May 02 2008

Stop Banning, Start Embracing

Discover how cell phones can be used as learning tools.

Five years ago I was a technology coordinator writing policies that banned cell phones from campus. I thought mobile phones were distracting, annoying and potentially harmful to education.

Two years later, my perspective changed. While showing teachers how to blog, a message appeared on my computer screen: “Audioblog from your cell phone.” Curious, I tried it. Using my cell phone, I recorded my first audioblog. I dialed a number, recorded a message, hung up and the recording immediately posted to my blog as an instant podcast. Suddenly I did not view cell phones as merely devices for social entertainment and distraction, but rather as tools for learning.

Over the next few years I discovered that cell phones have the potential to be the ultimate data collection tools for students. Typical data collection devices, such as video camcorders, digital cameras, MP3 recorders and student response systems, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Many schools cannot afford such luxuries. While educators struggle to give students access to the latest educational technology, they overlook the fact that many secondary students already own an all-in-one data collection tool — their cell phones.

Because students never leave home without their cell phones, they are always equipped to document a learning experience. Additionally, using a tool inside of school that’s commonly used on the outside may help to alleviate some of the disconnect students have between school activities and the real world. Such a tool is not going to change the content students are learning, but it may help disengaged students who enjoy using their cell phones to re-engage in the educational process.

I learned that there are hundreds of free Web resources that, when coupled with a cell phone, can result in authentic learning activities inside and outside of the classroom. For example, and can transform a cell phone into a student response system through text messaging. Teachers and students can create instant polls at Poll Everywhere, send their votes as text messages and then watch in real time as the votes are tallied. Wiffiti gives teachers an interactive Web-based screen where students can text-message ideas while brainstorming. Students can then watch as the result of their brainstorming instantly appears on screen.

Another possibility is mobile journalism. Look at any major online news site, such as CNN’s, and you will find information for mobile citizen journalists. Many news providers recognize that cell phones can supply immediate access to images, and therefore allow citizens to send media from their cell phone to the news site. In addition to using their cell phones to participate in major news events, students can emulate mobile journalism on a smaller scale through, a free Web resource that will let them create a blog devoted to community or school news. Using Utterz, students can send recorded interviews, the text of a short story, a short video clip, or photos directly from their cell phones to their blog.

Thus, if news breaks while a student is out in the community, she can document it with her cell phone and instantly post to her blog. As a new tool for learning, cell phones are controversial. But there was a time when fountain pens and — believe it or not — paper were also controversial in the classroom. If I had known five years ago what I know now, I would have stopped writing policies banning cell phones and started writing learning activities using cell phones.

Cell Phone Podcasts

What can you accomplish when you mix a single cell phone, dozens of students and a new Web resource? The answer for St. Joseph Parish School in Trenton, Mich., is radio theater podcasts. Students at the K–8 school used the cell phone of technology coordinator Pat Sattler and the audio and video podcasting service Hipcast ( to create podcasts. To sample their work, visit: