Cell Phones in the Classroom: Collaborative or Calamitous?

Award Winner: 
2012 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
James May
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Valencia College
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 


In an effort to model the benefits of using smart devices and web 2.0 applications, I have added two things to this submission:

For Listeners: if you are an auditory learner and would rather listen to my effective practice submission as you read it, or while you are eating your lunch, I have provided the following link. I made this audio file of my submission using a smartphone application called SpeakIt. http://faculty.valenciacollege.edu/lab/sloanc.mp3

Learn More: if you like the ideas presented in this practice or would like to learn more about free and easy to use teaching technologies as I do, feel free to sign yourself up for future notifications of teacher tricks. Using Remind101 (you will learn more about this later) I have created a notification group for interested teachers who want to share ideas.

To be notified by email: send an email to tchrtricks@remind101.com

To be notified by SMS text: text @tchrtricks to the following number (832) 900-3652


A recent college study “found that 95% of students bring their phones to class every day, 92% use their phones to text message during class time, and 10% admit they have texted during an exam on at least one occasion” (Tindell & Bohlander, 2012). I too have found related cellphone ubiquity within the ESL for Academic Purposes (EAP) program at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. In a fall 2011 study (N = 447), 95% of students owned cellphones, and while 62% owned smartphones and 38% owned feature phones, 88% of respondents communicated via SMS text. In an effort to meet and teach students where they are and through the communication mediums they prefer, I have employed a variety of Web2.0 and smart device technologies and strategies in my classroom. The approach has allowed me to model transactive thinking and learning, employ brain based learning practices, better engage my students, and reduce textbook costs.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

For years I have heard colleagues and friends bemoan the great change we are experiencing in higher education and society at large. “It is like we have awakened on a different planet, one where students are different, communication is different, entertainment is different, and even learning is different.” I have even seen some teachers employ practices that forbid the use of technology (laptops, smartphones & smart devices) in the classroom, and I have wondered…to what end? What greater benefit could this practice serve? I have heard colleagues say “I am just not a technology person,” and I have wondered what if my second language students told them “I am just not an English user.” From my perspective, when English teachers say “I am not a math person” or math teachers say “I am not a writer” it sends the wrong message to students. How are we modeling lifelong learning to students if we are quick to defend our lack of expertise in math, writing, or technology by dismissing these fields or worse, banning them, from our classrooms? Wouldn’t we better model to students a passion for lifelong learning if we embraced things we didn’t know and mentored new and effective ways to learn them? Following on that line of reasoning, I have embraced new practices in my classroom. I use smartphones, smart devices and a variety of Web 2.0 and smart device applications to facilitate learning. Here is a link to a Valencia produced video spot of me using smart devices with my students http://youtu.be/qRni2q8KN1w I have also found that this practice allows me to:

Better engage students: I start every semester by asking my students if they have a smartphone or smart device. I ask them how many of them use SMS text to communicate. To their surprise, I then tell them to take out their phones and devices and leave them on the desktops because we will be using them throughout the semester. Each day I try to work in problems to solve or I share apps or learning tricks utilizing various technologies. Anecdotally, I have found that by teaching and learning through these devices students have become more engaged in my classes. Students also come in wanting to share new technologies and resources they have found that have helped them learn.

Disseminate content: I use QR code, tiny URLs, and other links to share content with my students and other colleagues when I do faculty development. For example, on the first day of class, students download QR code scanners to their devices and immediately link to my syllabus via a QR code I project on the screen. The QR code takes them to the web-based document which downloads to their phone in seconds. I do the same with various handouts, readings, quizzes, and surveys throughout the semester. For students without smartphones, or phones with scanners, I give tiny URLs and embed links to content in Blackboard, our learning management system.

Provide On-Demand Learning: Also embedded in my Blackboard course is a folder called FAQ&How2 which holds On-Demand learning videos and screencasts that I have made for my students. For example, I require my writing students to scan documents using a document scanner in the writing center, so I have created a how2 video (a digital mashup of actual video and screencast) to show them how to use the resources in the lab to scan documents. They are able to watch the video instructions on their phone while they are attempting to scan the documents in the lab. After they have done this a few times, I share with them a variety of apps that would let them do the same thing with their phones. I also share with them the wonders of YouTube, Khan Academy, and a variety of other video On-Demand learning resources they can access through their phones.

Provide immediate feedback: I use cellphones to provide students with immediate visual feedback by using tools classroom response tools like Poll Everywhere and Socrative. These free tools allow students to text or click in their answers individually or in groups. Their answers are then graphed and projected anonymously to the entire class. This allows them to benefit from group think and spurs great conversations about why the answers are what they are and how we got to these answers, rather than simply what the answers are.

