication, using the most common tool used for communication seems the logical choice. Open this up to SmartPhones with internet access and educational apps and the opportunities are endless. Students can have access to interactive spelling lists, math equations, collaborative discussions, educational content, virtual field trips and more. Learning can become more mobile, more personalised, and more adaptive.

Mobile devices can be a tool, a “how” for learning (not a “why”), and they can be the most powerful tool, lacking the limitations of textbooks, blackboards, calculators, and even desktop computers.

But while there are opportunities to improve learning, there are also challenges that have to be addressed if they are to be used effectively in the classroom – not least finding ways to create balance, so that allowing appropriate use of phones in a classroom does not lead to constant, non-educational or inappropriate use. 

Any school or teacher considering using mobile phones in the classroom will need to consider how to deal with some key challenges.

Students without a device

While more and more students, even in primary schools, have a phone or iPod of their own, the digital divide is not overcome. Teachers will need to consider not only how to include students with no device, but also how to deal with different sorts of devices with different capabilities, such as mobile phones and SmartPhones. One technique is group work, in which students without a device are teamed up with those who do have one. Another is a collection of school phones, distributed during classtime to pupils without their own device.

Inappropriate use

One common concern is about inappropriate use, such as cyber-bullying or access to inappropriate content. Devices that connect to the internet via the school network can be filtered, but what about 3G/4G connections? In many cases, schools find that policies about appropriate use, education, and teacher monitoring do prevent misuse, and some schools report that giving students responsibility and trust leads them to make better decisions – by not having to sneak to use their devices, they choose to use them appropriately.

Access issues

Use of mobile phones over the school network may raise concerns about infrastructure and network capacity. Mobile phone use over 3G/4G connections is unfiltered and unmonitored (unless a filtering agent or browser is installed on the devices themselves).

Most schools require students who wish to use their mobile devices in school to either consent to installing a filter or to agree to abide by policies about appropriate use.

As more and more pupils have their own mobile phones, and as use of them permeates every aspect of how students (and adults) communicate and connect and learn, the ability to blindly disallow their use in schools seems limiting. While there are challenges to adoption, if they are planned for they can be overcome.

Today’s digital natives have grown up with technology as a part of their lives and their learning. They turn to their phones to ask questions and find answers, and then communicate and share information. This self-directed learning can be just the thing to keep students engaged in their classes, and spark in them an interest in lifelong learning. 

  • Earnie Kramer is a director of Lightspeed Systems.



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