When mobile devices started to become commonplace, teachers quickly found that they had a high potential to be distracting to students during class time, whether merely through the interruption of incoming call or message alerts, to students taking calls and corresponding with others. Cheating through text message, text files and Internet searches via early mobile browsers raised eyebrows and hackles, and quickly mobile phones were outlawed in the classroom.
In truth, mobile phones are disruptive technology. This is even more true in how they have and have yet to affect education than the simple distractions of incoming messages. For several generations now, smartphones have become a game-changer in education, moving from mere communication devices to full-on pocket computers and audio-visual devices. While the distraction elements remain, the potential for these mobile devices to change what is possible in the classroom, along with the need for students to learn self-regulation, demands a re-examination of any bans that are still on the book.
Just why should a teacher be prepared to allow or require students to use mobile devices to achieve learning objectives?
First, because they are powerful tools. Phone is a true misnomer at this point in time: they are creation and viewing devices; they capture video, audio, and imagination; they are a portal to the knowledge and ideas of humanity across time, space, cultures and languages. They can be used to confirm or disprove, to document and display, to research and discover. Mobile devices offer students access to the world through its Internet connection, opportunities to create visual, auditory, and interactive experiences, and connection to students and mentors the world over through chat and conferencing applications. The use of mobile devices, simply put, create opportunities for students to practice and engage at all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Additionally, mobile devices are ubiquitous. A popular idea is that students are Digital Natives, having grown up with handheld technology. Arguments of students’ inherent prowess aside, many come to class with a computer in their pockets that they engage with in myriad ways until the moment they walk into the classroom. Instead of outlawing this powerful tool, educators and administrators need to encourage students to use these devices, learning about digital citizenship, self-regulation skills, and exactly how powerful these tools can be in service to their owners; skills they may never learn if they are not provided an environment where learning how to do so is valued. If we want our students to be creators, to make connections across subject areas, and to be active participants in their own societies, we need to practice these skills with them on a day-to-day basis with the tools that are available to them. The purpose of school is to prepare students for life outside of the school, and so our classrooms should be the best microcosm of that world that we can create.
Creating an Appropriate Environment
Begin by establishing norms. Work with your students to decide together what is and is not appropriate use of technology, including what various situations demand. Consider courtesy, safety, and responsibility. When students violate the norms, refocus on what you have established together as appropriate, as you would with any other behavior.
Rehearse expected behaviors. We know now that willpower is a limited resource, and that creating habits of desired behaviors takes much less mental effort, reserving our limited willpower. By creating routines and habits triggered by specific classroom events, students are less likely to be distracted by their technology in non-beneficial ways. For example, create a simple opening and closing routine for class that involves turning off notifications and re-enabling them at the end of class. This does two things: it creates a normalization of a distraction-free sanctuary, and also a confidence in students that they will have their life returned to “normal” at the end of this period. If there is no “closing ceremony,” students may forget to turn their notifications back on, leading them to be more reluctant to turn them off in the first place. Look for other places where routines and habits can streamline your use of technology with students, such as setting up a home screen that is specific to educational apps, and deploy these routines with your students.
Scavenger Hunt Use QR codes containing text, links to images or video clues, puzzles, GPS coordinates, or other information to lead students on a scavenger hunt in the classroom, playground, or school campus. Answers or hints to guide students to the next clue as they work cooperatively to solve a larger puzzle or problem. Students learn critical thinking skills to apply knowledge across situations to solve puzzles and to work cooperatively toward a goal. Content of the puzzle questions and hints can be related to a wide variety of subject matter, depending on curricular needs.
Geocaching Have students join the world’s largest game of hide-and-seek! Learn about GPS coordinates and how to navigate. Find out what geocaches are in your local community. Then, have students choose some historical, natural, or other points of interest around the community (or research on the local area and determine what is worth sharing with the world), and then create caches for these locations. When complete, stash the caches and create a cache profile on a geocaching website. This helps students learn both navigational skills and opens opportunities for cross-curricular exploration that is local and relevant.
Personal Portfolios Have students create an online portfolio of their learning in a walled-garden scenario to demonstrate their learning to the teacher, their parents, and their own records. Use mobile devices to capture images and video of learning process and outcomes, along with text descriptions where helpful or necessary. Have students make connections between products, processes, and learning goals, articulating each. When students move into finding employment, they will be able to draw on this skill and examples as they prepare resumes and portfolios for potential employers.