Using cell phones in education isn’t a new concept, but it’s something many teachers shy away from and hundreds of schools ban. The reasons are obvious – once you start allowing kids to use cell phones in schools, it becomes a slippery slope.
That’s extremely unfortunate, for three main reasons.
First, kids already use cell phones. They know how they work, so teachers can spend less time teaching the tool and more time teaching students the content.
Second, like most technology, kids like to use it. Technology projects are motivating because they’re relevant to students’ lives now. Plus, once students learn how to use cell phones for 21st century skills (like creating engaging presentations), they’ll often keep using the cell phones for this, outside of school. How many kids have created viral videos outside of school, simply because they’ve learned to express themselves compellingly? In essence, it’s encouraging them to extend their school day, even if they don’t always realize that’s what they’re doing.
Lastly, unlike many other technologies, cell phones are accessible. According to a recent Pew research report, 75 percent of teens ages 12-17 have cell phones, with 58 percent of 12-year-olds owning their own. Although wealthier kids are much more likely to have cell phones, nearly 60 percent of low-income teens have one.
“Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous in the lives of teens today, with ownership cutting across demographic groups. Beyond age, there are few differences in cell phone ownership between groups of teens. Boys and girls are just as likely to have a phone, though they do not always use it in the same way. There are no differences by race or ethnicity in phone ownership by teens.”
If they’ve already got them, why not use them? (And if they don’t, read on.)
If you’re teaching middle or high school students, chances are enough of your kids have cell phones to provide one per group, even in low-income areas. In fact, when I taught in inner-city New Orleans, almost all of my fifth- and sixth-graders had cell phones, and most of them lived in housing projects. Unlike laptops or home Internet access, cell phones tend to be nearly universal.
Depending on your project, you’ll need different features on the phones. Pretty much all cell phones allow users to take photos, videos, and record voices for free (even if service is turned off), so digital storytelling will be a breeze. For other projects, you’ll want Web surfing or texting capabilities, so you’ll have to recruit students with plans that allow for these functions at no extra charge.
If you’re teaching younger kids or your students generally don’t have cell phones, think about your options – on field trips, they could work in groups and use chaperone phones, if possible. Or your school might want to purchase a set of smart phones for in-class use. They’re not nearly as cost-prohibitive as most educational technology and, depending on class size, just 8 phones could be enough for kids to work in groups of four (a set of 15 would mean partner work, while 25 or 30 would enable one-to-one use). The phones could easily be shared campus-wide and checked out by teachers when needed – I’ve seen schools store them in a shoebox behind the librarian’s desk. A lot of schools have adopted sets of iPhones or Droid phones, but there are other affordable smart phones out there as well, many offered with educational discounts.
UPDATE: I got to talking with a few teachers recently and we came upon a brilliant idea for getting FREE cell phones: have a cell phone drive at your school. Most people get new phones every two years, and their old ones go in the trash. But these phones are really powerful computers, even without the SIM cards (SIM cards are what control your data plan, so no card means NO monthly fee). You can have a cell phone drive at your school (be sure to remove all the SIM cards) and then use the phones for photos, videos, video editing, and wireless Internet access. Without SIM cards, the phones can’t make calls or send texts but they can do everything else. Just think of them as mobile computers. Plus, you’re keeping those phones out of landfills.
If you choose to purchase phones for your campus, you’ll want to get models that can take photos, videos, and record voices. You’ll also want to look for phones that allow you to surf the Internet, via wireless, without purchasing a data plan. Phones with GPS applications are also a big plus.
I now work in the education department of an aquarium. We use Nokia 5800 xPress phones with students, which have all of the above features. We also allow teachers to check out sets of the Nokias to use in their classrooms; because many of those teachers aren’t allowed to have cell phones on their campuses, we didn’t buy SIM cards for the phones. That means the phones can’t text or make calls. It restricts some activities, but it keeps administrators and parents happy and it means no monthly bills. So the only costs we had to worry about were the $300 phones, which a Pearson Foundation grant fully funded.
As remarkable (and affordable) as they are, cell phones can be a sticky issue at some schools. So let me offer you a word of caution: before you start using them in your classroom, talk to your school administrator in detail. Discuss the benefits — which, in my opinion, far outweigh the risks — and have a plan to deal with any students who use them inappropriately. The last thing you want is for the principal to confiscate a child’s cell phone, when you told the kid to bring the phone to school.
Also, talk in-depth with your students about the expectations, especially if the kids are using their own cell phones. Explain to them that the phones are only to be used for specific purposes in school, and warn them that if they break your trust, their phones will be confiscated. Student contracts are a good way to help students understand your exact expectations, and to hold them accountable.
Finally, if using student phones, be careful about the projects you’re planning. Although it’s more unusual now, some phone plans charge fees for texting and Web surfing. Decide how you’re going to use the phones, and then create and use project-specific permission slips before you ask students to use their own cell phones. You don’t want a parent calling to ask about a $300 bill for an in-class lesson.
How to Use Them
Now that all your students, parents, and administrators have signed off, what are you actually going to do with these phones in your classroom? In all honesty, almost anything.
Below, I focus on the five uses that I think can best improve the teaching of any subject, at any grade level:
- class polling
- Twitter projects
- scavenger hunts
- Internet access
- digital storytelling
1.) CLASS POLLING
If you’ve got cell phones in your classroom, congratulations – you’ve just saved $3,000.
That’s about how much we spent, per class, on classroom polling devices at the school I worked at last year. But a couple of programs offer the exact same functionality for free – all you need are cell phones.
The software basically allows you to ask students questions, which they then answer via text message or their phone’s Web browser. The answers are available to you immediately – as a graph on a Web page, PowerPoint, or Excel document – so you can post the results in class for discussion or access them as a quick tool to check for understanding.
Poll Everywhere (see above video) is FREE for teachers with up to 32 students (or groups of students) – that means no more than 32 people can vote on each question. Let’s Go Vote is a similar option and is FREE for up to 20 users (or groups of kids). However, Let’s Go Vote has a few more restrictions – users can only respond via text messages, and you can only create and ask multiple choice questions.
If you’re interested in using the software for more than 32 or 20 students at a time, Let’s Go Vote costs about $200 per teacher, per year. Poll Everywhere is $129 per teacher per year or $2.50 per student per year for an entire school.
UPDATE: It’s not exactly polling, but I recently started using Wiffiti as a feedback tool during teacher training sessions. With Wiffiti, you can set up a “wall” with a background image. Then, users can post messages to the wall by navigating to a specific URL on their Web browser or by texting a message to a specific number. The most recent messages appear on the wall in large font, and all the messages are saved in a timeline.
For my training sessions, I have the Wiffiti wall displayed on a computer at the back (or to the side) of the room, in my eyeline. (Because of the large font, it’s fairly easy to read from afar, when I select the “full screen” option.) Then, during the training, I ask participants to send any questions or comments to the Wiffiti page. I can see them immediately and respond to them when it’s appropriate during my presentation, so I don’t have to stop mid-thought to respond to a question, yet my participants can ask their questions immediately. At the end of the training, I can access the Wiffiti timeline to ensure I answered all the questions or as a wrap-up.
As a warning, the Wiffiti wall can be distracting for some participants and because you don’t need to have an account to post a message, people can post anonymous messages, which could be a problem in some classrooms.
However, there are plenty of other uses for this tool. For example, for a teen program we’re planning, we’re going to set up several laptops, each with its own Wiffiti wall. Each laptop will be at a different center. As participants rotate through the centers, they’ll use cell phones or the laptop itself to post questions and comments to the center’s Wifitti wall. Then, students will each be assigned to a different center for a jigsaw activity. They’ll use the Wiffiti walls to start brainstorming a presentation.
We can save or print the Wiffiti wall timeline. So an extension could be to have students complete the same activity — rotating through the same set of centers — after we complete a unit. We could then compare how students’ comments and questions have matured.
2.) TWITTER PROJECTS
I actually first learned about Twitter at an education conference. Before everyone and their mother was tweeting, Tony Vincent was discussing its potential for the classroom. I wasn’t sure about it back in 2006, but I’ve seen some amazing ideas come out of it since then.
