I often use technology in my classroom, and I usually provide school laptops or netbooks for my students. My 16-year old digital natives however lack the patience needed for a computer to boot and more and more frequently I started to get the question: “Can’t we just do this on our phone?”. And that’s how I came to realize they all have quite a powerful device right there in their pockets: their smartphones. This post explores the pros and cons of using smartphones in the classroom.
In our school we are evolving more and more towards a “bring your own device” policy. Our 5th and 6th years for example have been bringing their own laptops to school since a couple of years. My 4th years however, don’t have to bring their own laptops (yet). Our school still provides computers and laptops, and excellent ICT-support for all our students, but these school computers are more and more categorized as “old technology” –aka “slow technology”- by my students. And they are right of course. But schools can’t be expected to buy a couple of hundred state-of-the-art new computers every couple of years – budgets for technology in Belgian schools being as ridiculously low as they are. So a trend towards BYOD seems logical and inevitable. Our school team has chosen for netbooks rather than tablets, and I stand behind this decision. But why not also make use of the device all 16-year olds seems to possess already and carry with them all the time?
Let’s start with a few concerns some teachers might have. First of all: you cannot expect 100% of students to own a smartphone (although in the case of my students this year, 100% do), and I do not want to give my students the impression that they should. All of my assignments therefore can be executed with one phone per group or pair of students. If I want all of them to make an exercise individually, I provide a couple of extra laptops. So in no way I want my students to feel that a smartphone is a prerequisite for my class, and I stress this every time.
A second major concern – according to my fellow teachers – is lack of control: they feel that they cannot control what their students are doing when they have their smartphones turned on and in their hands. I strongly disagree with this statement. I feel that with most digital applications the possibility for monitoring progress is much larger than with traditional educational tools. Take Socrative for example: I can see exactly how many exercises each student has completed and how they are doing. I can even project it on the whiteboard, so that they can see how they are doing in comparison with their fellow classmates.
A final – and very real – concern that I’d like to discuss is distraction. I once read that if you think you know about instant gratification, you should spend one hour with a teen and their smartphone and think again. I don’t allow my phone to notify me about many things, but most of my students’ phones pling of buzz constantly with messages, Instagram likes and nearby Pokemons (I assume), which obviously interferes with keeping their focus.
I do not know how to solve this problem, but I also feels it doesn’t necessarily go away when you don’t use smart phones in class. Don’t think students don’t check their phones when you use a textbook… Should we teach students to try and live without their cellphones from time to time? Probably, yes, and I do feel that cell phone addiction and FOMO (fear of missing out) in teenagers is a real concern. However, I still stand by the slogan: “Teach as if the internet exists” and I consequently also try to teach without ignoring the smart phones in the pockets of my students, trying to use them to my (and their) advantage to teach them things.
So sure, there are good reasons to ban cell phones from school grounds, but I feel you miss a lot of opportunities when you do. There are so many fun and engaging apps that you can use and students really do appreciate it when you make the effort to use modern technology in class. My efforts to try and use social media in the classroom have been applauded by my students, even if it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
I get that some teachers feel insecure about trying out new apps and working with a medium that they are maybe not that familiar with. But students will happily forgive you of something goes wrong. And on top of that, most of the time they will be able to help you out whenever you get stuck. One very large advantage of using smart phones in a classroom of 16-year olds is that you always have 20 experts around who don’t mind helping you out.