Making the Case for Cell Phones in Schools

My husband and BFF, Kip, has been with me on the last leg of my trip to the amazingly incredible CUE conference in Palm Springs (NCTIES before that.) We’re now in Salt Lake City for a two hour layover and he’s TRYING to read the latest Tom Clancy book.

He is director of engineering of a manufacturing plant and has a genius mind for efficiency, managing people, AND making technology UNDERSTANDABLE to the average person.  So, I asked him, “What is the most important point that you heard at the CUE conference?”  (Mind you – he sat in on 4 of my sessions Friday – so this is his take on it.)

His answer:

  • He is incredulous that we punish the tools and not the person.  That he can’t take a pair of scissors on an airplane and yet, scissors are a standard item in every classroom in schools.   And yet he can take a cell phone and use it openly and freely anywhere and yet  the cell phone is what is banned in most schools.

He is an efficiency expert, mind you, on something called Lean 6 Sigma – which is about efficiency and eliminating waste.

Here we are dealing with budget cuts and struggles – trying to find money for technology.    Remember that there is more computing power in most cell phones than in computers in 1997.

So, let’s look at this cell phone phenomenon with some statistics released in January 2009 (about the US as an example) by the Center for Digital Democracy:

  • For kids 8-12 (called tweens) – 46% use cell phones
  • Four out of 5 teenagers (80%)  have a cell phone with 51% of those who use cell phones using it to “get important information.”

OK.  So, let me ask you this.  Do you have enough computers for 80% of your students to use them at one time?

Hall Davidson gave a great presentation yesterday on cell phones which is a must read for those talking to their administrators about allowing cell phone use in the classroom.  I received permission two years a go to use the cell phones in lesson plans as needed.  We pull them out at least once a week in most classes.

Now, one of the objections is “expense.”  I send a note home the first day of class explaining that we do use the texting feature of the cell phone (not the Internet feature as that it expensive now) and ask if the student has unlimited texting.  If they don’t have unlimited texting, I ask if the student has permission to send about 10 text messages the first week of school and 2-3 thereafter.  If not, the student doesn’t use their cell phone and uses an alternative (using the Google Cell phone text simulator.)  I want them to know how to use the cell phone.  Now if you want to see my own lesson plan and outline for how I start the year with these, please see the post Kicking the School Year Off Web 2.0 Style with Cell Phones.

Well, there are a lot of complaints as outlined in the blog post “Spies Like Us,” however, Kip (my husband) is right:  we’ve got to get at the BEHAVIOR and use of these tools.

 Some great resources on this topic:

This is near and dear to my heart as in my “previous life” I was a General manager of a Cell phone company and was very excited that NECC accepted my workshop for the Saturday before NECC about how to effectively use cell phones in the classroom.

10 Reasons Cell Phones Should Be Allowed In Schools

So, thinking through, here are 10 reasons I think cell phones should be allowed in schools.

  1. Cell Phones Can Save Us Money

    They are NEARLY ubiquitous and can alleviate some of the strain and cost of our infrastructure.

  2. Cell Phones Can Help Students Be More Organized

    Most students WILL NOT carry a paper planner.  We need to integrate their cell phones and/or iTouch devices as their planner – giving them homework reminders, letting them poll, podcast, vodcast, blog, and study using these mobile devices.  They have them with them ALL of the time which make is perfect for using as a planner.  When I took the Franklin Covey planning course, rule number 1 was “Always have your planner with you.”  Kids can be reminded of things from their Google Calendar, which integrates with the calendar I use for planning.

