Educators look at using cell phones as teaching tools

Students in Joe Wood’s science class at Somerset Middle School in Modesto didn’t have to hide their cell phones in their backpacks. They used them to take quizzes, shoot photos for class projects and create podcasts.

Wood has since been hired as an instructional technologist for the San Juan Unified School District. He is among a growing group of educators who consider cell phones an important tool in the classroom.

“Let’s help them learn the way they want to,” said Joe Jenkins, chief technology officer at Natomas Unified School District. “They want to use cell phones. They want to text. … They respond to it.”

Jenkins recently received instructional software for cell phones. If it passes muster, he will pilot it in a class for a year before district officials decide whether to make it part of the curriculum.

Despite Wood’s enthusiasm for cell phones in the classrooms, San Juan doesn’t have a program. “We’ve been focused on other initiatives,” Wood said. “Down the road we may be teaching teachers how to leverage technology.”

But many teachers across the nation are already using cell phones for learning. A Spanish teacher in Wisconsin gives oral quizzes via cell phone. Another in Michigan has students take photos with their phones on field trips for an interactive scavenger hunt, while another in Pennsylvania asks his students to use theirs to chronicle their use of calculus in everyday life, said Liz Kolb, an educator and the author of “Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education.”

She calls cell phones the “Swiss Army knife of education,” because they can be used inside or outside the classroom. She said their use in class allows students to make the connection between learning and everyday life.

Proponents of cell phones in the classroom say they are battling years of negativity. Historically, educators have thought phones should be banned or confiscated. Most schools have policies forbidding their use on school property.

“I’m finding when I talk to teachers about this, they say ‘Don’t put me in the book. I’m kind of doing it underground. My principal doesn’t know.’ ” Kolb said.

But many districts are amending policies to allow cell phones on campus, if only for instructional use.

“We need to get away from this mentality of taking it (phones) away because it’s a nuisance,” Jenkins said.

Cell phones today really are mini-computers, Wood said. They have the same amount of power that a computer had 10 years ago.

Education periodicals, Web sites and blogs are filled with discussion about the use of cell phones in the classroom. The National Education Computer Conference, held in Washington, D.C., in June, included 13 sections of a workshop on the topic, Wood said. The previous year’s conference held only one such class, he said.

“The big buzz of the conference, was ‘How do you leverage cell phones for learning?’ ” Wood said. “Ultimately, in education, we want to know ‘How do I get my students to learn?’ “

Chai-Jung Chung, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Sacramento, said that using cell phones in the classroom can change a student’s view of learning. She and other educators believe the use of phones will encourage students to continue learning outside of school.

“There are learning opportunities everywhere with cell phones,” she said. “They can take a picture while doing something outside of school and put it into a project.”

Cell phones can help students and teachers become more interactive, Wood said. Polling students via cell phone brought 100 percent class participation, compared with about 25 percent when his students were asked questions verbally, he said. The anonymity of sending an answer to a Web site via cell phone helps shy students who worry about the social ramifications of their responses, Kolb said.

The use of cell phones in the classroom can help break down the digital divide, Kolb said. She said studies show that as many low-income and minority students have cell phones as upper-income and white students.

Wood said he was surprised to discover how many of his middle school students in Modesto had phones with data capability. But Internet access is not necessary for learning, Wood said. Teachers can use the camera, text messaging and phone features alone for a multitude of classroom uses.

“You have to look at the limitations of the assortment of tools (in the class),” Wood said.

He acknowledges, however, that the plethora of different phones and operating systems can be problematic.

Jenkins said that if cell phones are incorporated into Natomas curriculum, the district would probably have to purchase class sets to ensure equity.

Michael Flood, a manager for the Sprint communications network, said federal and California state technology programs offer subsidies that could pay most of the cost of operating a cell phone program at schools. Equipment is not included in the subsidy.

He said many districts have been trying to put laptops in the hands of every student, but they’ve found the program expensive and complicated to support.

“More recently what has started to take off are mobile devices and netbooks, which are lower-cost and smaller,” Flood said.

School districts should be thinking about using cell phone technology in their classes, Wood said. “You have all this equipment in your students’ possession,” he said. “How can it be leveraged for learning?”