Assess learning: I also utilize smart devices and Google Forms to formatively assess students with what I see as the 21st century equivalent of Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo & Cross 1993). I have students use QR code or go to http://tinyurl.com/teachmeaskme to take a survey that asks them to either teach me back something they learned that day or ask me about something they had trouble with. Since I am using Google Forms, the responses are time stamped and arranged in a Google spreadsheet for me which allows me to see how a class went or more importantly how I can improve it. Model transactive thinking and learning beyond my classroom: Like it or not, the digital/millennial shift we are experiencing, has, for lack of a better analogy, brought us to a different planet. We, professors, are no longer the living stores of information. Everything we know and more is available via smartphone, and students have access to it for free if they know how to ask. We are no longer remembering things; we are remembering how to get to things (Sparrow, Liu, Wegner, 2011). Using smart phones and devices in my classroom allows me to model digital, transactive thinking and learning, best practices for finding information, and critical analysis, not only for content in my classroom, but for content beyond my classroom.

Sample list of smart device applications and resources I use with students:

Remind101, Google Docs, Google Forms, Google Goggles, SoftChalk, Camtasia, Poll Everywhere, SMS Text, Wiffiti, Socrative, YouTube, RSA Animate, Khan Academy, TED, QIK, Animoto, VoiceThread, Inigma, Genius Scan, Imagetotxt, speakit, hootsuite, posterous, iprompt, dropbox, and more.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

As a community college professor and EAP discipline chair, I am responsible for 11 other ESL instructors, and I teach 6 classes each semester. So, obviously, the amount of time I can afford to devote to classroom research is limited. However, I have found anecdotally and through student self-report what others have found, that students are engaged by these practices. For example, in my classroom I use free applications to turn smartphones and other devices into clicker systems (a.k.a. Classroom Response Systems). Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that when clicker systems were used, 94 percent of responding faculty agreed or strongly agreed that clickers increased student engagement (Kaleta & Joosten, 2007). Moreover, this study found that 69 percent of the 2,684 student respondents agreed or strongly agreed that clickers led them to become engaged in class.

Beatty (2004) noted that “By providing frequent feedback about students' ongoing learning and confusions, it can help an instructor dynamically adjust her teaching to students' real, immediate, changing needs.” Again, I personally have found that these tools allow me to improve attentiveness and increase knowledge retention; Kaleta and Joosten’s (2007) echo these findings “53 percent of the student respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the claim clickers have been beneficial to their learning,” but smart devices allow for so much more. I can poll students anonymously, give instant results, confirm audience understanding and provide feedback, and gather data for reporting.

Beyond simulated clickers, I have found that smartphones and devices provide other tools to engage students, disseminate content and on-demand learning videos, provide immediate feedback, assess learning, and model transactive thinking and learning beyond my classroom. For example, as I mentioned earlier, Google Forms and smart devices can be leveraged to create 21st century Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). This practice allows for content and instruction that is learning centered, teacher directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context-specific, ongoing, etc. (Angelo and Cross 1993). Over time as I have developed more activities and content, I have also found myself becoming more open source (and thereby reducing material costs for my students. In fact, students in my classes no longer purchase texts). In modeling transactive thinking and learning, I have found a variety of open-source, creative commons licensed content that I can share with students (e.g. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Innitiative, Cable Green’s work for the Washington State Community and Technical college, Salman Khan’s work through the Khan Academy, and the 48 hours of video content that continues to be uploaded to YouTube every hour of every day).

The visual and audio channels inherent in the digital content also allow me to edutain and employ brain rules; techniques which allow me to better engage students and enhance learning. For example, in John Medina’s book Brain Rules (2008), he outlines 12 rules that explain why and how our brains learn, but he supports his conclusions with numerous studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and successfully be replicated. For example, Brain Rule #4 is that we don’t pay attention to boring things. According to Medina, we as teachers have 10 minutes before attention starts to drift, but if we redesign our delivery of content to include activities using smartphones and other devices periodically throughout a class period, we can regain student attention and improve engagement and learning. As I mentioned above, as a community college professor, I haven’t had the time to empirically examine my practices, so instead I have built them upon the research and thinking of others. Attention is just one of the brain rules; the following link takes you to a three page PDF of research supporting this rule: http://www.brainrules.net/pdf/references_attention.pdf . The other brain rules are equally well supported (Sensory Integration, Vision, and Exploration); they also align themselves nicely to the use of smartphones in the classroom.