The most obvious use of Twitter in learning, I think, is for field trips. As a teacher, one of my most difficult jobs was connecting field trips back to the classroom, especially when every student group saw different things. But with Twitter, you could create a scavenger hunt with a series of questions about wherever it is you’re visiting. Then, as students discover the answers, instead of jotting them down on a paper no one will ever see (and, most likely, breaking a pencil point so they can’t finish the assignment), they can use cell phones to tweet their responses to a class Twitter account. Students could use their own cell phones, or work in groups that share one student’s or chaperone’s phone. When the class returns, you can use the tweets as a starting point for class discussions or to have students assess each others’ work.
You could still save students’ tweets to grade them; and you could even invite parents to follow the tweets, so they can see what their students are up to if they couldn’t be on the field trip. (And if you’re worried about safety, don’t. Twitter allows you to customize your settings, so you have to approve all the people who follow your tweets.)
Last month, I attended EduCon 2.2 digitally and heard some great new ideas from history teachers who use Twitter.
In August, the Massachusetts Historical Society began a Twitter account for John Quincy Adams. They posted excerpts from Adams’ diary, written as he traveled across Russia, exactly 200 years after he had written them. Tons of history classes began following the Twitter feed, and some teachers even started copying the idea – having their classes pose as historical figures and tweet what they might have written in their diaries.
Some teachers have begun assigning their students different historical figures to research. It’s not a new concept – every kid writes a report about one of the fathers of the country, and then they all present to each other. However, rather than having students present a report on their subject, teachers have them start Twitter accounts pretending to be that person. They then write feeds about their beliefs and everyday lives, as that person. Students, in the personas of different historical figures (i.e., Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin), even interact with one another, using direct messages, comments, or re-tweets.
For teachers worried that the 140-character Twitter maximum will encourage students to use text-speak rather than academic language, don’t fret. Research indicates that texting, even using text speech, actually improves students’ language skills. Gr8!
If you’re unfamiliar with Twitter but intrigued, the New York Times recently published a Twitter how-to for beginners.
UPDATE: Check out how this college professor uses Twitter in the classroom:
3.) SCAVENGER HUNTS
One of the clearest advantages of using cell phones in education is that they’re mobile. Students can take them on field trips, home, or even just roaming around the school. Which makes them perfect for one of the oldest (and most fun) teaching tools – scavenger hunts.
You can use scavenger hunts at zoos, aquariums, and museums, as well as in the school playground or even the classroom. But cell phones give you a lot more flexibility in managing these hunts.
First off, several smart phones come with GPS applications, so students can use them for geocaching. If you’re unfamiliar with geocaching, you basically give students the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of a hidden “clue,” and then they have to find it. Students can use their phones to pinpoint their exact GPS location and then move toward the target coordinates.
If you’re not ready to build your own geocache just yet, there are a lot of hunts, built by others, made available online.
But geocaching isn’t just for the sake of fun. Scientists regularly use GPS coordinates when gathering data, so it’s a good skill for students to learn. Once they’ve got geocaching down, they can use the phones to record GPS information on data they collect and photos they take for in-the-field science work.
If you’re interested in building or using more advanced scavenger hunts, though, SCVNGR is probably the way to go. When you register for a SCVNGR hunt, a clue is texted to you and, once you answer it correctly, you get the next clue. (If you don’t have a texting plan, you can also use it utilizing just your phone’s Web browser.) Some clues are brain-teaser questions, while others require you to go to a certain location and do something, like take a picture or reply with the eighth word on a sign.
Several museums and colleges offer SCVNGR hunts that are FREE to use. But the program’s best feature is that you can also build SCVNGRs yourself. Wouldn’t it be great to build a hunt, based on your specific unit, for a field trip to the aquarium? When you build a hunt, you can customize settings, so different kids can get clues in different orders (minimizing traffic jams) and students can get a message warning them that time is almost up so they need to head to the meeting spot. Plus, SCVNGR keeps track of each students’ answers and awards points for correct answers.
