Using Cell Phones in Schools

An interesting email landed in my inbox this week.  Drew Bailey—a student at Regis University in Denver—wrote to ask me a few questions about using cell phones in schools. 

Here’s what he asked:

In your October Ed Leadership article, you say that "75 percent of all kids ages 12-17 have cell phones" (Ferriter, 2010, p. 85, para. 2), and that 70 percent of such students have unlimited text plans (p. 86). 

The way I see it, in any academic facility you have to put every student on an even playing field with all of the same resources at their disposal…

My challenge to your idea is; How do you address the needs of the MINORITY? 

In other words, 75% of students are good to go, but do you just leave the other 25% to "fin for themselves", leave them out of the equation all together, or do you do something to supplement such as the school providing a temporary cell phone? 

I’ve shared my reply to Drew below.

I hope it helps you to think through the reasons why schools should be working to embrace the tools that our students can already bring with them when they walk through our doors.

Rock on,



Hey Drew,

Good to hear from you and your questions about what to do with students who don’t have cell phones are perfectly legitimate and incredibly common. 

Here’s how I typically reply.

One of the stumbling blocks to almost every reform initiative in schools is our stubborn refusal to move forward until the conditions are perfect for change. 

The result:  Change never happens. 

Some of the leading thinkers on change in organizations argue that you have to take the first step somewhere.  You can’t let perfection stand in the way of innovation.

For schools considering the use of cell phones, that means taking action and taking action now. 

I don’t care if 1 out of 10 students in your school has a cell phone.  That’s still one more device for learning than your teachers had before–and it is one more tool for learning that many schools don’t have to provide. 

In most middle and high schools, though, the rates of cell phone penetration really are much higher.  To ignore the fact that 3 out of every 4 kids in our middle and high schools is bringing their own device to school is just plain crazy. 

Think about it this way:  If you were a science teacher—which is what I teach—and I told you that I could instantly put 20 dictionaries, calculators, student responders and timers into a classroom of 30 students without costing a dime, you’d jump at it, right? 

If you were working in most classrooms, you would! 

You see, the typical science classroom in most schools has one working computer, no calculators, no timers and about 15 antiquated dictionaries that are really hard to use. 

That’s a resource failure on the part of schools and it keeps teachers from being effective in their classrooms. 

What’s worse–almost unforgivable in my opinion—is that it is a resource failure that can be resolved if our schools didn’t ban cell phones during the school day.

Now as far as the nitty gritty details of equitable use go, the fact that the vast majority of kids with cell phones have unlimited texting plans is key. 

What that means for me as a classroom teacher is that if I can have kids work in groups of three—something that I do nine days out of ten anyway—then I really only need one student to have a cell phone with unlimited texting.  The odds of that are pretty high in most middle schools. 

From there, groups can do anything. 

They can text Google for definitions and facts.  They can text Poll Everywhere with responses to classroom questions so that I can gather formative assessment results.  They can use timers for labs. 

And if I wanted every child to respond to individual questions, I’ll bet that the students with unlimited text plans—and their parents—would be more than happy to let student with no cell phones to use theirs as long as I explained what we were doing and why it mattered. 

I mean, who is going to argue about sharing a few extra texts when you have an unlimited plan?

I guess what I’m saying is that the majority of teachers will spend the majority of their careers working in classrooms that are under-supplied. 

Take my school—which is in an affluent suburb—as an example: The budget for our entire science department—which serves almost 400 students and has to cover consumables for the labs that we like to teach—is $600 in a good year, less in most. 

I’ve got one working computer in my room.  My academic team—-which includes about 120 sixth graders—-has close to 70 "working computers" in their lockers that we’re not allowed to use because cell phones are banned during the school day—a policy that is really common in middle and high schools everywhere.

That’s got to change—-especially if people are as hell bent as they say they are to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

Does this make any sense?

19 thoughts on “Using Cell Phones in Schools

  1. Suzanne Perez

    In a school that I am working now, we have a strict policy. The students must surrender their phones once the start of classes. They just can get it after the last period in the morning. The same thing happens in the afternoon. For me, this is good although other students are complaining about it because they cannot text immediately when there is emergency.

  2. Bobby Leverich

    i believe, that we as students should be able to use our cellphones for taking pics of notes, using the necessary tools we need during calss time, and to txt our absent friends the assignments for our classes. WE NEED OUR PHONES!!!!!!

  3. Elliott Bellaire

    Since cellphone usage among students can affect their studies, teachers should teach them properly how to become responsible phone users. Cellphone companies are actually promoting cellphone etiquette for everyone, especially for drivers and students. That way, people will be more disciplined with where and when they will use their cellphones.