Using smartphones to gather longitudinal evidence of effectiveness: I would like to thank SloanC for this opportunity to think more deeply about how I assess my practices. This opportunity has given me a new idea (technically an exaptation of an idea); however, it is highly possible that others will want to employ this practice as well. In Steven Johnson’s book about innovation (2010) he discusses how innovations are often slow hunches of ideas that need time to collide with other ideas. Writing this paper has provided an opportunity for my ideas to collide. For a while now, I have been sitting on a Web2.0 technology called Remind101, which is essentially a free web-based SMS texting tool. It allows for me to create a class, students then text in and sign up for the class (the program keeps their phone numbers private, and allows them to sign in with a name). Once students have signed up, I can send the entire class a burst text message. I was originally going to use this to share class notes, new apps, videos, and technologies with my students long after they had left my class. However, this assignment has made me realize that I can use this same tool to longitudinally survey my students to identify how effectively the strategies I share with them are serving them in other college classes and beyond.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 


Access – With nearly 500 million smartphones sold in 2011 and more projected this year, access is, or will be, ubiquitous (Mobithinking, 2012). Students and teachers will continue to have improved access to digital and video on-demand content and instruction through smart devices. Moreover, the strategies and tools that students learn are likely to be transferred to studies in other disciplines and used to assist lifelong learning thereby providing students and teachers access far beyond the classroom. Also, as content and training is established and disseminated freely, there is the possibility for reduced materials purchases, which could reduce course costs and open access to lower SES student populations.

Faculty Satisfaction – Colleagues who have adopted similar practices have anecdotally reported to me an increase in both student engagement and their own learning. They tend to find, like I have found, that as their students become hungry for learning technologies, they become hungry to find new ways to help students find learning technologies. They enjoy the ability to track student surveys and identify what is working in their classes. They also appreciate the ability to cheaply share content they have found or developed and reduce student costs.

Learning Effectiveness – Because students have access to content through their devices, learning can be customized. The learning path for each student can be individualized. For Example, FAQ&How2 allows for students to access the video on-demand learning that they require. This practice also employs elements of gaming theory to create a more engaging and compelling user experience. Students trained to use smart devices also have immediate access to course content and can track their efforts and performance continuously in the course.

Scale – Currently these practices are used in my classroom (and I know they are being used by others), but I don’t see why students and teachers at schools across the country or world could not employ these practices. I don’t see a limit to the scalability of this model.

Student Satisfaction – I have found my students to be quite satisfied with these techniques. Even my technophobes, who sometimes report frustration, still say things like “the world has changed and it is good that I am learning these tricks now before I go into the job market.” Moreover, I believe my students are satisfied because they retain empowerment, have a choice, and control what and how they access support. I believe they find the content rich, engaging and compelling. Another benefit for them is that this practice allows for gaming theory both in and out of my classroom. Students routinely report to me that my class is “so much more than an English class.” However, my favorite comment from a student came in response to a training video I made. “James, it is like you are right there with me teaching me.” Of course, this student was watching a Youtube video I had made for the entire class, but to her, it was like I was there with her in her room, in the lab, or wherever it was that she was working on her home learning assignment.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Given that this is a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) model for the end user, all that may be required is WiFi connectivity. WiFi tends to have greater reliability than 3G and 4G networks. Content and strategies can be developed freely using a variety of free Web 2.0 technologies and free smart device applications. However, for those looking for more robust content development tools, I would recommend Techsmith’s Snagit for screencast-to-Youtube video on-demand creation and dissemination. I would also recommend SoftChalk for an all-around, user-friendly content development tool. 

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

This practice can be done with essentially no cost. However, if there is a desire to increase the rapidity with which this practice is diffused into a program, its costs would come from faculty development and training. However, with care and planning, institutions could leverage existing faculty development assets and campus instructional designers to develop video on-demand training for faculty. Then, following a train-the-trainer model, early adopters could be identified and trained to model best practices and share with/train others utilizing the existing video on-demand training modules as support. In a more perfect world, training videos would be developed, given creative commons license, and shared via the web with other institutions. This would allow for inter-collegiate rather than intra-collegiate faculty development. This is similar to the CASE Faculty-to-Faculty Development model a colleague and I proposed this year at NISOD 2012. For more information on this see http://teachertricks.org/?p=793

References, supporting documents: 


Angelo, T.A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Beatty, I. (2004). "Transforming Student Learning with Classroom Communication Systems," Educause Center for Applied Research Research Bulletin. Issue 3 (February 3, 2004), p. 5.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Kaleta, R., & Joosten, T. (2007) "Student Response Systems: A University of Wisconsin System Study of Clickers," Educause Center for Applied Research Research Bulletin. Issue 10, May 8, 2007

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

Mobithinking. (2012). Global mobile statistics 2012 home: all the latest stats on mobile web, apps, marketing, advertising, subscribers and trends. Retrieved from http://mobithinking.com/mobile-marketing-tools/latest-mobile-stats

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778. doi:10.1126/science.1207745

Tindell, D. R., & Bohlander, R. W. (2012). The Use and Abuse of Cell Phones and Text Messaging in the Classroom: A Survey of College Students. College Teaching, 60(1), 1-9. doi:10.1080/87567555.2011.604802

Recommended Sites, Web 2.0 Technologies, & Applications
























Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
James May
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