  3. It Makes Kids More Safe

    Because of safety issues, I think that eventually someone will have a legal liability because a student was in trouble and WAS NOT able to use their cell phone.  I think that schools should all have SMS notification services in the case of emergency and that it is a vital lifeline for safety.
  4. It Allows Sensitive Issues to be Kept Private
    I have a real problem with kids names being called over the loud speaker for detention or even to come to the office. This is private.  I think that a text message from the front office preceding such a thing is a lot more respectful and would probably get them there faster.
  5. It Alleviates Strain on the Network.
    Cell phones are a separate network and thus do not go over the local wireless.  Their effective use can provide an alternative method of accessing the Internet and/or querying short bits of information.
  6. It Alleviates Strain in the IT Department
    Cell phone troubleshooting is not something that is needed.  If a child has problems, let them use a laptop, check out an itouch from the library or use a computer.  However, the use of cell phones for small queries and tasks alleviates the use of computers for small tasks.
  7. It Speeds Up Information Retrieval
    If you do not have to turn on cell phone – there is zero boot time.  If you DO have to turn it on, you’re looking at 3-4 seconds.  Time your laptop’s boot time. I have a PC and it takes at least 3 minutes to be functional.  I find it is much easier to have my students define words and query google with a text message.
  8. It Allows Us to Teach Kids Digital Responsibility and Citizenship
    I was at Disney and a child was lost.  He knew his phone number but NOT his area code.  I found the area code using Google search and we had Mommy there within moments.  Kids should KNOW how to retrieve information easily from SMS.  Additionally, self control about texting is a PROVEN problem for many kids.  Learning the self discipline to use this tool when appropriate is part of life.  By allowing them to be present and NOT used – we’re letting kids learn the self discipline to focus and use the tool when appropriate.

    I believe in allowing distractions in my classroom and coaching the kids to focus.  I think this is much better than the “police state” type filtration and technology policies that many schools have.

    I would like to say that by “outlawing” cell phones we’ve pushed them into the private places of the school like the bathrooms and locker rooms which is precisely where we DO NOT want them to be!  (See the rule listed below.)

  9. It Sets a Model for Effective Change and Innovation

    In Hall Davidson’s speech, he mentioned that Cuba finally allowed cell phone use in their country last year.  The only remaining places that ban cell phones?  The Taliban and Schools are the only two entities that now ban them in the world.

    This is a useful tool and part of life. Hall also mentioned how in the 1970’s that calculators were banned.  Now, we use them.  It is time to “get over it” and “coexist with it.”

  10. You’re fighting a losing battle.

    Many educators are seeing that truly, banning cell phones is not a battle that is going to be won.  I think that parents are going to demand that it be on their child for safety reasons.  The chaparone feature lets the parents use GPS to know where their child is at all times.  This is something parents are going to demand, that it be on their child and ON.  I just think it is moving to this.

So, how are we going to “deal” with cell phones?

Just like we “deal” with scissors.

  • Age appropriate use and set up.
  • If we catch a kid running with scissors, we discipline the kid – not get rid of all the scissors!
  • Define acceptable use policies for cell phones that kids and parents can live with.
  • Adequately communicate so there is not unacceptable cost for parents for things done at school. 
  • Share best practices for using cell phones.
  • Encourage all of the companies that service education to allow integration of cell phones into just about everything.
  • Use cell phones for what they are good for and PUT THEM UP when not in use.  If they are out when they are not supposed to be, we deal with the child and put the cell phone on our desk.  (I take them up if they are being used when I didn’t tell them to.)
  • If we’re concerned about cell phones – move to 1:1 mobile devices like an itouch, which I personally think is better than a cell phone for most anything anyway.
  • I am going to ask my school to go ahead and pass a rule at the school patterned after a rule at the hotel for CUE.  I would like a sign in all bathrooms and locker rooms that says something like this:  “The use of cell phones, photography, and videography equipment in all bathrooms, locker rooms, and any areas used as changing areas is strictly prohibited on this campus.”  In fact, I believe this should be a LAW everywhere.  It is a law whose time has come and the reason we haven’t done it sooner is because we SAY we don’t allow cellphones.  What we’ve done is pushed these devices to PRIVATE areas which is where we DO NOT want them.

Kip is right — we’re making a mistake here with this tool.  We want our kids safer.  We want to cut costs.  We want to help them be more organized.  We want to be more relevant to this generation.  We want to advance education into the 21st century.

And that, my friend, means, that we welcome cell phones into the world of education.  They are our friend, not our enemy.

For now, I think teachers have to get special permission for their inividiaul classes and remember that EVERYONE is looking at you.  Use them well and see them move to other rooms.  Use them poorly and you stop progress.