You can even set it up so that students work on the same team, yet are each responsible for sending in their own answers – no more group work hitch-hikers! Or, you could have your students build SCVNGRs for their classmates, in just a few steps.
It’s free to use SCVNGR hunts that are already built. To build your own, SCVNGR offers free public accounts, but the hunts you build can only be used by 5 separate phones. SCVNGR doesn’t publicize its pricing plans, but when I e-mailed to ask about educator deals, I got this response:
“If you’re more interested in working per-classroom rather than with a larger institution, we’d be happy to offer you a special rate of $125 for one classroom for one school year. That includes unlimited scvngr builds for 20 teams to play with 2 games live at once.”
UPDATE: I recently attended a Mobile Learning Institute leadership conference, where we discussed SCVNGR. One suggestion was to have students build the SCVNGRs themselves. I think it’s a great idea, especially since it eliminates the cost issue. You could break your class up into six teams. Each team could create a SCVNGR, and then the other five teams could complete it. Since only five phones are completing the SCVNGR, there’s no charge. Plus, building a scavenger hunt requires a lot more higher-level thinking than simply completing one.
There’s one more tool that can help you build scavenger hunts and, specifically, Web hunts. It’s QR codes.
QR, or quick response, codes are basically bar codes that contain any data you’d like – text, URLs, GPS information – and they’re readable using free software for your phone.
The idea is this: you can create and print your own QR codes, containing any information you’d like, for FREE at www.qrstuff.com. Then, you can post them in certain areas or give them to students. Students use their phone to take a picture of the code and the FREE software to decode it. Maybe the QR code contains a URL that you want them to visit. Maybe it contains a question you’d like them to answer. Whatever it is, it’s sure to engage students in the activity and motivate them to find their next QR code.
4.) INTERNET ACCESS
From what I’ve seen, 90 percent of the time teachers use computers in class, it’s for the Internet – usually, research. With smart phones, though, kids can surf the Web without a computer. A lot of adults generally don’t think about this because, for many of us, surfing the Web on our tiny phone screens is too frustrating.
However, most kids don’t mind it. In fact, I have an associate who trains teachers and students in digital storytelling. She told me that when she offers students the option of using a phone or a laptop for Web tools, about 95 percent of them choose to use the phones. When you think about it, it makes sense – students are used to using their phones nearly 24 hours a day, so it’s a comfortable tool for them.
When I taught, we had a limited number of student computers, and teachers were often vying for them. If we’d had a class set of Web-capable phones, it would have allowed twice as many students to use Web tools for a fraction of the cost.
When it comes to using the Internet in the classroom, though, I think teachers should go well beyond research. Students need to be using Web 2.0 tools, like wikis and blogs, even at an early age.
My fourth-graders blogged for an hour a week, and by year’s end, their writing scores were 15 percent higher than many of their peers’ – I think writing to an audience other than their teacher helped improve those skills. Students today can easily blog from their cell phones (honestly, they text faster than they write anyway).
For more info on blogging, check out my post Use FREE Blogging to Increase Your Students’ Writing Scores 20 Percent. The Mobile Learning Institute also offers a good starting point.
Also, if your students use wikis to collaborate on projects (and they should), they can definitely access and edit these from cell phones.
5.) DIGITAL STORYTELLING
Digital storytelling, in its simplest form, just means communicating ideas through multi-media. So rather than writing a story, a report, or a paper that only their teacher will see, students create slideshows, short films, or podcasts to express themselves to the world.
The beauty of digital storytelling projects is that they can be as in-depth or as simple as you’d like. When I taught fourth-grade, I had students work for several weeks to create in-depth climate change films. For presentations about winter holidays around the world, my students created podcasts in just an hour. And after a unit on Native American tribes, groups made narrated slideshows about specific tribes in two class periods.
Cell phones give students the power to record video and audio and to take photos. So how do students use the phones’ applications to create final, publishable products? There are a few ways, depending on the project.
Audio podcasts are simple projects that students can use to express their ideas easily and, better yet, quickly. A podcast is basically just a single radio show. Some teachers have students create them as summation activities, and others have their class produce regular, weekly episodes about everything they’re learning. Either way, cell phones are the perfect mobile voice recording tool.