  4. April Kassman

    Hi Bill,
    I have read your post and am quite impressed with your work.
    I am currently teaching ninth grade classes and pursuing a Masters of Instructional Media program. One of my current assignments is to interview a teacher who has successfully integrated cell phones into the classroom. Would you be willing to answer some additional questions for me concerning your class cell phone use?

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Whats interesting to me, Mark, is that while SMS penetration is still higher than Internet access, Pew has started to find that many students—especially from poor families—have Internet access on their phones only. The reason is simple: Data plans on phones are often cheaper than high speed connections at home—-and because you dont need another device to get online.
    That makes me think that eventually, well see more and more students accessing the Internet on their phones than we do right now—-including students in needy communities.
    For the moment, though, Ill stick with texting solutions because it is something that I can count on the vast majority of my kids having access to.
    Rock on,

  6. Mark Geary

    I am glad you are making the distiction about and discussing the differences between texting (SMS plans) and data (mobile/internet) plans. While the phone penetration for SMS access is quite high, around 88%, the mobile access is quite lower.
    I have written an article at:
    on how schools can move forward integrating some of the tools available via sms texting service.
    This is based on my expereinces with highly at risk students in a charter school where I worked as an administrator.
    Mark Geary

  7. ksblue

    Cell phone use at my school is ambiguous. at the beginning of the year all the students could use them. that did not last long. by the next month they were banned. As we are entering our final months of the school year our students are using them again. It is a very time consuming battle. i think if students would be allowed to use them as a tool they will. but they will also mess up and use them for the wrong things at the wrong time. But a school is a place for learning with teachers to help make that happen. Cell phones are another thing we need to teach responsibility for.

  8. Kristen Beck

    Thanks for the added information! Both blog posts will help me bring the topic to our staff for discussion. I also love the leverage argument. It is amazing to think that the students have hand-held computers when they use their smart phones. I also need to find a way to get wi-fi in my classroom so I can include the students who have i-pod touches and i-pads.
    Thank you for the information and the thoughtful conversation on an important topic!
    Kristen Beck

  9. Ronnie Gonzalez

    Thanks for the wonderful insight to using cell phones as an educational tool in schools. Your words and ideas are very inspiring.

  10. Madrone

    I love the idea of utilizing the cell phones as a tool in my one-computer-station classroom. My computer lab access is severely limited and, when I can get scheduled, there are 23 seats for my classes of 27 students. A cell phone isn’t my ideal solution, but it definitely bridges a gap.
    My question for you 3 & 4G savvy people out there – if I want to take a survey of my students’ cell phone capabilities, what questions should I ask? At this time I would primarily want to use Google and polleverywhere applications, but my own cell phone is a sad little thing without much access. Here’s my thought:
    1. Do you carry a cell phone at school?
    2. Does it have internet access?
    3. Can you/do you text?
    4. Is your texting plan unlimited?
    5. For class assignments, would you be willing to briefly share your phone in class with a student who doesn’t have one?
    Any other thoughts? I’d like to take the responses and my ideas to the admin and get permission to try specific types of interactions using the cell phones. Right now cell phones are strictly verboten, but I don’t mind rocking the boat. A little.

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Kristen,
    Glad to hear that this piece resonated with you. For me, the use of cell phones is about nothing more than getting resources into my classroom that I wouldnt otherwise have. Now, dont get me wrong: I think it makes perfect sense to teach students how to use their own tools to learn efficiently too—-but that argument doesnt always carry traction with decision makers.
    Saying, You cant provide me with what I need because budgets are tight, though, creates undeniable leverage.
    Heres another post you might like:
    Cell Phones ARE Disrupting the Learning Environment
    Hope this helps,

  12. Kristen Beck

    Thank you for writing this. I am sharing it with my administrators and fellow teachers. I agree that we have an untapped resource that is ready for use in our classrooms. I do allow students to use their cell phones which has turned out to be a great thing. The students realize that at school they are to use their phones as learning tools and not social tools. I am going to use your post as my defense for using phones in my classroom and to help other teachers at my school understand the rich resource that is available.
    Thank you,

  13. Raphael Hickling

    I believe using cell phones in schools will be good thing. But using cell phones to reach students outside of class will be great thing! As mentioned above, students are glued to technologies such as facebook and SMS. is a service that enables students to study using interactive SMS and IM. Teachers can reach their students in ways they haven’t done so before.

  14. John

    Some students acknowledge the damage done by some with inappropriate use of a cell phone. However, they contend that the majority of students use the cell phone constructively while obeying all school rules.

  15. crazedmummy

    In our school, I’d be happy to have kids use cell phones for learning. What they do use them for is to record fights and post them on line, update their facebook pages, play games, watch movies, and send text messages about how they are not learning. Since we started an aggressive policy to get rid of the phones and backpacks in class, we see that students are engaging in learning. Maybe the difference is in whether you are in a school where education is already valued by the community. Sadly, I am not.

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