Now, we have three of us at Westwood using cell phones and soon to be another.  One middle school teacher uses the digital recorder in the phone to proofread and write papers — and has 4-5 nonactive cell phones for kids to use who don’t have one — the recorder still works and REALLY helps the kids see their writing errors.  Soon, our language teacher will do the same thing.

Oh, and I’m doing a workshop on this at NECC the Saturday before it starts. 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

47 thoughts on “Making the Case for Cell Phones in Schools

  1. I think that this is a really interesting and important topic. The teachers who are stuck on banning cell phones all together are going to have a rude awakening, because just like what happened with calculators, they will be allowed and integrated eventually. My only question is: do you have a hard time making sure the students use them only at the appropriate times? Or do they learn the proper etiquette relatively quickly?

    -Marguerite DeWitt

  2. Going along with your comment about how cell phone usage in classrooms encourage digital responsibility, it’s important to realize that in just a few years, school filters will be practically useless. Students’ cell phones aren’t subject to school filters, and as smart phones become more and more advanced, more students will see their phone as being the preferred method for obtaining information, only one reason being that they can access information without having to worry about a “pesky” filter.

    We can’t inspire a culture of digital responsibility in our students overnight, and if we don’t start teaching them now, cell phones will only be driven further underground, and eventually render useless any technological safety measures schools put in place.

  3. RE: Linux Virtual Machine – M4E SMS Wireless Test Administration for K12 Schools is designed for K12 teachers, parents and students and is easy to install. It has world class software components and also supports high speed SMS IP connections to any wireless carrier SMSC data center.

    The M4E SMS service is started using GSM modems and SIM cards from any GSM cell phone to join the cell network and send – receive student SMS multiple choice question messages from cell towers in your region.

    M4E can use all existing cell phones students have today. Teachers have their own log-in accounts to create and schedule content. Full results reporting is included along with running student histories. Teacher override features and cellular report card forwarding to parent cell numbers in real time as options.

  4. RE: Linux Virtual Machine – M4E SMS Wireless Test Administration for K12 Schools is designed for K12 teachers, parents and students and is easy to install. It has world class software components and also supports high speed SMS IP connections to any wireless carrier SMSC data center.

    The M4E SMS service is started using GSM modems and SIM cards from any GSM cell phone to join the cell network and send – receive student SMS multiple choice question messages from cell towers in your region.

    M4E can use all existing cell phones students have today. Teachers have their own log-in accounts to create and schedule content. Full results reporting is included along with running student histories. Teacher override features and cellular report card forwarding to parent cell numbers in real time as options.

  5. I work at a high school and I’ll be honest, I laughed when I read the reasons you give for the case for cell phones. Students are not using their phones for “educational purposes”. They are texting each other about their boyfriends, what they are going to do after school etc… In a world where all kids are perfect your case for cell phones may work but here in the real world kids are disrupting class or not paying attention because they are too busy texting each other.
    As for the the office texting them to go to the office, yeah right. I can see us sitting in the office with our cell phones out and texting 35 kids a day to come to the office just to have that text ignored. And in the middle of the a lesson kids are taking out their cell phones for their text messages from friends, office or whoever. As for the safety issue, give me a break. We have the best system of lock down we can have for the students and the last lockdown was accomplished in minutes. Through the two hour lockdown, the office phone lines were ringing non stop from parents calling and cussing us out on the phone to let their child go NOW. When a student is locked down in a classroom, they don’t know what is going on and they have to trust that we do. They can be pretty dramatic texting each other and then texting rumors back and forth that the lockdown is because of a person with a gun or a bomb in the building etc… by the time they text their parent they have passed on what they heard from their friend Natalie when she texted and its always completely untrue. We spend an enormous amount of time putting a plan into action to keep our students safe and if we just “let them leave” when there was a lockdown as many of these parents yell to us on the phone, we might as well put a target on their back. The complication of cell phones in an emergency such as this just increases panic and anxiety with all the stories that are being texted back and forth. Lastly, the cell phone is just like the internet and kids will text threats to each other, have their arguments by texting back and forth, talk to their boyfriends/girlfriends, and meanwhile a teacher is trying to keep their attention on learning. Cell phones don’t belong in school and just because most kids have one, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to use it. Texting test answers to each other is also something I haven’t mentioned which also happens. And if you think that you will be able to see a kid text in class. Doubtful. They have become quite adept at doing it in their purses or under their desk etc.. How much time do you have to play the text police in every class you teach? I think eventually schools will not only ban cell phones but they will use scramblers to keep them from being used in the school. These are teenagers and if you think that they are going to use cell phones for learning, I have some swamp land I’d like to sell you. Teens are great but their still teenagers and they like to socialize. Cell phones are their favorite way to do that when they are in the same room with their friends.

  6. @Anonymous – I am a teacher in a high school also. I am sorry for your horrible situation – it sounds like you’ve got a difficult place to work.

    But my comments here are from experience. We are using cell phones in class on a daily basis for productive reasons. In fact, on our project this week, the principal asked everyone to remember to charge their cell phones every night so they can send in photos from our Flint River project.

    Your situation seems difficult and remember that no tool is every utopia – every tool can be used for good or bad purposes. As for me, I believe my students want to learn – and they do. I believe my students can use cell phones for good purposes – and when I give them permission to get them out in the first place – they use them well.

    We’re saying the same things about cellphones that they said about calculators in the 1970’s.

    Margot – Absolutely cell phones can be distracting. If a cell phone is out without permission or being used for a purpose other than class, it goes on my desk.

    Just as paper can be tossed across the room as an airplane, so cell phones can be used in wrong ways as well.

    Justin – You’ve added another reason — of course the issue with data access on cells is that it is still SOOOO expensive!

  7. I have never thought about this concept before, but i really enjoyed reading what you have put down.At my high school cell phones were banned completely and I think it would make things alot easier altogether if cell phones were allowed with some restrictions.

  8. I really enjoyed the article and the posts. In my previous district cell phones were a problem and I felt like I was constantly policing the students to see who was trying to use theirs. In my present distrcit I haven’t had any problems. Both have the same rules and similiar consequences, so I haven’t figure out really what makes the difference. Sometimes I think it is just the difference in school cultures.
    AS for using cell phones in class, I’m all for it. I like to practice Spanish conversation on a daily basis. We do so much conversation through cell phones(conversation ,texting, tweeting, etc.) that I would really like to use them. In my previous district I did on a few occasions and the students loved it! Maybe in a few weeks I’ll give it a try in my new district.
    Also I think it is okay if the students use them as a tool (translator, search for information, communication, etc.). It’s reality! We all use cell phones, so we should let our students use them for educational purposes too. – THEY LOVE IT!

    Mike Coy

  9. I enjoyed reading about the benefits to using cell phones in the classroom. I believe that incorporating cell phone use, texting, etc. in the lesson is an immediate draw to the students. I think the teachers that are able to use the cell phone in the class effectively are going to have the most success with engaging students. We need to harness this wonderful technology and teach students how to learn with it.

  10. Hello-
    With all of these new technologies out nowadays- I understand that you would consider using devices such as cell phones and iphones in your lessons. I do agree with a some of your suggestions to cell phone usage in the classroom, such as the statement that children will be more safe and organized. However, I feel that texting a student about detention is a little extreme. I think allowing your students to check their cell phones whenever they want will distract them from class, especially when most of the texts and calls are from their friends.

  11. I just wrote a paper on banning the use of ceel phones. I wish I would have read this blog first. Now I think I just did not want to police it.

  12. I think the idea is good but what do you do for the students who parents do not approve of or cannot afford a cellphone. All students are given planners but would the ones who dont have phones be given one?

  13. There are some interesting points made, but I seriously think this view is idealogical. First, it does not address the digital divide. This is another situation for low-income students to feel “out of the loop”. Second, the likelihood of even great students limiting their cell phone use to academics is slim to none. These are still children and adolescents, and often it is best not to create an environment of temptation – especially when there are so many other valuable ways to teach.

  14. I enjoyed reading the blog and posts on this issue. I would love to be able to capitalize on students’ cell phone / texting obsession. I feel this would really engage them in the subject and get them excited about learning. However, I am concerned about cell phones being used only at appropriate times. I think if given the opportunity to use them in school, maybe students would be less likely to abuse the technology and use them at inappropriate times.

