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Virginia Journal of Education

Hold the Phone!  

Can mobile devices be more than a distraction in the classroom?

By Susan Motley

When I agreed to take on a long-term substitute English teacher position less than a year after my retirement, I was fully aware that winning these students over to the resumption of classroom order and instruction would be challenging. They’d stuck it out through several subs, none of whom had been an English teacher. Their daily assignments, gleaned from the curriculum by the department chair, had been respectful and meaningful. Still, these students needed a teacher. 

I understood that many of them were unwilling to believe I’d be much different from anyone else who had been in their classroom. Many of them were attached to the teacher who had started the year with them; some were angry about the lack of instruction and consistency; some had become accustomed to blowing off the class.

I anticipated all that. What I never anticipated was the amount of cell phone usage by students and how it would manifest itself in so many inappropriate ways.

During the weeks I spent in that classroom, teaching and learning lost out in some way to students’ cell phone distractions every single day. No one had established or enforced a protocol for appropriate use of mobile technology, though school division guidelines are quite clear. Students had become used to texting and playing games on their phones without repercussions.

Ironically, I’d been an early advocate for the use of cell phones in classrooms; now I’m frankly embarrassed to admit that as days and weeks passed without gaining any ground in what I came to think of as a battle, I surrendered a little every day.

When I approached students individually and privately, they were too frequently rude and uncooperative. At the very least, I was given the eye roll. One student told me his ownership of the phone and the data package was sufficient to guarantee his unfettered use of the device during class. Another allowed that he had a huge responsibility to his 1,300 Instagram followers. A student answered a phone call in class. Girls gazed flirtatiously into their phones as they huddled behind huge handbags not-so-strategically placed on their desks. One student was playing “baseball” with a gamer in Japan. “Isn’t that cool?” he said when I came back to see what had him totally engrossed. When I urged a student to put away her phone to become more involved in class, she snapped, “I do my work.”

Except she wasn’t doing her work. None of them were. At first I attributed this cell phone use to the long absence of a committed classroom teacher, but as I heard similar woes from colleagues, I began to seriously question my previous enthusiasm for mobile learning.

So Much for Multi-Tasking
Early on, one Friday had been particularly tough. The day had started and ended with first a male and then a female rude and uncooperative with my requests to put phones aside. As I was leaving the building, I groused to anyone who would listen, but I was also looking forward to meeting my daughter and granddaughter, who were flying home for a long weekend. Later that night, I was the only customer in an airport shop whose only sales associate was completely absorbed in her phone and completely oblivious to my presence at the register until I jolted her to awareness with, “Excuse me. I’m ready to check out now.”

Two days later, at an indoor play area in a local mall, a small boy of perhaps three, seeing me assisting my granddaughter, must have concluded that I would be willing to help him too. In spite of my reluctance, he was persistent, which prompted me to look for his parents. It didn’t take long to find them sitting side by side with their phones held in front of their faces, too preoccupied to play with their child.

These experiences with multi-tasking gone wrong led me to ask why we can’t seem to put down our phones. In my research, I found Amber Case, who calls herself a cyborg anthropologist, and she has an answer that resonates with me.

If I Only Had an External Brain
In her TED talk, “We Are All Cyborgs Now,” Case classifies not just today’s youth, but all of us, as part of an “instantaneous button-clicking culture” in which our cellphones function as external brains. Unfathomable amounts of information are stored in them: photos, contacts, social media connections to friends, favorite websites, communications from friends and family, games, GPS, mapping, books, a calculator, access to date and time, music, records of our physical activity, the stock market report, the weather forecast—and so much more. And the devices themselves allow us to manipulate and communicate that information. Like me, many of you know what it’s like to have left your cell phone at home, and even though there are phones and computers at work, you must retrieve your own because, frankly, your memory would be impaired without your external brain.

The Downsides
While the connectivity offered by our cell phones have significant advantages, the distractions are putting us in danger of losing access to our own potential for thought, creativity and understanding of self. Online, we look at information, we sometimes adapt it for our own purposes, but we rarely create something new inspired by it, and most often it replaces our own original thinking.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center reveals that somewhere between 80 and 92 percent of teens use mobile devices daily to access the Internet, and nearly a fourth of teens say they’re online “almost constantly.”

What’s a Teacher to Do?
Lecturing about inappropriate use doesn’t work. Confiscating phones can create more problems than it solves. And, let’s face it, students have become very skillful at stealthy use of their mobile devices. So, instead of yelling or confiscating phones, teachers should consider redirecting students and their mobile devices with mobile learning activities. A warmup activity might require students to access the assignment posted on a class website, complete some quick research, compose a response, and turn in the activity online. Lessons might invite students to read, collaborate, problem-solve, create and learn, all with their mobile phones. Collaborations could be set up with students in other classrooms. In other schools. Cities. Countries. Our students already know how to do this.  It’s incumbent on the mobile educator to design collaborations that result in learning and accountability.

