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Using Smartphones (and other PDAs) in Class: These Days, it’s Cool!

By Marcus A. Hennessy, CEA (ret)

boy writing on paper with cell phone in left handA few years ago, as Blackberries, iPhones, and Androids began to flood the smartphone market, middle and high school teachers tended to discourage their students from using them in class. And for good reason: aside from the annoyance of random ring tones going off during school, a bored teenager could easily tune out a lecture and text a friend; or worse, kids could dial up the internet during exams and, well, cheat.

But today, due in large part to the incredible versatility and internet capabilities of smartphones, educators are beginning to praise their upsides and take steps to minimize their downsides.

Three case studies on smartphone use in class

OnlineCollege.org offers a list of ten schools that allow smartphones in the classroom. Here are three of them:

At Cimarron Elementary School near Houston, TX, smartphones are actually given to students, but without messaging or calling capabilities. They’re used to access the internet, schedule homework, and send e-mails to teachers and fellow students regarding assignments. The phones allow students to conduct web searches, scan QR codes linked to relevant websites, graph science projects, and create Excel spreadsheets. Results are encouraging: students’ overall math and science scores have improved from the previous year!

Teens at Mounds View High School in the Twin Cities area were given the green light to use their favorite technologies in class, including PDAs, tablets, and smartphones. Teachers concede a few drawbacks to the new policy, but they contend the learning opportunities outweigh the disadvantages. Impressed with the positive feedback generated by supportive teachers, the Minneapolis School District recently approved a broader measure to allow tech devices into more classrooms.

Qualcomm is working with Southwest High School in North Carolina to improve student test scores using smartphones. Called Project K-Nect, Qualcomm has distributed smartphones in select courses, and teachers hope the devices will introduce high-tech applications to students who don’t have access to the internet at home. So far, the program has encouraged administrators after they determined their kids performed 25 percent better than classmates without smartphones on a final algebra exam.

Smartphones: Benefits galore for schoolwork

Smartphones give students a wealth of creative options to enhance the classroom experience, including:

  • Access to the internet for research and referencing
  • Access to e-mail
  • The ability to snap a picture of the day’s homework assignment scribbled on a whiteboard or take a short video of a key lecture moment
  • Apps like Evernote to store, catalog, and annotate smartphone photos
  • Apps like ResponseWare that convert smartphones into classroom “clickers” that can answer multiple-choice questions
  • Recording lectures with Voice Memo and other third-party note-taking apps
  • Using QR codes to find relevant websites with a simple click
  • Keeping track of schedules and dates

Coping with distracted and disengaged students

Sam Evans-Brown recently posted an excellent blog about smartphones in class on the NPR “All Tech Considered” page. In it, teachers say that if students are actively engaged in class, they’re much less apt to search for other things on their phones. Also, if you designate a time when kids can text at will, they’re disinclined to conduct “pocket texting” or “sweatshirt texting” during lessons.

According to one teacher Evans-Brown interviewed, emphasizing good digital citizenship goes a long way towards discouraging cyberbullying and the posting of embarrassing content. 

Smartphone use by teachers: Twitter and PLNs

In a thoroughly researched article for eLearn magazine, author Clint LaLonde discusses how the use of smartphones in conjunction with Twitter accounts has greatly enhanced the utility of Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs, for educators.

Based on results from a phenomenological study with multiple K-12 teachers, LaLonde provides a broad range of benefits for using Twitter to connect with peers, which can then serve as a “very personal and intimate construct” to “access the collective knowledge of a PLN.” These benefits include:

  • The ability to have spontaneous conversations with PLN members
  • Allowing for ambient participation by other interested educators, and learning by observing
  • Interested Twitter users outside the PLN can “drop in” on conversations and offer relevant feedback and advice
  • Obtaining virtually instant assistance to solve problems, whether in-class or on a more strategic level, and having potential solutions vetted by a trusted group of cohorts
  • Subscribing to Twitter hashtags of interest and developing shared objectives
  • Using Twitter to amplify ideas to a larger audience, often in conjunction with a blog

If educators teach respectful and appropriate use of technology in the classroom and use it to build their skills as well, the future of education technology looks bright.

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