Embracing Cellphones in the Classroom: My Recent Experiences

Update: The things I discuss in the post may not be feasible for every classroom due to students not having these forms of technology. I would not incorporate these techniques into my classroom if I felt like it would alienate some students because they did not have access to cellphones, tablets, or laptops. This semester, I noticed that in every class (three) each student had some form of technology. With the campus WiFi, the phones and other devices do not use data. These are things to think about when considering using technology like this in the classroom. 

Last week, I came across Anya Kamenetz’s article “How to Get Students to Stop Using Their Cellphones in Class.” The discussion is nothing new; however, I paused to read the article because I wanted to see what, if anything, it had to say that would validate my ever changing position on technology and cellphones in my university classroom. The article, obviously, speaks about the correlation between students’ grades and their cellphone usage during class. It also provides a couple of anecdotes from university professors who allow students a “tech-break” and have students turn in their phones for participation points. Both of these solutions to the proliferation of cellphone usage in the classroom appear reasonable; however, I would like to take the time in this post to speak about the ways I have started to embrace the cellphone in my own classrooms.

Honestly, I cannot recall when the initial proliferation of cellphones and tablets began to infest the four walls of my classroom, but I can say that my first reaction was to have students keep the phones in in their bags or pockets during the entire class. I did not want these little plastic and metal miracles distracting from the engaging information I had to provide my students about composition or literature. As time progressed, though, and smartphones became more bountiful in the wild, I decided to find ways to incorporate them in to my lessons.

Most semesters, I have had the opportunity to teach in a smart classroom with Internet capabilities. This semester, though, I do not have a single composition class in a smart classroom; instead, all I have is a chalk board. At the beginning of the course, I wondered how I would be able to engage students without the ability to show them images or have them conduct research in class while I can assist them. Since I noticed that every student in my three classes (75 in all) had either a cellphone, tablet, or laptop, I came to the conclusion that I did not have to hold court in a smart classroom or check out the always malfunctioning portable computer on a cart to engage incorporate technology into the classroom.  

What I have done, periodically, is have students use their phones to look at websites together or to conduct research. Of course, some students will take this time to text or surf other websites, but these distractions can be cut down by simply walking around the classroom while lecturing or while students conduct research. If students complete a task, I tell them that they can take a minute or two, while everyone else is finishing up, to check their phones, essentially giving them a “tech-break.” When I do not want students to use their phones, I just tell them that it is time to listen to me and to put their phones away. This does not always work, but the majority of the time it does.

For me, the most beneficial use of cellphones in the class has come during our current essay assignment. For this essay, students must analyse an advertisement or two. Since we cannot examine images together on a screen, and since I do not have the ability to print out 75 copies of the same image, I have students pull up the advertisements I want them to examine. To ensure they do this, I walk around the classroom and keep students on task if see anything other than the image(s) I want them to look at. After this, I have them look online to find advertisements they want to analyse. This works well because I do not have to reserve a computer lab or take the students to the library to look at images. Plus, it provides me with the chance to give them immediate feedback on the image(s) they choose.

The above example is a simplistic way to use cellphones in the classroom, and in future courses, I hope to incorporate more ways to bring the technology that students carry in their pockets everyday into conjunction with the learning they receive in my classroom. For some examples of other ideas, check out “What If We Allow Cellphones in the Classroom?” or Jeanne Law Bohannon’s blog on using Twitter in the composition classroom. What are some of your suggestions? What types of activities or assignments have you given in your classroom where students used their cellphones or tablets? Let me know in the comments below.

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