MET:Cellphones as Learning Tools

From UBC Wiki

Originally designed as a means of mobile communication, the cell phone has become far more portable and far more powerful. "With the power of portable computing in the hands of everyone and anyone, the time has come to consider using mobile devices for education." (Goundar, 2011)

A brief history of cell phones and smartphones

2007 marked the 30 year anniversary of the first mobile phone released for mass consumption. In just over a quarter of a century the cell phone has undergone an unprecedented evolution. The first cell phone had just over 2000 users; today an estimated 26 million Canadians have at least one cell phone. 84% of households in North America,(79% of teens) have a mobile phone.

While the first cell phone was designed as a means of providing mobile communication, the first smartphone, Simon by IBM, had many more features: calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, notepad, email and fax capabilities, and of course, games. The introduction of the first iPhone by Apple in 2007 saw the breakthrough into the mobile market that smartphone companies had been striving towards for almost a decade. The iPhone, and its competitors, have made it desirable, preferable in fact, to have the power of a smartphone in the palm of your hand. While the rise of cell phone sales throughout the past 30 years is noteworthy, the increase in smartphone purchases is nothing short of astounding. The worldwide smartphone market reached a milestone, having shipped one billion units in a single year for the first time in 2013. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, vendors shipped a total of 1,004.2 million smartphones worldwide, up 38.4% from the 725.3 million units in 2012.(IDC, 2014)

The latest smartphones differ from ordinary mobile phones in that they are capable of performing a magnitude of computer-like functions, as they possess software applications that can be run directly from the phone itself. This software is usually open-source, an advantage that makes adding applications as easy as loading them onto the phone via wireless downloads. On top of all of this, smartphones offer the potential for 24 hour wireless internet connectivity, and ever-growing storage space.

Many experts believe that cell phones are destined to replace home computers due to their two most desirable features: personalization and mobility. Recent stats released by the Pew Institute support this belief.


A very powerful, relevant, and engaging learning tool is already in the hands of 79% of our students, and yet school boards across the country continue to ban cell phones and other mobile devices, and regard them as mere toys of distraction. For educational institutions to continue to disregard such a ubiquitous technology is irresponsible. As 21st century educators it is our responsibilty to educate students on the potential such devices offer. We must demonstrate how to use these powerful devices for more than texting and gaming; students neeed to develop the skills to be able to utlize their cell phones as lifelong professional organizational and learning tools.

Common objections to cell phones in schools

EMR exposure

According to Health Canada’s Promotion Minister, Margaret Best, exposure in Canadian schools is closely monitored and falls well below the guidelines set forth in Safety Code 6, which identifies the acceptable standards for Specific Absorption Rates (SAR). In a recent interview Best was quoted as saying, “We do not have to worry about the safety of these types of devices. Cell phone use has been deemed safe” [1](Artuso, 2010).

Despite what Canadian authorities say, a number of researchers across the globe are assiduously investigating the possible risks of cell phone use and the dangers of EMR exposure. Hyla Cass, an expert in the area of EMR states that some preliminary results are suggesting that extended and prevalent cell phone use can be associated with a “wide range of health concerns ranging from belly fat and thinning skin to accelerated aging, blood sugar imbalance, cardiovascular problems, erratic sleep patterns, and mood disturbances." [2]


In a recent document published by the BC Teachers Federation "distraction” and “loss of classroom control” are sited as the primary objections by both teachers and administrators to allowing cell phones in class.[3] A recent article in Wired magazine also emphasized teachers' concerns with the long term implications such technologies will have on overall learning. These teachers believe mobile technologies are fostering a fragmented learning style and creating a kind of ADD in today’s learners.[4] In their groundbreaking work iBrain, Small and Vorgan explain how the brains of digital natives are being rewired by their constant exposure to technology. Young people today have grown up with a never ending stream of technological exposure. This digital bombardment is actually creating new sets of permanent neural network pathways in the brains of young people.

As a result of this constant connectivity iBrain points to the science which shows that digital natives are “developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration” (p. 21). In essence, when teachers argue that students are unable to focus on classroom lectures, they are right. The important point to note is not that today’s students are incapable of paying attention; in fact studies suggest the opposite. Small and Vorgan demonstrate that digital natives are comfortable and capable of actively engaging in 3-5 activities at one time(p. 33).

Proponents of educational reform (Christensen 2008, Robinson 2010, Trilling 2010) agree that the first step towards making schools engaging and meaningful for 21st century learners is to shift away from a monolithic, teacher-centered instruction model to one that places the learner at the center. Cell phones and other student-centric technologies, rather than disrupting teachers, can disrupt the traditional classroom, and as Christensen reminds us, this kind of disruption is a good thing. Because of their nature cell phones offer an immediate opportunity to make learning personal and interactive, while creating possibility for collaboration in an innovative context.


