What If those gadgets that students bring to class, the phones and tablets, were considered as encyclopedias, paper, and pens? Crazy, you say? May be or maybe not! This idea came to me in the middle of the night and woke me up. The next morning, this idea would not go away. I realized that I had spent a few years focusing more on controlling use and access rather than learning how to use these tools appropriately.
I have tried several ways to “manage” phone use in my class over the years. My strategies went from no use to modified use with permission, all with the same results. Students resisted restricted access to these devices and would go to any length, including expulsion to hold onto them. I even wanted to block signals altogether until I realized that, besides the legal issues, there might be unintended consequences that I could not predict.
I reflected on a book I read about leadership that described how it may be necessary to reframe ideas and assumptions about an organization in order to understand what was happening and to know what changes might work. So I slowly began to refocus and to reframe my assumptions about controlling and managing these devices. To my surprise, I found several benefits that enhanced learning in ways I could not have done a few years ago. In reality, these devices are 21st century versions of a dictionary, encyclopedia, pen, and pencil. I do not care if students doodle and I do not look at what they are writing on their papers. So, why should I be so focused on what is on the phone? The good news is that using phones and tablets in the classroom has many benefits.
1. Research- Classroom research, was the most important one for me. I stumbled on this when as a homework assignment, I asked that everyone be prepared for a discussion. Only two hands went up to confirm that they were prepared for the discussion. I quickly reframed the assignment from discussing the topic to researching and finding information to present the findings so that students could have a discussion at a later date.
2. Enhanced Student-Teacher Interaction and Instruction-As each group worked using their phones, I went around and listened to the conversations and answered their questions. I heard students asking good questions, dividing up work, deciding what was relevant to narrow their focus. Some found case studies or other examples of their topic. I was amazed that they pulled this off in the time allotted.
3. Conservation of Resources-Use of phone and tablets can reduce the cost copies and other storage resources needed. This immediately freed me from copying and consuming reams of paper. I could now accomplish these tasks by email or post them online. Students could choose to download the information or not. If students were absent, I did not have to scramble to find copies nor did I have to worry about getting the right number of copies. I was saving trees and not adding to my years of “extra copies clutter.”
4. Teamwork in Action- After dividing the class, each group of students had a part to research. At the end of class[R1], they had to present their portion to the rest of the class. This meant, as a team, they had about one hour to get the information, assemble it, interpret it, and pull together a presentation. Each week, one assignment is to reflect of what they learned from class discussions. Reflections on the impromptu research assigned focused on the value of teamwork.
5. Responsiveness to Student’s Needs or Circumstances-. If students are absent, I do not have to scramble to find copies or figure out times to be available for students to get them. They can access the class website and get what they need when they need it. They can forget their papers at home but few forget their phones.
6. Student-Centered Learning- In the past, I would feel obligated to tell students what they missed or give them the background that they were supposed to have discovered via homework. It they arrive unprepared, instead of me giving them what they need to proceed, I turn it over to them to use their phones and tablets to get up to speed for the class discussion. I can also make specific remedial recommendations for students needing help with grammar, spelling or language comprehension.
7. Time Management-Phone and tables have applications that help students stay organized with reminders and places to store due dates right at their fingertips. They also can choose verbal reminders.
8. Stress Reduction- I no longer worry about what students text. My responsibility is to focus on a quality, stress-limited learning environment. If it becomes distracting to me or someone else, I ask what they are doing. Most of the time, I get replies such as, “ I was looking up what you said “or “taking notes for my assignment that is due. ” I walk around the room as we are discussing to see what is happening. Many students use their devices for note taking or to enter reminders. A few people have been caught doing something else, but I also choose not to worry or stress about this.
9. Mastery-Classroom research with a limited scope is helpful in a fostering sense of competence and success. Many students expressed that they felt a sense of accomplishment that they could pull together a research project and presentation in the time allotted.
10. Modeling Life-Long Learning- electronic device use makes it easy to stay up-to-date on theories and ideas. When someone asks questions that I think beneficial for them to find the answer, we have a short challenge to see who can find the answer first. If I am asked a question that I am not sure about the answer, I will ask someone to verify my answer. Students get practice and see these devices used to solve problems and provide information. I can also reinforce that Wikipedia is not to be used as a source for scholarly documentation.
11. Accessibility- Although all students may not have access to a home computer, most of them have a cell phone which allows them to participate equally. Many do not buy the text because they cannot afford it, but they already have a phone or tablet and classroom use does not cost them more.
12. Peer-to-Peer Tutoring- While looking for information, students shared strategies and ways they could go about getting the answers needed. Competent students serve as models and support for those with emerging technical skills. Students use the phone to help others learn how to use software and to make sure that they were showing up for their class presentations.
I also realized that must of my attitudes about these devices was rooted in a culture of mistrust of students and their intentions. While some, student’s motives and attitudes may not be focused on classroom learning, use of electronic devices is not necessarily the cause. Students who are ready to take a class with the necessary goal, skills, and background will find ways to use technology to enhance their learning not necessarily detract from it. They also have been instrumental in policing those who are distracting.
Electronic tools have become so commonplace that I choose not to continue to focus on the control of technology in the classroom. Instead, I find ways to keep students engaged using these tools to my advantage. These technology tools allow me to give the responsibility to learners to get what they need to complete class assignments and provide a course of action when they are not prepared. What if you treated phones in class like encyclopedias, pens, and paper? Try this out and see!