Smartphones In The Classroom: Working Smarter, Not Harder

stevegarfieldSmartphones In The Classroom: Working Smarter, Not Harder

by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Social Studies & Educational Technology Teacher

My smartphone changed my life. I can do everything I need to do on the road. I can buy my coffee. I can make a list of thoughts, participate in a Twitter chat, clip articles to my Evernote files, make Learnist boards, and post to my WordPress blogs on the fly. It’s literally revolutionized my productivity.

Mobile computing is the wave of the future. While the high school economics book still has a chapter on “balancing the checkbook,” I do my banking between grocery lines with mobile banking apps, rarely even seeing a check. I shop on Amazon, I send gifts remotely, and Google share important business and school materials for collaboration. Then I Skype or do a Google Hangout for remote collaboration.

Why, then must students use paper agendas, put their phones away, and use a pencil and paper?  Students can do so much with an iPhone (or an Android, or even a BlackBerry). It can truly help them work smarter, not harder. How?

BYOD in Motion

Although some schools have a “Bring Your Own Device” policy, many schools do not yet allow students to use their smartphones in class, even for educational purposes. This is a difficult situation for teachers who recognize the productivity gains that could be made–after all, we, as professionals, use this stuff all day.  With smartphones, a high school classroom without computers suddenly gains the power harnessed by the devices of the students, and a classroom with old computers does not have to worry about upgrading. We see immediate results in terms of student engagement, completed assignments, and access to higher-level information. Students’ first line of defense in finding a creative research solution is often their phone. Yet in many schools, this is breaking rules.

One day recently, I heard a voice drifting from the student computer area in my classroom. The student in front of the computer had her iPhone on the keyboard, Skyping. I’ve warned against an occasional text or tweet, but Skype seemed a bit extreme, even for me.

“Really?” I asked.  Phones are not yet allowed in our school.

“Miss, I’m talking to my cousin!” she gave me the “you’re interrupting” face.

“This makes this better how?” I inquired.  She was off Skype in thirty seconds, me standing at at the ready, holding my breath for the explanation.

“See, I couldn’t get this pie-chart just right and it wouldn’t embed where I wanted it. The numbers were wrong. She’s a computer person.”  We were doing an upper-level field research project that required use and interpretation of data. This student went straight for the expert in real time. It’s what I do all the time–use my network when I have a question. If this strategy is good enough for me, it should be used appropriately, for learning, for students. Networking and the use of technology are critical 21st century skills–these students are born with both innate abilities in both, which the learning environment should foster.

ipads-in-schoolStudents with disabilities report that apps help them in class, and some, like eighth-grader Sam, who presented to a full session at EdCamp Boston recently, articulate this well. Sam is a student with dyslexia who has had his iPad written into his Individualized Educational Plan. Sam reports that it’s not always easy to get his instructors to embrace the technology, however, because many misunderstand, feeling that he might not be on task, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Sam showed off apps and techniques he uses for increasing productivity. There were apps that helped him chunk text better, that read to him and that help him understand meaning. This helps him be productive alongside his peers. The University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help Page gives specific dyslexia-related apps, but seeing them in action with a real student, self-advocating to make the best use of technology to serve his needs was critical.

The Function of Mobile Technology

Mobile technology isn’t just for students with special needs. Every student can benefit from them.  Voice dictation is one example. Many students find writing stressful. It’s difficult for them to formulate an essay, but they can articulate advanced material with ease. By being trained in proper dictation techniques using the voice apps standard on the iPhone, students can dictate the body of an essay nearly in MLA format. I did a small training session before school one morning, and told them to try it out at home.  Suddenly, I started getting more written responses from students who never wrote much before.

Some feel that such apps have the potential to weaken a student’s ability to formulate written words and ideas. This is not true because students must still copy edit and revise their work, editing for punctuation, word choice, and the dreaded autocorrect or speech recognition problem. If you live in a state with a regional accent, which I do, this is a critical step indeed.

iPhone apps can be used out of the classroom to benefit students as well. Students can use their iPhone for fitness. Australian college student and future educator Emma Adams showcase a few of of the best fitness apps for the iPhone on her Learnist board, stating that they not only promote fitness, but cross over into math and science, hitting key standards as students discover health, nutrition, Body Mass Index calculation, caloric intake, and kinesiology.

In many respects, the iPhone is changing the way students learn. Social learning, immediate answers to questions, and access to higher-level material are paving the way for a new style of student. As educators, it is inherent on us to feel comfortable with this technology as we transition from teacher-centered environments of the past to student-centered technology-driven learning of the future.

Image attribution flickr users flickeringbrad and setevgarfield

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