Cell Phones ARE Disrupting the Learning Environment

I'm starting to realize that there's no single topic that brings out more passion in educators than trying to figure out just what to do with cell phones in schools.  I could post a thousand entries on teacher working conditions or merit pay and never receive a single comment, but when I make a suggestion that cell phones are teaching tools, I hear from what seems like a hundred readers!

My recent post—suggesting that boring lessons might explain student tendencies to use their cell phones as a distraction in class—–was no different.   Parents, prinicipals and teachers all chimed in, either defending cell phones as valuable teaching tools or calling them unnecessary distractions.  

It was a great conversation that has pushed my thinking and has me mentally wrestling with a few of the common cell phone concerns that my readers shared.  

For today, I wanted to explore something that Steve wrote:

From an administrator's perspective: Students ofteen use phones to cheat on tests and take pictures of the test. Students can also text the answer to test questions to their peers. Students can use their cell phones to sell drugs and send threatening messages within the school. Students can play on the Internet, chat with friends and ignore the classroom teacher while playing video games on their phone….

Currently, cell phones are viewed as a Budweiser t-shirt, a bandana, a mini-skirt, and excessive talking. In other words, a cell phone is considered a 'disruption to the learning environment.' 

Steve's right, isn't he?  Cell phones really are treated like Budweiser t-shirts and mini-skirts in most places!  Educators often see them as nothing more than "disruptions to the learning environment."

Which leaves me completely confused because my cell phone has done nothing but enhance and expand my learning environment.  

I'll give you an example from yesterday:  I was travelling back from a teaching conference in Washington DC and got stuck in the airport for a few hours.  Rather than dreading the wait for my late-night flight on a cramped commuter jet, I pulled out my phone, logged in to my Twitter account, and started to scroll through posts from dozens of teachers working in interesting classroom settings around the world.  

Their 140-character messages spotlighted new tools and resources that I was able to explore instantly.  They also included links to interesting blog articles about teaching and learning, and announcements for online learning sessions that were free and open to anyone.  Combined with the news services that I follow who post important headlines every hour, I got lost in learning while sitting at the bar drinking a nine-dollar beer in Reagan International Airport.

Five years ago, I would have spent that time crawling the walls—-or, I'm ashamed to admit, reading articles in the National Enquirer about aliens invading some small midwestern town in order to kidnap farm animals for their foreign world—–and neither would have left me any smarter!

The ability to instantly access information and networks of like-minded colleagues that my cell phone has brought to my life has literally changed the way that I learn.  No longer do I see "education" or "professional development" as something that happens in formal sessions delivered at pre-scheduled times.

Instead, I know that I can "study" while in the car waiting for my wife to get out of the grocery store, while brushing my teeth in the morning, while in the hallways as students are switching classes, while I'm walking to the car after a long day of school, while I'm sitting on the pot having my morning constitutional…

(You didn't think I'd go there, did you?!)

My cell phone is rapidly becoming the primary tool that I turn to whenever I'm looking to learn.  The only thing that it is "disrupting" is my traditional thinking about who experts are and how content is accessed—-and those disruptions have empowered me to take more ownership over my own education and growth.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm tired of schools hammering out wonderful cliches like, "We're teaching students to be life-long learners," yet doing little to examine the ways in which "learning" has changed over time.  We're stuck in the mindset that "learning" means sitting at desks plodding through a pre-determined course of study delivered by a teacher.

And honestly, that's sad because that's not what "learning" has to look like anymore.  While there will always be a place for a "curriculum" that outlines what students should know and be able to do, we hold students back when we refuse to show them the kinds of tools that they can use to independently and efficiently explore their worlds.

Are there challenges to using cell phones productively as learning tools?  

Sure—-and they've been outlined clearly time and again.  To start with, we've got to begin teaching students to use digital learning tools responsibly and we've got to find ways to ensure that every child has access to data plans that allow for anytime, anywhere learning.  I'll write about these in an upcoming post.

But to ban cell phones—-instead of systematically working to address these challenges—-is to leave children completely unaware of—and unprepared for—-the kinds of learning opportunites that will become the norm in the next 5-7 years.  

15 thoughts on “Cell Phones ARE Disrupting the Learning Environment

  1. Naomi Epstein

    As a teacher of English as foreign language to deaf students in Israel, I was very excited to read your article about “cell phones as teaching tools”. In israel Third Generation phones are widely available and almost all deaf students have them (a fact which enables them to use sign language via video). If you think your pupils are crazy about their phones, mine see them as an extension of themselves and they are inseparable! I doubt a service like “poll everywhere” would work here but I would appreciate it very much if you could help me explore how to make use of this very strong presence in my classroom!

