Cellphones: Why Not Use Them to Teach?

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SchoolBook has started a conversation about whether it is time to lift the city's ban on cellphones in schools. We have reached out to educators and students for their views, and we will be publishing their posts this week. If you are an educator or involved in school safety and want to make the case for keeping the ban, e-mail us at SchoolBook.org. In this post, two experts in "Generation Text" suggest ways to incorporate cellphones into the classroom.

Twenty-first century educators, administrators, parents, and policy makers need to move from viewing the high-tech tools of our world as distractions to incorporating them into learning.

Educators who are taking simple steps and putting the proper building blocks in place are experiencing great success with their students who love their digital devices.

Rather than pulling their hair out with the constant texting of today’s youth, more and more adults are getting on board and encouraging students to use their mobile devices as powerful learning tools.

Across the globe, schools are moving from banning and fighting to empowering students in taking their texting talents to a whole new level by using them for learning, as well as using the devices to strengthen relationships with students and their parents or guardians.

Of course, this does not mean simply lifting New York City's ban on cellphones and inviting all students to bring their devices to school, take calls in class and text freely.

Instead, by following some sensible guidelines and putting the right foundation in place, all schools can provide students with the freedom to learn with the digital devices they own.

The first step is for educators to become familiar with how digital devices can be used for learning, then model responsible use for their children. Educators can do this by using the basic tools in their cellphones like the clock, calendar, calculator or notepad and moving to more sophisticated tasks, like using the cellphone to connect with experts via Twitter or get information on demand with tools like ChaCha or Google SMS.

Next, it is time to get the parents on board. Cellphones are a fantastic tool to meet schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott’s goal of increasing parental involvement and strengthening the home-school connection.

Educators can do this by communicating with parents using group text features already on their phone or with services like WeTxt or GroupMe.

Google Translate is a terrific tool to enable teachers to text parents in another language and understand responses as well.

Another effective way to build the home-school connection with cellphones is by giving parents and families a window into their child’s school day by tweeting updates that feed into the class Web page, as Tracy Karas, the librarian of Marta Valle High School, does, or onto a school's Web site as Matt Brown does as the principal of the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School.

Even when phones are banned at school, they can support homework efforts. Possible homework activities might include inviting students to text in prior knowledge using a service like Wifitti, which places students’ texts on a digital display to be used in class; sending students their vocabulary words, study notes or review questions into their hands no matter where they are with a group text; or having them create an oral presentation by calling into the teacher’s Google Voice or their avatar on Voki. Each of these ideas can be implemented inside or outside school.

Before inviting students to bring their devices to school, the appropriate building blocks should be in place. These include developing a responsible use policy with students, having students and their parents sign a consent form, addressing safety and etiquette, establishing classroom management procedures with students, and finally having teachers and students work together to incorporate the use of student devices for learning.

When these simple steps and building blocks are in place, students will be ready to incorporate the use of their digital devices in class.

Some ways students are experiencing success using their cellphones in class include creating a podcast with free services like iPadio or an instructional slide show with pictures and video with sites like Flickr. Teachers can harness the power of student devices as a free student response system with resources like Poll Everywhere.

Using the devices students love for learning makes sense. The ideas mentioned above support many of the research-based strategies provided in our book, "Teaching Generation Text."

When educators take the time to incorporate student-owned devices into learning they discover a wonderful way to collaborate with children and be more involved in their educational experience with the tools of their world.

Seeing cellphones as more than a way to check up on them, as more than a distraction, and as more than another bill to pay, can open our eyes to ways to build stronger relationships with our kids and strengthen the home-school connection, while leading the way toward connecting the school world and the real world by embracing the educational power of cellphones.

Lisa Nielsen and Willyn Webb are authors of the book "Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning"