Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Embrace the constructive uses of cell phones in the classroom for learning

An advertisement for MySpace Mobile was included with my latest bill from Cingular for my cell phone service:

MySpace Mobile is a social networking mobile application offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos and much more. Access online MySpace accounts, update directly from the phone, and join the network of 100+ million users around the world who call MySpace home.

Cell phones are already contentious in many schools. Teachers want kids to pay attention in class, not talk or text on a mobile device. As a result, many schools ban cell phones or prohibit students from taking them out of their pocket, purse or backpack during class periods. In Spring 2005, my educational law class small group researched varying school district cell phone policies in West and North Texas. We shared our findings on a wiki that is still available. It was amazing then to see the diversity of policies schools had on cell phones, and I’d guess the same diversity still persists today.

Having a cell phone can be an important thing, but there is no guarantee the cell lines will be open during an emergency. A couple of weeks ago here in Oklahoma City when we had a tornado in our area, some good friends of ours were unable to call each other with either cell phones or landline phones: the circuits were all busy.

Emergency situations aside, generally cell phones are considered distractions rather than useful tools in the classroom. I’m willing to take the likely controversial position that this should change.

Cell phones are viewed as distractions in school settings generally because the focus of “learning experiences” is usually on content transmission. As Roger Shank exhorted the higher education audience at his keynote a couple of weeks ago at SITE, K-12 teachers need to GET OVER the idea that they are or should attempt to be “content experts” for the subjects we “teach” in school. The role of teachers in the classroom needs to BROADLY change from “content expert” to “learning facilitator.” We’ve heard these slogans about “guide on the side” instead of “sage on the stage” for many years, but the availability of rich content from the web AND interactive digital technologies (both synchronous and asynchronous) make the need for this transition more glaring as well as realistic than ever before.

Teens want to be social, and they always will. Seeking ways to utilize cell phones in engaging and worthwhile ways for learning doesn’t have to be a capitulation to the desires of digital natives rather than the learning needs they should master. (This is sometimes a valid critique for teachers who use technology to turn lessons more into edutainment than opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills.) The question teachers, administrators, and school leaders need to be asking is: How can this amazingly powerful tool (the cell phone) be used to ENGAGE students and help them develop the skills as well as knowledge they’ll need for success in the workforce after high school? Instead of asking that question, I think many administrators as well as teachers are happy to just ban cell phone use in school altogether, or certainly during class time.

It sounds harsh, but I think that is a lazy educator’s answer. Good teaching is by its very nature extremely challenging and difficult. Some have observed it can even be termed “wicked,” especially when technologies are used. Boring teaching is generally easy to deliver. Authentically engaging diverse learners is always a MUCH more challenging endeavor. We need teachers in our classrooms who are willing to take on the challenges of “wicked teaching” with technology, rather than those who prefer the easy road of pulling out overhead transparencies which have been “working” with kids for the last 10 to 20 years. Readers of this blog are more likely to fall into the first group, but working as I do in “the real world” of K-12 education away from the bells, whistles and magic of educational technology conferences, I know there are PLENTY of teachers in the latter group who do and will likely continue to balk at the suggestion they should find ways to use cell phones (or other types of digital technologies) with students for instructional and learning purposes.

I’m going to put together a presentation for this summer and next school year specifically focused on using cell phones for learning at school. I’m thinking of one of the following titles for the session:

– Have Cell Phone, Can Create Multimedia!
– Cell Phone and Web Browser MultiMedia Production: All you need is in the palm of your hand!
– Got a Cell Phone? You’ve Got Multimedia!

Can you think of other catchy titles that might fit this theme? I’m thinking “Cell Phones for Learning” might work.

The availability of “MySpace Mobile” as an add-on for cell phone users is likely to make cell phones appear even more potentially disruptive in the eyes of parents, teachers, and school administrators. The continuing proliferation of proxy sites specifically created to help students bypass school content filters so they can access MySpace (like and others) reveals the “content web war” being waged currently between network administrators and digital natives who want to get to MySpace and other Internet destinations blocked by local content filter policies.

What I would like to see in addition to the MySpace Mobile “add on” for cell phones is a “WikiPedia Mobile” tool that speeds up the process of accessing WikiPedia articles, similar to the WikiPedia widget I use almost every day on my Macbook. On the same website where you can buy “MySpace Mobile” you can also buy “Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Mobile:”

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Mobile puts the worlds most trusted content on your mobile phone. Use this great tool to research any topic you can think of on the go. Choose from thousands of articles, images, and more, all at your fingertips.

That’s nice, and I certainly would rather have Britannica at my fingertips on my cell phone rather than nothing, but I’d honestly prefer WikiPedia at this point. For must of the topics I look up, I find the articles to be in-depth, accurate, and very helpful. (See Nature Magazine from Dec 2005 for more on that thread.)

I’ve been wanting to have WikiPedia at my fingertips more and more. At the METC conference the first week of March this year during Meg Ormiston’s presentation, she had the audience brainstorm things they know about a person in history. Having my laptop and being connected to the Internet, of course I used WikiPedia to help my group do our brainstorming. In her instructions, Meg didn’t specify that audience members couldn’t use digital tools. When we shared our results and it was revealed that we’d used WikiPedia, I was accused of cheating! That wasn’t cheating! It was an example of USING AVAILABLE TOOLS TO ACCOMPLISH A DEFINED OBJECTIVE.

We focus on short-term memorization way too much in formal educational settings. We need to focus more learning interactions, higher order thinking and communication skills.

If kids show up in your classroom with a cell phone loaded with “MySpace Mobile,” ask them if they can also access WikiPedia. If not, see if they can access Britannica. Then use the access they have to those resources as tools for in-class activities, demonstrating how our access to the “knowledge on the network” can make us more powerful, relevant, and effective as information gatherers, thinkers, and communicators in the 21st century.

That’s an important lesson for us all to learn, and there’s no better way to learn it than by seeing these tools used in context, in person.

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11 responses to “Embrace the constructive uses of cell phones in the classroom for learning”

  1. Stephanie L. Avatar
    Stephanie L.

    I think Wikipedia is a great tool for collaborative learning with students. Technology is becoming an important aspect of a student’s learning process and Wikipedia and/or MySpace are great initiatives for students to share their ideas and questions with their fellow classmates. In a textbook written by Bryn Holmes & John Gardner, they introduce the idea of communal constructivism: “Communal constructivism is a process in which indiviudals not only learn socially but contribute their learning to the creation of a communal knowledge base for other learners” (p.76).
    Wikipedia promotes communal constructivism… as people can post their own ideas and share with the online wikipedia community. When students collaborate to achieve one common goal, motivation is increased and a sense of achievement is established.
    Holmes, B. & Gardner, J. (2006). e-learning: Concepts and Practice. London: Sage Publications.

  2. Pay Attention…

    While catching up on my RSS feeds I came across this from Paul Wilkinson. He began by introducing this video with this
    Maybe we should change the one laptop per child project to the one cell phone per child? Might get there faster!

    But then added,

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks Lyn! Glad to know of this video. I’m making this connection too, 1:1 learning with laptops is powerful, but there are extremely powerful learning activities we can be doing NOW with cell phones. I’m going to be carrying and further developing this message in the months ahead here in Oklahoma! How cool you are in New Zealand and are collaborating with me on this conversation thread in real time. Wow.

  4. Pam Lowe Avatar

    How about a title something like:
    Cell Phone and Web Browser MultiMedia Production: Can You Hear Me Now?


    Cell Phones for Learning: The 411.

    Have you seen Citizendium @ ?

    It’s supposed to function in a similar way to Wikipedia, but does not allow anonymous editing.

  5. sylvia martinez Avatar

    This is great, Wes – not only is the cell phone a useful tool, putting power in the student’s hands is a literal reinforcement of student-centered technolgy use.

    On the laptop issue, cell phones are equivalent to laptops only if the use is simply as an information appliance. The computing power of a laptop is not present in phones.

    I’d like to see more examples of laptop use that really does take advantage of the computing power!