  2. Cellular phones for sale

    Well, for me, it is not the cellphone are the disrupting the learning environment it is up to the person who keep using it as a distraction. Anyway, that is only my opinion. Thanks also for sharing.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Deborah wrote:
    I’m hip…I’m cool. I just don’t like the chronic, repetetive sneaky BEHAVIOR cell phones encourage.
    Hey Deborah,
    I’m an actual sixth grade teacher, too, so I know of the kinds of sneaky behavior that you’re talking about in your comments.
    What I wonder, though, is whether cell phones are the root cause of that sneaky behavior and whether taking cell phones away really solves “the problem.”
    What’s more, I really wonder about the scope of the problem. I know that on my most difficult days, I gripe about “these kids misbehaving,” but “these kids” ends up being a handful—never larger than 5 percent of my academic team.
    The majority of my students are responsible regardless of the tool that I’m asking them to use.
    If that’s the case, do we take away a tool that could be valuable in the hands of 95 percent of our kids because of the actions of such a small minority?
    That seems like an over-reaction to me.

  4. sweber

    The “Hidden Curriculum” exists in every public and private school. While a school or district may have a guaranteed and viable curriculum which is horizontally and vertically aligned, the hidden curriculum can hinder student’s educational experiences. The hidden curriculum creates barriers between the intended curriculum and the received curriculum.
    The “hidden” curriculum is the unintended curriculum. “It defines what students learn from the physical environment, the policies, and the procedures of the school” (Glatthorn & Jailall, 2009, p. 110).
    The main factors that seem to constitute the hidden curriculum are:
    • Time Allocation
    • Space Allocation
    • Use of discretionary funds
    • Student discipline
    • Physical Appearance
    • Student Activities Program
    • Communication
    • Power
    Educators should analyze the “hidden” curriculum on a regular basis. When an analysis of the “hidden” curriculum has been completed, the principal and the teachers should identify those “hidden” messages that do not reflect the intended curriculum.
    Glatthorn, A.A. & Jailall, J.M. (2009). The
    principal as curriculum leader:
    Shaping what is taught and tested.
    Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Examples of the “Hidden” Curriculum in Schools:
    If a school teaches students to value 21st Century Learning Skills, but most teachers still require students to take multiple choice tests, using pencil and paper then students may not learn to value collaboration and use of technlogy.
    If a social studies teacher says that students will need to learn how to give presentations, interact with employers in other states and countries, but only allows students to use the computer for Word Processing, then the ‘received’ message is that technology may not be as important as the teacher claims.
    In a school where students are told that Google is banned (Some schools even have posters proclaiming this message), students may receive an unintended message.
    In a school where teachers use blogs, but they are post-only blogs (only intended for the teacher’s opinions), students may receive the message that their opinion(s) is not valued as much as the teacher’s opinion.
    Note: This same scenario is true in a class that is dominated by teacher lecture. If students use Web 2.0 tools at home, then they will not feel empowered by listening to a 45 minute lecture on Ancient Egypt.
    In a school where students use the mobile labs once a week, the message may be that technology is important but only once a week. The obvious solution to this problem is a 1:1 setting. We would not teach math once each week!
    Questions for Administrators and Collaborative Teams
    1. What are the “hidden” messages that students receive in our school/school district?
    2. How do the current “hidden” messages interfere with the intended
    3. What can teachers and administrators do to correct unintended messages?
    4. Does the “hidden” curriculum exist in our school, or is it a “ghost story”
    without supporting evidence?
    5. Is it possible to have a “hidden” curriculum every year since educators are humans and humans are not perfect?

  5. Deborah

    Let me preface my remarks by saying that I am an actual high school teacher. I see students using their cell phones to check the time (7 out of 27 students in my 3rd hour admitted that they can’t read an analog clock), text bonus questions to their friends who will take my test later in the day, text friends to meet them in the bathroom at a certain time for a smoke…must I go on? I would LOVE to have students access the internet via their cell phones in lieu of going to the computer lab. But not every student has a phone with that level of access. What should we do with those students? I am trying to hang on long enough to see the day when my students are issued a laptop at the beginning of the school year instead of $700 worth of books so that teachers like me can get on the digital learning train and not be lumped in with those teachers who bore their students to death. When there is equal access to technolgy, I will be a very happy teacher. Sure, cell phones drive me nuts,but not because I am a fossil who doesn’t like technology. I use my active board like a banshee, my students text constructed responses with my class set of Active Expressions. I’m hip…I’m cool. I just don’t like the chronic, repetetive sneaky BEHAVIOR cell phones encourage.

  6. K. Borden

    Let’s be honest. Calculators have been around for many decades and yet the debate continues to rage amongst educators about whether they are appropriate for student use and if so at which level. If Texas Instruments had not fully supported the development of the graphing calculators, I have to wonder how many cell phone toting middle school students would be permitted to use a calculator. Whole books have been written on the jokes and tricks students can engage the calculator to enjoy.
    Today is actually the anniversary of the patent of the pencil with an eraser attached. Today’ system faced with this innovation may well be envisioned arguing that the convenience of erasing answers might allow students not to show their original work product and the oh so fun and later development of eraser people as a diversion would have surely met with great guffaws.
    My experience as the mother of a child who has a handwriting disability was that even using a memory stick to use the desktop computers met with less than enthusiastic acceptance. And despite the trend toward blaming administrators, I found the resistance from teachers.
    Mr. Ferriter, your comments toward the end of your original post recognize the issue is far bigger than cell phones. The way people access information, engage the world around them and learn has changed. You say “the kinds of learning opportunites that will become the norm in the next 5-7 years.” I would go further and say the train left the station with the advent of the internet and the system is already far behind. The title of your post, “Cell Phones ARE Disrupting the Learning Environment” presumes something this radical rejected…that the “learning environment” doesn’t need to be disrupted. I tend toward “disruption” aimed at making the “learning environment” one that is in pace with the world we inhabit. Today, a great education is only a few clicks away. Tomorrow you may not have to click.