In the hands of young people cell phones invite adult trepidation; incidents of: sexting, cyber-bullying, and inappropriate posting of photos and videos permeate the nightly news.

In her work, Teaching with the Tools Kids Really Use, Susan Brooks-Young points out that as teachers we must “create engaging learning environments that mirror the real world. It is our role to teach them the skills needed to be successful and ethical in those environments” (2010, p.12). How are young people to develop appropriate communication and social skills in a digital world if teachers fail to help them develop those guidelines for acceptable interactions? The expectation that teachers guide students’ moral and social development has not changed but the environment has. Teachers have the opportunity to foster dialogues with students regarding appropriate educational uses for cell phones and cell phone etiquette overall. Telling students to keep their cell phones at home or in their locker creates a punitive dynamic between teacher and student rather than a collaborative one.


The 21st century learning model focuses on creativity and collaboration. These ideas are fundamental when we seek to dispel the myth that the introduction of cell phones in classrooms will increase instances of cheating. Sir Ken Robinson (2010) offers an excellent quote on this subject; “In school we are told that there is only one answer, and it is in the back of the book, and don’t look, and don’t cheat.” [5] He goes on to suggest what teachers often identify as cheating in the traditional classroom is widely accepted as collaboration in the real world.

According to a recent study conducted at UC Berkley it was determined that information is the fastest growing thing on the planet; global information production has been and will continue to increase by a rate of 66% per year. [6] Why then do we continue to teach and test students on their abilities to memorize and synthesize information that has been taught to them when we know that the human brain is incapable of memorizing, let alone retaining, the magnitude of information we are inundated with daily. Instead, if the way that we evaluate students learning changes to a new model that emphasizes engagement and application of learning rather than simple right/wrong answers, cell phones would be inconsequential during test taking. Having said that, it is also reasonable to set boundaries with students and make it clear that during tests, students are simply not allowed to use cell phones.

How cell phones can be used for learning

A short summary through stop-motion video:

Standard cell phone tools

The 3 C's of cell phones. Every cell phone has them; every student should know where to find them and how to use them.

Alarm Clocks enable students to take initiative in getting themselves up on time for school. The best part is that built in alarms on cell phones can be personalized. Students can program a ringtone or song of their choice to wake up to.

Calendars in cell phones almost guarantee that agendas will no longer be forgotten or lost. They can also be programmed to provide ringing 'reminders' for upcoming due dates, tests, and extracurricular activities.

Calculators are an expense that most schools require parents/students to purchase. A built in calculator eliminates one of many school expenses.

Advanced Cell Phone Tools

  • Email, Web Browser,Audio Recorders. Cameras. Video Recorders. Note pads.

Email applications allow easy access to your email on the go.

Web Browser applications allow on the go connection to the World Wide Web.

Audio Recorders enable students to record teachers' lectures and then replay them later to ensure accurate note taking. They can also be used to record interviews in the field with experts and share those interviews with classmates. If the phone has a built in memory card students can also record assignments and then upload the audio file onto their computer and submit via email. Podcasts are also possible using this method, however smartphones make this much easier. (This will be discussed in detail in the section on smartphones and web 2.0 tools below.)

Cameras are useful tools in many respects. On field trips students can document, evaluate, and share their learning experiences with classmates by again uploading the pictures to free photosharing sites like Photobucket or Jalbum. In math class students can be given a scavenger hunt challenge where they are told to find various shapes and then using rulers, formulas, etc. find the area, volume, circumference,etc. of the objects. In PE classes students can use the camera to ensure proper form is used when attempting to master a particular posture in yoga, basketball, gymnastics, etc.

Video Recorders can be taken a step further than the camera. Drama students can practice scenes and then critique their performances. PE students can master proper form, i.e. shooting a foul shot or serving the perfect ace.

Note Pads make it possible for those students without laptops to take notes during class. It is more than feasible for entire assignments to be completed and then uploaded to the computer for editing, printing, and submission.

Smartphone/Web 2.0 tools

This is where the three C's of 21st century learning really come into play: communication, creativity, and collaboration.

Some students are already actively engaging with many of these 2.0 tools, while others remain completely unaware. As educators we can help those students who are fortunate enough to possess a smartphone to identify and utilize some of the powerful tools they unknowingly carry in their pockets or purses every day.

Reference tools are now a click away. Easy access to online dictionaries like or encyclopedia like wikipedia or even universal atlas access via mapquest make referencing in every class much more engaging and user friendly.

