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Cell Phones in the Classroom: Distraction or Educational Tool of the Future?

By Stacey Ross

When I was a kid, if my classmates or I (shhh!) were caught chewing gum in class we had to scrape desks with putty knives during recess. Some teachers would make the students put the ABC (already-been-chewed) gum on their noses to learn their lesson!

Well, now teachers are handing out gum in class, because studies show it helps improve concentration. Go to my kids' school and you will see it on the teachers' wish lists – no joke!

But what does gum have to do with cell phones?

Opening minds is how! Currently, there are a variety of school policies regarding cell phones, ranging from not at all (no cell phones permitted  on school grounds for any reason) to allowing their use during ‘appropriate classes.’

It appears that some educators see phones more as ‘biological appendages’ rather than mere appliances to converse on, but the issue still remains: Can phones in the classroom setting be more of a help than a hindrance?

Now, if you would have told me when I was a teacher that kids would one day be able to use phones in the classroom, in addition to playing video games, I would have fainted! But that was back then.

Educators are beginning to accept that there are various benefits to using smartphones in a learning environment. And like the permissiveness with gum, plugging them into a classroom setting is something that will need to be approached carefully and methodically. But it’s possible that there will be a time when integrating smartphones (and tablets) into standards-based curricula will be the norm!

The times they are a-changing

Many students turn to their smartphones and iPads for research and information, just like their parents do, and frankly feel naked without them! Even some standardized testing will shift to an online format by 2014. Ask an inquisitive student any question and odds are that you will have an answer in seconds, thanks to the availability of a shiny decorated object!

If this is the case, then wouldn’t it make sense to allow mobile devices for study and test prep?

Advantages and disadvantages of cell phones in the classroom

Of course there are numerous concerns about the use of cell phones in class. They include:

  • Texting or web searching for non-class-related reasons
  • Using cell phones for cheating on tests
  • Lack of equal access for disadvantaged children
  • Engaging on social media platforms

But then there are the benefits:

  • Great reference tools
  • Access to multi-media platforms
  • Paperless solutions
  • Being better organized
  • Access to parents and caregivers
  • Safety and emergency notifications

Integrating cell phones into the curriculum

The results of a Pew Research Center survey revealed eye-opening trends surrounding technology use by children ages 12-17. Parents report that 78 percent of all teens now have access to cell phones, and almost half (47 percent) own smartphones!

Mary Madden, Senior Researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and co-author of the study, suggests that school-age children are now at the forefront of mobile adoption:

“The nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically — from stationary connections tied to shared desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day... In many ways, teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity, and the patterns of their technology use often signal future changes in the adult population.”

What it can look like

Companies such as Avaya, Verizon and HP, as well as many smaller players, are working to develop in-classroom apps for mobile devices and integrate programs into schools. As professors in colleges use remote devices to have students answer questions from their seats, they are working on other areas where real-time student feedback can share how students comprehend lessons.

We await more pilot programs to clearly demonstrate the benefits and concerns of cell phone use in the classroom setting, but it is appears that math, science and research are just some of the educational activities that lend themselves to an expanded mobile presence.

To Ramsey Musallam, AP Chemistry teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, cell phones are a natural extension of the way he communicates with his students.

As soon as kids walk in the classroom, he sends out a text blast through Remind101, asking them a challenging question related to the day’s lesson. The students anticipate the question and come to his class prepared to actively engage in quizzes, polls, and even text messages. His students engage electronically and the results are shared with the entire class in real time.

Musallam suggests that this approach can work well in various subjects:

“You’re carrying around something that I can contact you with. It’s a fun way to stay motivated in our day, which can be pretty dry sometimes.... And this makes the experience more immediate. I want it to be as rich and as visual as possible. I want them to see things, not just know them.”

Where do we go from here?

The best approach is community buy-in and finding a way for all students to have equal access to phones or tablets. Providing educators with mobile device management software allows them to monitor every device that is plugged into the school network, and create cloud solutions for uploading and downloading content.

If programs demonstrate results, then students, parents and teachers will quickly jump on board. When kids are permitted to chew gum in class, they take pride in not abusing the privilege. Similarly, studies suggest that smartphones in the classroom will produce students who are eager to engage and participate.

Meanwhile, make sure those ringers are turned off while the kids are in class!

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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