  15. @Nathanael – the digital divide exists and you’ll notice that I believe that before cell phones are used that a pre-survey of students should happen. If I have over 90% of a class with them and can make alternatives available then I”ll do it. However, a planner is a customized to a student as they are – some of my students use an itouch, some use a cell phone, and some use a paper planner – it is their choice!

    Choice is a characteristic of this generation and they should be given lots of them. As along as they carry a planner and have calendar and list, I don’t care what they use. We must be flexible and know that not everyone has a cell phone. (Plus the kids who get them taken away on restriction!)

    As for phones being used an inappropriate times – we already have them being used inappropriately! They are being used now – for me, I took up a cell phone today. We were watching a film – it was not time to have a cell phone out. “It is mine,” I said and I confiscated the phone.

    I think that the last 5 minutes of class should be a time to shift gears and get ready for the next class and a good time to put things in your planner. I also think that during a test, everyone should put their cell phone in a box on the teacher’s desk.(Actually until the other classes have taken the test also if they are are actually given the same test.)

    I hope this helps clarify some thoughts.

    @Margot – Students are students and they WANT to use their cell phones ALL THE TIME. Often the same kids who want to pull out their cells are also the ones who want to talk. My rule is – “If I haven’t given you EXPLICIT permission to take out the cell phone, I will take up the cell phone.” Period.

  16. My husband is a School Resource Officer and we have three children. We have debated giving our kids cell phones and in general if students should have them on school grounds. Thank you for your points, I found them interesting. I do think they are here to stay and that they can be used to organize work and activites. Aslo, there is that one rare case maybe, where they could help in a true emergency. I liked that you stress behavior and responsibility in their use.

  17. @Anonymous – It certainly does come down to behavior!! It is hard to deal with behavior but I have found that just stating the rules and then following them without exception is the best tool. If they have the cell phone out without permission, it goes in the detention box in the office – no debate, no questions asked. (Had to do this last week.) But consistency is important. They know if they aren’t supposed to be out!

  18. okay seriously you should be allowed to use phones in school. im a teacher and i am all for it. it is the students fault if they dont learn anything. and they already use cell phones in class anyways. and during tests they cant cheat take away their cell phones when they are taking the tests. you should also be able to use your iPods and laptops because you can use them to take notes and use your iPod as a flash drive. so quit debating it and let them use their cell phones they do it anyway so you should just let them. and there are some teachers like me who let them use their cell phones as long as they get their homework done. THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO USE THEM IN CLASS, AND SO SHOULD WE!!! 🙂

  19. It is a fantastic idea to let cell phones in the class room and there are good points being made here. On the other hand I know it would get taken advantage of. Our class had permission in college to use cell phones and it was totally abused. You now have the option on most cell phones to turn the cell phone radio on and off which can curb text messaging but still have some advantages.

  20. You rock! I am doing a persuasave speech about cell phones usage in the classroom and why its a good thing! You have got great ideas! I have a cell phone and it’s kinda nerving to keep it in my locker! it is a great educational tool! Especially when we are in such a digital age. And I think kids would be more into electronics(computers, cellphones, smart board, etc.) than a textbook.

  21. The use of cell phones in schools is a great tool if used as deemed appropriate for your school. One of the comments indicated that cell phones had no place in schools. I chuckled when I saw the comment that students will go to bathrooms etc. to use a phone. That is so right…prior to allowing students in my school to use phones,instructional time was lost and there was always an issue in the classroom with students texting. Why? The obvious, we are talking about children and they do not always obey the rules.

    I think that we should train our students on what is apporpriate usage in schools and have consequences when those rules are not adhered to. It would be my guess that administrators and teachers would spend less time on discipline, since many of our school issues have some association with using cell phones when they are not allowed.

    It is not the cell phone that causes a disruption in class but how and when the cell phone is being used.

    C.Hampton – Wingate

  22. I agree with many of the points made here. However, to say “The Taliban and Schools are the only two entities that now ban them in the world.” is simply alarmist nonsense. This is blatantly illogical. The comparison’s purpose is simply to take advantage of many people’s fear and misunderstanding of “the bad guys”. I’m surprised at such a cheap shot instead of logical, reasoned argument.