  7. Mike Arsenault

    Great Post Bill.
    The true issue is student engagement. I have been working in 1 to 1 computing environments for 7 years. When it all started teachers wanted to take away laptops from students for being off task with the device. It’s not the device that is the problem. It’s the level of student engagement that is the issue.
    When I was a student we didn’t have these great devices to distract us. We still displayed this sort of behavior. I would get caught from time to time with a Sports Illustrated magazine inside my Social Studies text book. It wasn’t the media that was the problem. It was my own off task behavior that was fueled by school work that I didn’t see as relevant.
    Banning cell phones and laptop computers from students would be as ridiculous as banning paper because students might write a note to a friend on it. We need to look at these devices in new disruptive ways that can change the way we teach and learn. My own life has changed dramatically since I have purchased a smart phone. It’s a mini computer in my pocket wherever I go connecting me to a world of new knowledge anywhere anytime.

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Paul,
    You make a lot of good points, that’s for sure—and I agree that netbooks are an option that we’ve got to pursue if we hope to expand computer access in schools.
    I think about the two new desktops that were moved into my room the other day and I’m pretty sure that we could have gotten three or four netbooks instead—and considering that everything that we do with desktop software can be done for free online, netbooks are the more responsible purchase.
    As far as cell phones go, I guess our debate is really a moot point, isn’t it—-considering that cell phones are prohibited to all students at all grade levels on most campuses in our country!
    In some ways, that’s where my post comes in. I understand that the kinds of things that I’m describing are not ubiquitous for kids yet, but they will be in a very, very short time.
    And until we paint a picture of how phones are changing learning for those who have the final “say so” over state and district policies, those changes won’t touch classrooms.
    I’m trying to change the conversation around cell phones, I think. I’m trying to show that there are real learning uses instead of real opportunities for “disruptions.”
    Does this make sense?

  9. AtlantaTeacher1976

    We’ll also be exploring this issue at http://forcuriousteachers.com It’s amazing how the discipline office in my school is overwhelmed with “discipline referrals” for cell phones. It’s a losing battle. Students have them and won’t leave them at home. Point blank. I’ve used polleverywhere.com with them and they were stunned that I was letting them use their phones.

  10. Paul C

    Of course, Bill, part of the problem is discussing “education” as one big room where everyone should be doing the same thing. Clearly, high school students can be taught how to use cell phones as ultra-portable internet-connected computers, but I don’t think that it will be as easy for middle and elementary school students. I have taught middle schoolers for many years (as you have, I know) and you and I both recognize the unique challenges of this group. They spend much of their day focused on socializing and playing games (as any early adolescent would). Even if properly instructed on the use of a cell phone for educational purposes, it would be difficult to manage such a small device and ensure that it is being used for constructive purposes. I see the potential, but the logistical demands seem to outweigh the potential benefits.
    Another point: the types of devices that can do what you have described are far from common in the hands of adolescents. I shudder to think of the parent who would entrust a $400 to $500 (replacement cost, not “new contract” subsidized price) electronic device into the hands of a 12-year-old at a public school. The types of phones that most of my students have (based on my personal experience with confiscations) are not readily capable of accessing the [real] internet, even with the data plans that you mentioned. Wouldn’t $300 netbooks be a better choice all around for the classroom?
    As for life-long learning, maybe we should bring entire families in for education nights in which we demonstrate some of the available tools (e.g., Google search by SMS) for young and old alike. The classroom seems like a poor choice considering the scarcity of capable devices (at least in my classroom). It would be like demonstrating how to wind a Rolex to my students.

  11. Jill Malpass

    I have been following your blog since December. Your previous cell phone article prompted me to write an article on my blog, http://www.jmalpass.blogspot.com/ about technology including the student made video you posted. I also surveyed my students about cell phone use via a google form so that they could answer anonymously. Here is a copy of my questions: http://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=cElRUnZFNW16THlBNlB0SXg5LTlNU2c6MA.. The results were amazing. Many of the students were very interested in using their cell phone for educational purposes. They were also quite harsh with the consequences for using it inappropriately. If you would like to see a copy of my results, send me an email and I will send it to you.
    Thanks for always sharing such good information.

  12. Kelly Hines

    Great post. I think a huge part of having students use their cell phones for educational use is showing them how to do it. My student teacher this year is a wonderful girl who was well indoctrinated in social media tools for her personal use. Until she stepped inside my classroom, she had no idea who they could be used for learning. Now I think she feels a bit cheated by the university system that could have been preparing her to use the tools that she has as a way to extend her learning. Why can’t we do that for our students? If we teach them to use the tools that they have for enhancing learning, haven’t we truly prepared them to be life-long learners? If they are equipped to continue learning when the notebooks, textbooks and tests run out, we have truly done our jobs.

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