Yes, it’s time to embrace cell phones in class

In 2007, an excellent educator who was known for incorporating technology into his classes advised me not to assign YouTube videos to my students.

“It has too much of a distracting quality,” he said. “You may do better to stay away from it.”

His concerns made sense. YouTube was not yet two years old at the time, and people were still enamored with the idea of watching videos of funny household pets whenever they wanted. It was hard to see the website as anything but a distraction. Of course, seven years later, YouTube videos have become ubiquitous in classrooms across the city, and many teachers would have a hard time adjusting to not using them.

It’s common for educators to steer clear of new technologies when they are first presented. For many, that is because they understand just how complicated it can be to effectively turn a new technology into an actual tool for learning. They know that just having a new device isn’t enough, and the learning curve can be steep. (Anyone can watch a video. But teachers have to find high-quality videos and decide which part of the video to assign and how to hold students accountable for watching it, for example.)

My colleague was very “pro tech,” but because he could not see how YouTube videos could be a successful tool, he concluded it would be more of a distraction than anything.

But teachers do eventually figure out successful approaches and, before you know it, the technology becomes a part of the learning experience everywhere.

I see this same pattern playing out over the realization that cell phones are about to make their way into classrooms throughout the city. Last November, a Brooklyn teacher wrote a letter to the editor in the New York Times to say that “Permitting New York City public school students to bring their cell phones to schools will inevitably lead to more distractions in classrooms.” He went on to conclude that if the ban were lifted, students would “be spending less time learning.”

In the comments of a recent Chalkbeat article, one teacher delineated a hypothetical scenario where a student simply stopped paying attention to the lesson so that he or she could return a call. A friend of mine recently remarked that if cell phones were allowed into the classroom, his picture would be all over Instagram and Facebook.

These concerns are completely understandable. But allowing students to use cell phones in the classroom for specific, academic purposes has the power to increase student engagement and allow teachers to more effectively assess learning on a daily basis. I intend to ask my school leaders to embrace this “bring your own device” approach and allow me to have students use their devices in class.

One way I would immediately use phones as part of instruction would be to automate exit tickets — the micro-assessments that ask students to demonstrate their learning at the end of a lesson. They have become expected at many schools, and I’ve found them to be a great way to find out how well each student understood the learning objectives for the day.

An app called Exit Ticket will allow my students to submit their exit tickets using their cell phones. Students are given a registration code that brings them to a secure area reserved just for the class. They find the day’s assignment and tap their brief rsponses on their phones. After class, I am able to grade their answers on my phone or computer and can see data showing me how close each student came to meeting the objectives for the day.

Edmodo, known as “Facebook for the classroom,” is also available in app form, and allows students to see and interact with content on a virtual class wall, where teachers post assignments that students can submit through the app.

Other options for cell phone use may make teachers’ jobs a bit easier. If my school opts to allow cell phones in class, I may never have to grade another quiz again. Castle Learning, an online review, assessment, and reporting system that my school has purchased, will grade them for me. The software allows me to quickly generate standards-aligned quizzes with security features such as scrambling questions or allowing the quiz to be take only during a certain time frame (like during class) to ensure that students don’t cheat. Saving me even more time, the software provides me with instant item analysis so I can to see which topics and skills my students are having a difficult time understanding.

These are just a few ways I could use cell phones to help my students learn. I try to run a fairly structured class, so I may decide to stay away from learning tools like Google Docs, for extended writing and collaborative creation of projects, Evernote, for dynamic note-taking, Quizlet, for vocabulary creation and study (as well as other new tools I’ve just recently learned of like Kahoot and Padlet), for a while. Others might find those useful, too.

Of course, there will always be issues with using these tools in the classroom. Many students cannot afford these devices, and others will invariably use Facebook or Instagram, or even place calls, when they should be learning.

While these are legitimate concerns, we should try to avoid allowing solvable problems get in way of progress altogether. Many schools have laptops and tablets to distribute to students who do not have cell phones, and the appropriate use of technology, including when to use it, is better taught in schools than anywhere else. I’m fairly confident that the issues that arise from cell phone use can be resolved by the highly trained professionals that operate and teach in New York City’s schools.

It’s worth remembering that several decades ago, teachers and schools were hesitant to utilize another new and innovative technology in the classroom. Many teachers were convinced that it prevented students from learning valuable skills. I’m sure some very effective teachers felt that its presence in class would serve as a distraction to learning.

The tool was the TI-83, a graphing calculator that is now used in virtually every math classroom across the country. Several years from now, after teachers have become accustomed to a lifted cell phone ban and the presence of mobile devices in our rooms, the questions won’t center around whether we should use these tools in the learning process, but how we can use them best. That, too is part of the pattern.

About our First Person series:

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