Nurturing learning, creativity and good citizenship in our students has always been the goal for teachers, and it’s true now more than ever. Mobile learning requires mobile teaching, and mobile teaching is going to require that some educators reexamine their attitudes about mobile technologies in their classrooms. 

In her paper “Moving Toward a Mobile Learning Landscape:  Presenting a Mlearning [mobile learning] Integration Framework,” Helen Crompton, a professor at Old Dominion University and education technology researcher (see box on page 10), writes, “As educators prepare to use mobile devices in teaching and learning, they should recognize that mlearning will disrupt many beliefs they have held about teaching and learning. Educational institutions will shift from a ‘we teach’ approach to an ‘I learning’ environment.” 

Here are some suggestions I gleaned from my research to support an I learning environment:

• At the most basic level, all assignments, handouts and links to useful websites and videos should be posted on an interactive class website.

• As much as possible, classrooms should go paperless; therefore, teachers should choose a website that allows students to upload assignments. 

• Educators should use Twitter and encourage students to use Twitter and other social media to follow leaders in relevant fields of study. A 140-character tweet can have a far greater reach than a 440-word editorial or journal article, so we should teach students how to compose effective tweets and use other forms of social media effectively for learning.

• Educators should seek regular training in classroom uses of mobile technology. Crompton’s research reveals that nearly all teachers are using mobile technology for only low-level tasks such as drills and often for use during free time.

• Educators should strive to help students understand school-appropriate uses of mobile technologies with the aspiration that this will translate to socially-appropriate use.

• When teachers design successful mobile learning experiences, they should share that learning with other educators.

• Schools can help bridge the digital divide by making class sets of mobile devices available for students who don’t have access to their own.

• School divisions must do more than create rules to govern cell phone use and simply encourage mobile learning: Buildings must have sufficient bandwidth to accommodate full use of the devices.

The implications are clear. Over time, schools have been asked to take up teaching students to drive, how to responsibly manage finances, and about family life and sexuality, among other topics. Now, teaching students respectful and substantive use of mobile technology must be added to that list of life skills.

Obviously not every learning experience benefits from the use of mobile devices, but when educators see the potential for meaningful applications, we need to go for it.

Looking back, I see that my most successful technology-enhanced lesson was a collaborative research project using WikiSpaces. A team’s successful completion of the project required determination to work with available technology and dedication to the success of all group members. To eliminate the possibility of lost work, students had to create a schedule and stick to it. They had to plan and communicate with each other on the organization and appearance of the WikiSpace, and they shared research and graphics that appeared to be useful to other researchers. They acted as editors for each other’s writing and documentation. When the WikiSpace was complete, each contributor was required to have two adults visit the site and leave comments. The resulting projects were always professional-looking and informative, and the students were proud of the websites built with a combination of mobile and tethered technologies. 

Amber Case, the cyborg anthropologist, notes, “The most successful technology gets out of the way and lets us live.” This is a good way to think about design principles for technology-enhanced lessons. The focus shouldn’t be on the technology, a mistake many teachers make. The lesson design should first be about arriving at desired learning outcomes; then you can look at how those outcomes could be best reached by efficacious use of digital technology. Don’t let mobile devices, or any technology, serve as a replacement for developing students’ potential for original thinking, creating and learning. Mobile devices are only a useful tool.

With persistence and any luck at all, we might help create a culture of employees who don’t let their cell phones interfere with their work, parents who prioritize time with their children over time with their cell phones, and students who manage the power of digital technology to better their lives.

Motley, a member of VEA-Retired, is a former English teacher in Virginia Beach.



Making Cell Phones Work for You and Your Students

We are in one of the most rapidly changing times in the history of education. The Internet has brought students unprecedented access to knowledge; they no longer have to ask teachers to gain a lot of that information. Cell phones provide on-the-fly information access, and students also know how to use these small, powerful tools for many social activities. Few understand how to take advantage of them for learning. Technology is a tool, but like any tool, teachers need to show students how to use it appropriately for learning.

This is a difficult time for teachers because many haven’t had the chance themselves to learn how to use cell phones for learning, let alone teach anyone else. A common mistake is using cell phones to replicate prior teaching practices. For example, paper worksheets appear for students on their cell phones. This is using 21st-century tools for 20th-century teaching practices. The goal is to use mobile devices in ways that make teaching and learning even better than before. Imagine being able, in seconds, to privately collect information from students that lets you know who understands the lesson objective and who doesn’t. Imagine never to have to collect or grade a test again. Imagine having technology providing ongoing scaffolding to your students, customized to their individual needs.

Teachers sometimes forget about the mobility of the devices. During class, have students go to where the concept being taught happens naturally in the real world. Let them take photos, video, record interviews, measure, translate, reply and calculate using their cell phones. If you think about it, having students using their cell phones for learning activities stops them from being able to use their device for anything else. Hold them accountable for tasks on their cell phones. Remember that mobile devices are only tools, but they can be used to do very powerful tasks.

 --by Helen Crompton, PhD, assistant professor of Instructional Technology at Old Dominion University





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