Photo/Audio/Video Editing Students can now record assignments in an audio .wav file directly from a recorder built into their phone, save it to their cell phone's memory card, and submit it to their teacher via email, all from their cell phone. Sites like Jott and Audacity enable students to record, store, and manipulate sound bites.

Free websites like Utterz or Evoca offer a secure site for students to post images, video, audio, or text from their cell phone to a private (or public) blog or web space. This is an excellent tool for students working on a blog or a Personal Learning Environment. Even software like Movie Maker is unnecessary; with a smartphone students can capture, edit, and export their films to a class wiki directly from their smartphones.

Digital projector Yes, that's right! Cell phone companies are currently working on high-definition digital projection tools to enhance the current features already available to cell phone owners. Should this be released, a student could not only create, edit, and upload a video project, but she could then go one step further and share her production with the entire class by projecting the work onto the classroom whiteboard. The possibilities are endless.

GPS Many smartphones come equipped with built in gps naviagation. Other programs like we-travel or trekbuddy work with java enabled smartphones. Wireless connectivity is not required. Other free software programs like richesse are downloadable pda tools designed specifically for geocaching. Tourality is a GPS game designed specifically for mobile phones.

Assessment for teaching and learning Teachers can now use free online polling sites like Polleverywhereto create in-class questions and polls, enabling students to participate and offer answers simply by texting their response. Poll results are calculated and can be shown immediately in class. This makes learning more engaging for students, and provides teachers with the opportunity to quickly evaluate the percentage of students who are comprehending the information being taught. Other sites like Surveygizmo also offer students with smartphones the ability to access and/or create classroom polls and see visual reports immediately as people complete the surveys. An example could be creating a simple Learning Styles Inventory that kids can take via their phones and that the teacher can then view to gain a concrete representation of the learning styles within his classroom.

Apps, Apps, and More Apps Where there are smartphones there are applications. Applications are free or inexpensive software downloads that subscribers can download to their cell phones. The types and topics of apps available are ever growing; here are just a few possibilities, by school subject, available through iPhone, Blackberry, Samsung,and other android phones:

  • Science - periodic table, carbon footprint calculator, weather watcher, maps, star charts, moon phases.
  • Math - formula finder, conversion chart, scientific calculator, money converter.
  • English - ebooks, news feeds, free document creation software, speech to text application, mind mapping aps.
  • Languages - sign language practice, daily Spanish or French lessons, Japanese katacana.
  • PE/Health - calorie tracker, cardio counter, yoga poses, daily workout ideas, relaxation/meditation techniques, pocket first aid/CPR.
  • Art - photo editor, mobile sketch book, daily art history lessons.
  • Music - guitar tuner, music recorder and equilizer, chord charts.

To search for apps for your device:
iphone app storeAppleAppStoreLogo.jpg
Google Play (android devices)google_play_thumb.gif
Black Berry Worldblackberry-world-icon.png.original.png

Engaging 'Smartphone Friendly' Learning Apps

It can be argued that one needs 21st century tools to teach 21st century skills. As public schools continually face the challenge of providing funding to put laptops into schools at an effective student:laptop ratio, it only makes sense to make use of technology that is already in the hands of students. There are many educational apps available for smartphones and tablets. The following apps are free for smartphone users and are designed to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. With these apps, teachers can increase student engagement in the classroom in a collaborative setting.

Edmodo is an online learning community, with the appearance of a social networking site, for students and teachers to communicate online. Edmodo is accessible for free on almost any smartphone via the free app.
Key features of this app:

  • teachers can post assignments
  • poll students
  • share videos
  • divide students into learning groups
  • give quizzes
  • maintain a calendar of events
  • post a daily agenda
  • link to resources
  • student access from smartphone, computer or tablet

(Edudemic, 2013)


Curriculet is a free digital reading app designed to provide reading enrichment through the capability for teachers to embed questions, quizzes and media directly into assigned reading.
Key features of this app:

  • use in multiple curricular areas
  • students are given immediate feedback on their performance
  • track data to measure mastery of common literacy standards
  • embed your own video
  • access to share via email or social media
  • access from any mobile device

(Edudemic, 2013)


Socrative is an free classroom management app created to boost the engagement of students in the classroom. The interactive nature of the app is good for engaging students not normally inclined to raise their hand or participate in class discussions. (Edudemic, 2013)
Key features of this app:

  • question prompts (multiple choice, true/false, short answer)
  • quizzes
  • games
  • access on any mobile device
  • immediate assessment feedback
  • increased student engagement

(Socrative, 2014)

For other engaging educational app ideas, visit Edudemic.

A Video Depicting The Benefits of Cell Phones in the Classroom

added by Sean McFarlane - February 2015


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