You have a couple of options when podcasting with cell phones. The most simple one is a Web site called iPadio, though it requires you to have a voice plan. iPadio allows people to podcast directly from any phone (including land lines) simply by calling a designated number and talking.
iPadio is free for individuals and easy to set up – I registered, recorded, and listened to my first phlog (or phone blog) within about five minutes. You register your phone number, including the country code if you’re outside of the UK. Then, iPadio issues you a 1-866 number and a pin. Call, punch in your pin, and start talking.
When you’re done, your phlog is posted on your iPadio page, and you’re given the option to embed it into a Web site, download it, or copy the URL so other people can listen to it online. Obviously, one of the limits of this program is that students can’t edit their podcasts after they’ve recorded them. (Although they can re-record them.)
If you have the tools and the time for more in-depth projects, you might want to give students an opportunity to edit their podcasts before they share them with others. To do this, students will need to have some (even limited) access to computers.
With iPadio or a voice recording application that almost all cell phones ship with, students can record their own thoughts or interview others. Using the cell phones, rather than computers, for recording offers a lot of freedom because several students can work at once and the phones are more mobile. That means students can take them to other parts of the school, on field trips, or even home to interview people.
At the aquarium, one of our student groups often has impressive guest speakers. Students attached lanyards to a couple of our Nokias and asked the speakers to wear them as they spoke. Students would hit the record button, and then hand the phones off. Hanging around the speakers’ necks, the phones do a great job of recording speeches that are often over an hour long, without being intrusive.
After recording, students can transfer the sound files to a computer for editing, either by downloading the audio from iPadio, e-mailing the files to themselves, or using a USB cord to transfer the files directly from the phone. Audacity is a wonderful FREE and easy-to-use audio editing program. Even though you’ll have to use some computers for this portion of the project, using cell phones as recording devices will help you limit the time students would need to use a computer lab. Depending on your computer access, you can even have students rotate through a one- or two-computer center to edit their podcasts at this point.
On a technical note: Occasionally, audio recorded with cell phones (especially long chunks of audio) will appear on your computer as an unreadable file type. Don’t worry — it’s an easy fix. Just download the FREE software Mobile Media Converter. You can drop in the file from the phone and convert it to an mp3, mov, flash, or other file type in a single step.
Students can record video using almost any cell phone. They can either use the video as-is or edit it, depending on time constraints. Some phones, like the Nokia 5800s, come with built-in editing software. It’s fairly simple, but it definitely gets the job done. If you have the time, for most other phones, students can transfer videos to computers by e-mailing the files to themselves or by using a USB cord (most phones come with them). Kids can then edit the files using video editing software like iMovie, MovieMaker, or OpenShot.
Again, if you have any problems with the file type (though you probably won’t), download the FREE software Mobile Media Converter.
If you’re looking for some written guides for your students, the Mobile Learning Institute offers some good handouts on creating mobile video shorts.
Students can easily add flare to presentations using photos. They can photograph things they see on field trips, during in-class science experiments, at home, or even their own illustrations. They can then use these photos to create engaging slideshow presentations.
The quickest way to do this from cell phones is probably by using a program like DailyBooth. DailyBooth is exactly like Twitter, except you can add photos. Teachers can create a FREE class account and students can upload photos, with captions, by sending an e-mail from their cell phones. The class can then see all the photos and captions, in the order that they were sent, on the class’ DailyBooth page. And, don’t worry – you can customize your settings so that only people you personally approve can see your photos.
With DailyBooth, you could have all your students send photos, with captions, directly from a field trip. Afterwards, the entire class can view and discuss what they learned, using the photos as a starting point. Plus, everyone can share the virtual photo album that’s been created.
There are several other free applications similar to DailyBooth, many of which are directly connected to social networking sites like Twitter. To learn more, check out this Tech Crunch article.
For more in-depth slideshow presentations, students can transfer their photos to computers (via e-mail or USB connections) and then create captioned or audio slideshows using FREE Picasa software, iPhoto, Photo Story, or DigiKam. But the editing process doesn’t have to take long. This video, which was made for the Green Cup Challenge, is a simple slideshow of students’ illustrations, set to music:
Where’s the Beef?
