Monday, 3 August 2015

Phones in class - yes or no?

I am working in a high school this week where teachers are debating whether the students should be allowed to have and use their cellphones in class. Some of the teachers think that the cellphones are a huge distraction because students get on Facebook, or Twitter and also use the opportunity to text each other.  

Despite the shortage of other devices in their classes, some teachers do not recognise the phones as being powerful tools for learning. In the end , it will be up to the school community to decide whether the students can use their phones in class but I love trying to change that point of view.

I think that many teachers still want to use the cellphones issue as a control mechanism - they want to control when and how the student gets instruction from them. They want full attention when they are talking. Some students also say they focus best when they are not distracted.

 Here's the thing.  Even the most attentive looking students are not always listening to (or understanding) the teacher instruction. There are other ways of getting your instruction across - not using the middle of the road, one size fits all approach.  For example, flip your class and provide instruction through technology so you are freed up to attend to individual student needs.

Of course there is a place for the whole class coming together at times.  For example, class discussion still - and students can show learning in student discussions,  but often the unheard voices are those with the most diverse, robust and valuable opinions.  Digital technologies allow quiet students the opportunity to express these.
Here are some of the slides I will be talking to with the teachers in the discussion.
To help the teachers with their discussions and decisions, slide 9 has a number of links in the notes (watch the slideshow in Google Slides to access these) so that teachers can read through and assimilate different points of view.

From slide 10 onwards, I give examples of some useful apps and links to ideas about what the teachers could do making use of phones in class.  They will research these themselves.
I am definitely all for using cellphones in class as they are a powerful way to learn. Why do I think like that?
  • Firstly, I believe that students should be learning to work in the class in the same way that they would be working in a real life context and for most of us that means with cellphones nearby and switched on. They offer us all quick reference to research and ability to connect with others.
  • Secondly, the cellphone offers a number of ways that students can learn and develop 21st century skills of communication, connectivity, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and embracing culture.  They also offer the opportunity in class to become digitally savvy and behave appropriately online, with the teachers being an important part of this ongoing process, often acting as guides in this matter.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, I believe that students and teachers should be focusing on student outputs. By outputs, I mean the ways in which they are showing their learning. So the teachers should be looking for evidence that the students have learned what they need to learn. Not a simple "fill in this worksheet" or "answer this test", but can they create artefacts which demonstrate their knowledge?  Cellphones are powerful devices for these purposes.  Using Facebook and Twitter becomes a non- issue in this case.  It is not about the diversions, it is about the outputs.  If students are not producing the expected outputs, then there should be consequences (as with every instance of not meeting expectations in the workplace.)
If you are worried about engagement, THE Journal published 6 key drivers of student engagement. They are relevant learning, personalised learning, collaborative learning, connected learning, information literacy and dialogical/dialectical thinking, Digital technologies enhance each and every one of these and therefore using a phone in class fits the bill.  I am sure that if you take the plunge and allow your students to use their phones in class, you will see a lot of rewards in terms of student engagement.
I am still in awe of Zac Hawkins words in 2012 (see slide 5).  He was a 15 year old student who was imploring schools to embrace BYOD.  His words? - "In an age of information technology, the last limiting factor that you would expect would be the education system." Still the debate goes on.


  1. Some great thoughts here, Leigh.

    Having a 14yo daughter who had her phone taken off her by a teacher in class last Thursday and could not get it back until the end of day on Friday, this is very much on my mind. Yes, she broke the rules in this case, and while I didn't necessarily agree with the length of the consequence (students have phones for a variety of reasons), I didn't mind that there was a consequence for her breaking the rule.

    I do think that schools need to (re)consider the place of phones in the school and ensure that all staff are on the same page (it's difficult on the students if some teachers are banning them and others don't mind, in my opinion). I guess clear policies might need to be in place. I would also be concerned with teachers confiscating cellphones as many of them are very very expensive... who then is liable if they are lost/stolen?

    Apologies... as this has gone off on a bit of a tangent due to our recent experience...

    I agree with you that phones can be powerful learning tools. Where teachers are worried they will be a distraction, then maybe they need to consider how engaging their lessons are? I don't think this means they need to be the entertainment, but perhaps it's about bringing some authenticity and relevance into the learning as you've suggested near the end of the post.

  2. Hear, hear. Great pints made by both of you, Leigh and Nathaniel.