Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cell Phones Help Students Graduate

With schools about to re-open in a few days, I asked a dozen or so high school students to name a few of the items on their back to school shopping lists.
“Clothes and sneakers,” one student said.  “Jewelry, a tattoo and a car” another student added.

Interestingly, none of the students mentioned that they would be shopping for pencils, pens and paper. Just a few years ago pencils, pens and paper were must-have back-to-school items. One student did mention he planned to purchase a trapper keeper and a calculator, but overall, the emphasis was on clothes, looking good and the social side of school.

When I was a student, I used to look forward to getting a new book bag or maybe a Parker Brothers pen set before the start of a new school year, but neither of those items made my group’s shopping lists.

I was especially surprised that none of the students included cell phones or smart phones on their back-to-school shopping lists. Smart phones today are like mini computers. Just about anything you can do on a computer you can do on a smart phone - read books, crunch numbers, edit pictures send email, listen to music, watch movies. Oh and you can make phone calls too.  

Cell Phones as learning tools

A 2010 Pew Research Center report stated that 75% of all 12-17 year-olds own a smart phone. That’s not surprising. Look around you. Just about every teenager I know owns one.  Students live in their phones. They’re texting, tweeting, YouTubing and FaceBooking – 24-7. What a colossal teachable moment. It’s just too bad most schools ban cell phone usage in the classroom. If part of an educator’s job is to meet students where they are, and clearly students are buried in their smart phones, then why aren’t more teachers and administrators meeting kids, at least half way, on the cell phone issue?

A lot of school administrators believe students will use their cell phones to surf the web, post to twitter and send un-schooly text messages. And a lot of students will, at first. But, I’ve found that with the proper guidance and when used responsibly, a cell phone can be an invaluable educational tool, a tool that just might help some students graduate. Here are a few responsible ways students can use cell phones in the classroom.

Use cell phones to take pictures of teacher’s board notes.

When I attend lectures or presentations I don’t always jot down notes in long hand. Sometimes I use the camera feature of my cell phone to take pictures of the presenter’s notes and slides. This is especially useful if the presenter draws a lot of illustrations or uses other visual media in the presentation. When I teach or give presentations, I encourage my students to use the camera on their phone to take pictures of my board notes. I strongly encourage students who have a difficult time taking notes to do this. When a student takes pictures of a teacher’s board notes or slides, that student creates a digital record of the classroom activity for that day. For many students, a picture is worth a thousand words. With the picture saved on a smart phone, the student can access an added visual resource to draw upon when reviewing for an exam or when completing homework assignments.

Use cell phones to record lectures

Most smart phones come with a voice recorder.  In the classroom, a voice recorder can be a student’s best friend. Every auditory learner should have a phone with a voice recorder.  In foreign language class, for example, students can use the voice recorder feature on their phones to record their instructor conjugating verbs or reviewing grammar rules. For the auditory learner, hearing the words is 10 times more effective than reading the same words in a textbook.  Once the lesson and drills are recorded, the student can use the teacher’s voice as a guide to practice grammar and pronunciation drills anywhere.

Voice recorders can be useful in any class where memorization and class discussions are a major part of a student’s grade. Another practical use of cell phones in the classroom would be in music and drama class where students use cell phones to record and study harmony, movement, and ensemble arrangements.

Use cell phones in Citizen Journalism Class

Cell phones have changed the way we access, produce and distribute information. Coverage of the rebellions in the United Kingdom, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya spread across the globe in a matter of minutes, thanks in part to Twitter, Facebook and text messaging and cell phones were right in the middle of the fray. The cell phone videos and interviews out of England and North Africa painted an authentic picture of the pain and urgency of the rebels. Student cell phone owners have that same ability to document and share aspects of the world around them. Media created on a student’s cell phone can be added to a student’s electronic portfolio.

For the experienced teacher, who is comfortable using technology in the classroom, it would not be far-fetched to assign students to use the video features on their cell phone to record interviews with family members, community leaders or area business people.
Nor would it be impractical for a teacher to have students use their cell phones to conduct a series of Skype interviews with local journalists, artists and inventors.

In addition to the traditional journalism fare – the who, what, when, where and why, students today can use any number of phone messaging tools like Twitter, Facebook Posterous, Evernote and Loopt to post live updates of school sports events, fund drives, workshops, meetings and other school-wide competitions.

Cell Phones - The New Computer On The Block

These days, I never leave home without my cell phone. Most of my digital life is accessible on my cell phone. By digital life I mean: books, documents, calendars, phone numbers, shopping accounts, email, favorite web sites, pictures, music, calendars, movies, television, news, weather, sports. You get the picture. Having a cell phone in your pocket is like having a computer in your pocket.

Given the recent cuts in education funding, would it be over-the-top for literature teachers to have students use Project Gutenberg to download literary books onto their cell phones? Project Gutenberg offers over 36,000 free ebooks to download to your cell phone.

National Public Radio has a cell phone app that streams dozens of educational podcasts daily. Some of the programs include Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, Planet Money and Your Health. These podcasts often feature expert guests from all walks of life who have fascinating and informative stories to share. Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz podcast, for example, should be required listening for any student studying the history of Jazz.

Other cell phone apps like National Geographic’s World Atlas, Google Earth, Where, Bing and Living Earth, make geography class a relevant and interactive area of study, especially now that students can share and manipulate the content right on their cell phone.

Cell Phones as World Bridges

The fact that you can use you cell phone to buy sneakers and jewelry, or record your favorite TV show, or turn your lights on and off is pretty impressive. The cell phone is more than a remote control; it’s a life controller. Yet despite the many roles cell phones play in our lives, I believe one of the best uses of cell phones in and out of the classroom it’s ability to send and receive information, in particular, documents, pictures, video and audio.

In my last Media Literacy course, we used Twitter everyday in the classroom to send and receive assignments and projects. We also used blogging tools. We never used paper.  Paper is too wasteful. All class work was announced and sent back and forth electronically, via Twitter. Students were taught how to use Tiny Url to truncate very long web inks and taught how to paste links inside the Twitter message box. Because we used cell phones, computers and Twitter, to announce, send and receive information, the window to the classroom remained open even when the school building was locked. The cell phone allowed the students to remain active participants in the class even though they were not physically in the classroom. Like cyber schools, responsible cell phone usage in and outside the classroom affords thousands of students the opportunity to stay in touch with school when other circumstances may exist that keep them shut out.

Blogging apps like Posterous, Evernote, Blogger, Word Press and even Facebook allow cell phone users to email and post assignments to their student blog quickly and easily.  My Media Literacy students used Twitter to access their daily assignments and they used blogging tools like Posterous and Blogger to showcase their finished work. To most principals and administrators, the idea of students using their cell phones to publish original work to a global audience is a joke. But I contend it’s just as meaningful and empowering for a student to do that than it is to submit a five-paragraph paper essay that has a shelf life of two weeks and only the student and that teacher will ever read.  


In a perfect world, this kind of shift in educational thinking would be considered a good thing. But inasmuch as cell phones can empower students and caters to their individual learning styles, there are many challenges that come with bringing cell phones, MP3 players and other mobile devices inside the classroom. Keeping students on point and focused would rank up at the top of that list of challenges. Yet despite the challenges, it’s incumbent upon the education community to consider the possibilities and keep an open mind about what schools can look like and what they can offer students, especially during these hard economic times. The education community must embrace change and innovation if we are to remain relevant in the eyes of our students.

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