Some teachers are wary of digital storytelling because they worry that students won’t acquire basic writing skills. However, when done right, students actually hone their writing as well as their presentation skills. You can’t just hand a student a phone and have them create a digital story – it requires planning and, often, research.
In fact, I used digital storytelling in every subject in large part because my students were English-language learners, and it gave them opportunities to practice their writing as well as their speaking.
The University of Houston has an in-depth digital storytelling Web site, with information and resources you can use to help your students create strong stories. (Be sure to check out the page on storyboarding.)
Let Your Students be the Teachers
I say this a lot to teachers (and even more often to myself), but it’s especially true if all your students are using their own cell phones: Don’t expect to have all the answers. It won’t be possible for you to understand how every student’s cell phone works in every situation, and it’s okay to tell your kids, “I don’t know. You’ll have to figure it out.” Most often, one of your students will be able to find a way to use the technology to get the result you need. But you’ll sometimes have to let your kids flounder before they figure it out. That’s okay. In fact, it’s good for them to learn how to problem-solve on their own.
If you’re looking for further information and resources, you should definitely check out Liz Kolb’s blog, which is dedicated entirely to Cell Phones in Learning. Tony Vincent also provides some good advice on using hand-held technology in classrooms, at www.learninginhand.com.
LESSON INTEGRATION IDEAS
Subject: English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to write a sequenced story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
Teachers often use add-on writing activities to build students’ reading and writing skills. One student starts the story with a sentence or two and then passes it on. The next student has to read what’s already been written and continue the story, then pass it again. Depending on students’ levels, the story can be passed through just three students or go through the entire class.
It’s a simple enough activity, but it can be expanded exponentially by integrating Twitter. One student could tweet the beginning of the story (limited to 140 characters), another could tweet the next piece, and so on. You could make it a lot more interesting by using DailyBooth — students would have to include a photo of something they see or of an illustration. Teachers could use a single phone at a center or several phones within class. Better yet, the activity could be a homework assignment — each student could be assigned a specific day to tweet from their parents’ phones and, after a month, the class story would be finished. (Throughout the month, students could even make predictions about how they think the story might end.)
So what’s the point of using Twitter, when you could do virtually the same activity without it? First of all, student motivation is sure to increase. Tweeting is more fun than passing a paper around, plus the kids have an audience of followers, which could include parents and family members around the world.
Also, unlike with a paper that gets passed around the room, you could even partner with a class (or several) in another country, having those students contribute to your story as well.
Middle School Classrooms
Subject: English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to effectively communicate his or her ideas using a strong, unique voice.
Digital storytelling is the perfect extension for any reading or writing assignment. Rather than publishing original poems or stories on paper, students can create digital stories to express themselves. Highly engaging videos and slideshows are likely to get a lot of attention on the Internet, so students learn to create presentations for an audience larger than just their teacher. Multi-media presentations also give students more channels to express themselves — from film-making to photography.
Plus, the presentations help students understand concepts like voice and mood. My students published their poems as podcasts, and used music to communicate the mood of their pieces. Here’s one sample from then-fourth-grader Sylvia.
When it comes to reading, classic novels can become a lot more exciting and relevant for students when they create movie trailers for the books, like this one for The Book Thief:
High School Classrooms
Subject: Civics, History, and Ethics
Objective: The student will be able to articulate the positive and negative consequences of using nuclear weapons at the end of World War II.
Teachers can use Poll Everywhere to ask their students an opinion question (i.e., should the United States have used atomic weapons at the end of WWII?). Then, have all the students who answered “yes” stand on one side of the room and all the students who answered “no” stand on the opposite side. Next, have students pair up with someone who had a different answer (you might need a couple groups of three, depending on your numbers). Give the students five minutes to try to persuade their partner(s) that their opinion is the right one. After the five minutes, re-vote. Who changed their minds? Why? Even if students didn’t change their minds, what did they learn from their partner?
More lesson ideas
Also, high school teacher Martin Perez lists several links to Twitter resources on his blog.