    Of course, in reality, there are numerous places that cell phones are not allowed – often for good reason.

  23. In theory, this sounds like a great idea. However, I cannot see it coming to fruition. In my opinion, it seems like it would be a disciplinary nightmare trying to ensure students are staying on task and not using their phones for personal use. I am all for technology, but not so sure cell phones are the way to go.

  24. Just an update to this – read about this program that is using cell phones with algebra and seeing an improvement in test scores – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/technology/16phone.html – with budget cuts and the need to reach students where they are – cell phones are just the next logical choice. Many of us are doing it NOW – this isn’t a fantasy but is being done NOW in places (like my classroom) without much problem.

  25. Vicki, your listing is valid; however, for those of us working in “troublesome” inner city schools anything that can be done to avoid violent confrontations between students and teachers is exercised. When chastised for using cell phones inappropriately in the classrooms, more than a few students have verbally or physically assaulted educators. In considering this possible result, our district has sadly chosen not to allow cell phones. Perhaps if this post is shared wit hadministrators they will changetheir minds….hmmmmm.

  26. The use of calculators is probably a bad comparison to use. By allowing students to use calculators too early in their education we have raised a generation that cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide automatically, nor do they even understand the concepts of multiplication or division.

  27. There are some terrific reasons for allowing cell phones in schools, and anyway it is inevitable. But there are one or two really big problems and if goes like this…

    In big urban school districts, they find that (1) drug deals and (2) fights/riots are perpetuated/facilitated by kids with cell phones. As a result, they have banned them. Not because they do not see the positives for students (and their parents) but to curtail the problems from worsening.

    Now should the good of having cell phones around offset the bad? Of course, but when the bad is so bad, this is a difficult situation without a good or easy resolution.

    My company, LaptopsAnytime, has developed an easy to access Laptop Checkout Station to facilitate access to laptops, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA3MvbBGz6E

    What makes it work is that the facility has control over the devices…with cell phones on the other hand, there is no way to control “all” of them, even if a school mandates that they need to be stored during the day…

    Best,
    LaptopGuy

  28. Great article! I am a high school administrator and couldn’t agree more…we are fighting a losing battle. I love the comparison to “running with scissors”. We would never get rid of such an innovative tool, yet we need to train students the correct way to use cellphones at school.

  29. Thank you. There are certainly drawbacks to these devices as well. Because they go through my firewall, in some ways I wish we’d have a 1:1 itouch or ipad environment instead of having to use cell phones which sometimes have charges.

  30. They definitely have opportunities that we can use – particularly as budgets are stretched. Thank you so much for commenting and I applaud you as an administrator for being open minded enough to read this article. It is a headache for administrators and in fact we have a “cell phone detention box” that I fully support for those “cell phones” that do not remember their place. 😉

  31. lol. i love this!! for an english class, we have to type a persuasive essay on whether or not we think cell phones should be allowed in school. im for them being allowed, even though i don’t even have a cell phone! i like your husbands comparison with scissors and cell phones. its so true!! : )

  32. I agree with this article. Kids or students should have cellphones so that they can use them to communicate with their parents. Parents can also contact and check their children whenever they want.

  33. The average mobile phone is only used for about 18 months, which leads to 130 million of them being thrown away each year in the US. Many of these were still in working order and could have been reused by someone else. In these economic times there is a high demand for second hand and refurbished goods and you can profit from this! Even if your phone is broken or not valuable anymore it should be recycled rather than tossed in the garbage where it can contaminate the environment.
    http://www.cash4phones.com/recycle-cell-phones.aspx

  34. This article seems to be well crafted. I wish more people would ake some time and write quality articles that are much needed like this one. Thanks! And welcome to my site http://www.mycosplayclub.com. More activites are waiting for you.

  35. Thanks Vicki, all of what you have said has assisted me in writing my essay for class 🙂 thanks

  36. Good luck! Make sure you include your own opinions, of course. This is such a hot topic.

    Vicki Davis
    Cool Cat Teacher Blog

    Building the bridges of today that the society of tomorrow will walk across.

    Sent from my iPod touch

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