  6. J.D. Williams Avatar

    I have been trying to find a way to do some sort of a “conference” for my students on using cell phones effectively in school. I send text messages to google all the time to find definitions, sports scores, weather, etc. There is even a Google Maps for cell phones and Palms ( This is one of those things I don’t even see my principal signing off on though. If/when you do end up giving this presentation, please make sure you get a podcast of it. Thanks.

  7. Meg Ormiston Avatar

    Great conversation to follow, sorry I am a little behind in my reading. I was surprised to see my name in there Wes, but what a great example, and I really was teasing when I accused you of cheating. I actually was trying to illustrate the “lazy teacher” approach to collecting and remembering factoids of information and regurgitating it for the chapter test. If I was in the audience I would have done exactly what you did, access the digital tools available to me! This example illustrates exactly what we do to kids, reminds me of the old math debate about calculators.

    I have to echo the comments about the cell phones, the powerful tool that potentially could dramatically impact both teaching and learning. The tool we lock away during the school day so we can bore them all by talking faster and louder as the high stakes tests get closer.

    Most teachers are not the “Guide by the side”, instead they are the shadow next to the overhead, the one that sounds more like Charlie Brown’s teacher! I know it sounds harsh, but I agree with you Wes, really teaching for engagement takes extensive planning and amazing energy. Flipping overheads does not translate into engaged students, or increased test scores.

    On the flip side, to move forward with this debate we need to reach the school leadership. As I write this I have exactly (131:36:53) (hours:minutes:seconds) left in my sentence, oops term, on my local School Board. As clocked on my countdown calendar on my Google Pages I created. Not that I am excited or anything, my life will again be mine!

    Back to leadership, we need to help the School Boards see the power of cell phones, the 1:1 potential, and the power of immediate information in the hands of kids. As budgets shrink, we have a powerful set of digital tools locked up in lockers, to keep the focus on the overheads.

    As I rant on, Wes craft that workshop and submit it to the National School Board Association conference and everyone of the state affiliate conferences. I have attended a lot of them in my 5.5 year sentence, I am not sure if they are ready for this message and the controversy it could stir up!

  8. Meg Ormiston Avatar

    In your post Wes you commented about the recent tornado in your area and the reference to the cell lines jamming. After 9/11 I was in NY doing a keynote and I referenced the power of digital tools including cell phones. After my session a woman approached me and shared her personal experience of trying to contact her loved ones with the jammed lines, and text messaging was the way they found out everyone was all right. She asked me to share this information during my sessions, to hopefully help someone in the future. I wasn’t using text messaging at the time, but when I got to the airport, I immediately learned how to text.

    I did some Googling and found an article to support this. The article was in the Wall Street Journal, but I am having trouble finding additional sources to back-up the information. On another note, for all of us that travel, luckily the cell phone ban was not turned over!

    If this is true, we need to look at each and every school crisis plan and make sure that there is a chain of communication in place that includes text messaging. Again, back to school leadership!

    Jammed cell lines article

    cell phone ban

  9. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Meg: I know you were kidding about “cheating” during the workshop– that’s usually how we think of using technology tools in traditional contexts, so that’s what I wanted to point out. You are spot on in terms of leadership. Great idea about applying to present at NSBA… I’ll check dates and consider submitting a proposal! 🙂

  10. Lucky Avatar

    Great, this is an attractive news to one & all. People who are interested to know more about what medical physicians around the world are saying about the effects of cell phones and electromagnetic frequencies.For more information

  11. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    What is the research that backs up these claims and recommendations? I know there are investigations into these issues but I haven’t read or seen those studies. Before getting people alarmed saying things like “doctors say kids shouldn’t make any cell phone calls,” “never carry a cell phone in your pocket or males might become infertile” and “never play a game on a cell phone” I think we ought to see the research on this. If you know of this research, please share some links here. This IS an important issue, but I think we need to be savvy about examining the sources of recommendations. Saying “doctors recommend you do this” is not enough, in my view, to establish credibility and validity for the information being shared on your website. I’d like to see and read the actual studies, as well as summaries by experts who are able to synthesize other medical research being done in the field on these issues.