Cell phones in the classroom

Surprising field studies suggest cell phones could be effective learning tools

Guest blogger Marie Bjerede is Vice President of Wireless Education Technology at Qualcomm, Inc., where she focuses on addressing the technical, economic, social, and systemic challenges to enabling every student to gain the advantages afforded those who have 24/7 mobile broadband access.

In most schools, cell phones are checked at the door — or at best powered off during school hours in a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding between students and administrators. This wide-spread technology ban is a response to real concerns: if kids have unfettered instant access to the Internet at school, how do we keep them safe, how do we keep out inappropriate content, how do we prevent real-time cyberbullying, how do we even keep their attention in class when competing with messaging, gaming, and surfing?

At the same time, though, there is a growing sense among education thought leaders and policy leaders that not only are cell phones here to stay but there seems to be interesting potential to use these small, connected computers that so many students already have. I’ve been insanely fortunate over the past year to work closely with Wireless Reach (Qualcomm’s strategic social initiative) and real innovators in education who are finding that cell phones in classrooms don’t have to be a danger or a distraction but, in fact, can help kids learn in some surprising ways.

During the 2007-2008 school year, Wireless Reach began funding Project K-Nect, a pilot project in rural North Carolina where high school students received supplemental algebra problem sets on smartphones (the phones were provided by the project). The outcomes are promising — classes using the smartphones have consistently achieved significantly higher proficiency rates on their end of course exams.

Now, the population is small (on the order of 150 kids) and the make-up is essentially what researchers call a “convenience sample.” It was selected from a population of kids that: largely qualified for free and reduced lunch; didn’t have home Internet; and had low math proficiency. It was not balanced with a formally designed control group. There was self-selection on the part of the participating teachers — they are extremely motivated — but the results are consistent and startling. Overall, proficiency rates increased by 30 percent. In the best case, one class using the devices had 50 percent more kids finishing the year proficient than a class learning the same material from the same teacher during the same school year, but without the cell phones.

So what’s so different about delivering problem sets on a cell phone instead of a textbook? The first obvious answer is that the cell phone version is multi-media. The Project K-Nect problem sets begin with a Flash video visually demonstrating the problem — you could theorize that this context prepares the student to understand the subsequent text-based problem better. You could also theorize that watching a Flash animation is more engaging (or just plain fun) and so more likely to keep students’ attention.

Another difference is that digital content is personalized. In this case, that just means that different students get the same problem (how long will it take a space ship to catch up with a space probe?) but with different numbers plugged in (the velocity might be given as 40,000 mph for one student and 37,500 mph for another). The result is that students can’t simply compare answers – they need to compare solutions. “How did you get that” replaces “what did you get?”

A third difference is that, unlike the traditional practice where each student works on textbook problems in isolation, the learning environment in Project K-Nect is participative. Students are asked to record their solutions on a shared blog and are encouraged to both post and comment. Over time, a learning community has emerged that crosses classrooms and schools and adds the kind of human interaction that an isolated, individual drill (be it textbook or digital) lacks and that a single teacher is unlikely to have the bandwidth to provide to each student.

A final observation is that having a digitally mediated component to the learning environment can be surprisingly inclusive. As teachers in Project K-Nect began to experiment with using the blogs and instant messaging for discussing math in the classroom, an unexpected (to us) dynamic emerged. It turns out that many kids who don’t like speaking up in class are completely comfortable speaking up online. Students who don’t like to raise their hands use the devices to ask questions or participate in collaborative problem solving. There appears to be something democratizing about having a “back channel” as part of the learning environment.

So far all these distinctions are not unique to cell phones but common to any personal computing solution. A WiFi-equipped netbook at every desk could readily provide the same kind of differentiation from a lecture-and-textbook based traditional classroom. But taking the next step from computer labs or laptops at school to a personal, connected device changes the game. Beyond just computing in the classroom, cell phones give the students in Project K-Nect access to the Internet and their learning communities 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, whether they are at school, at home, on the bus, at after-school activities, or in the case of one chronically ill student, at the hospital.

Back when I was in school, I remember math learning went something like this:

  • Sit in a lecture and take notes furiously — verbatim, if possible
  • The night before homework is due, try to reverse engineer how to solve problems from the now cryptic notes
  • Find examples that look like the problem at hand
  • Plug in numbers from the given problem
  • Hope

Because the students in Project K-Nect have 24/7 mobile broadband, that dynamic has changed for them. When a student sits down to work on problems and gets stuck, she can post a question or just a general plea for help to the shared blog. Soon, several classmates will reply with help and encouragement. Students who might otherwise give up can get just-in-time support to help them be successful while the students who are providing the help get the reinforcement and deeper understanding that comes from teaching.

Teachers from the pilot also tell me that their instruction has changed since they started using cell phones in class. I had a chance to see one teacher give her students a simple bingo game to play on the phone that involved solving a number of algebra problems. She told me that her kids had far more patience for, and interest in, working problems as quickly and accurately as possible when it was part of a digital game rather than performing the same drill using worksheets.

I’ve seen another teacher use Poll Everywhere software with the students to check on their understanding during a lecture. The teacher posed a math problem, the students texted their replies to the Poll Everywhere site, and a pie chart showing the distribution of answers was instantly projected at the front of the class, giving the teacher a chance to clear up any misconceptions before moving on.

Much of the teaching has also shifted to problem-based learning. I was fascinated to see an example of this on one visit. The students worked in groups to develop a public service announcement describing the dangers of compound interest and credit card debt. They then made a video of their commercial using their cell phones and posted it to the shared blog. Not only did they learn by discussing and debating as a team how best to communicate compound interest, but they then had the resulting video to refer to when it came time to review for the test. In fact, they had everyone’s videos at their fingertips via their cell phone browsers. If one team’s explanation didn’t kindle the “aha” moment, another one just might. Once again, the connected learning community had a significant and unanticipated impact on these students.

As for the issues of safety and appropriate use of the Internet, each student in the pilot has signed an acceptable use policy outlining their responsibilities as cell phone users at school. Soti’s MobiControl software, which allows the teachers to interact with each student’s cell phone, also allows them to monitor use and apply standard classroom discipline techniques for inappropriate behavior in the virtual world — just as they manage behavior in physical hallways and on campus grounds. Not surprisingly, after some initial testing of the boundaries, a culture of responsible use quickly evolved among the students.

Finally, what about messaging, gaming, and surfing in class? In the Project K-Nect classrooms, students don’t use these to play virtual hooky, but they do use them regularly for learning. In the classrooms I’ve had a chance to see, the students are far too busy participating to tune out. Of all the expected and unexpected outcomes of this project, I find the way that cell phones have facilitated the social aspects of learning to be one of the most intriguing.

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  • Rich

    Phones are also something around which to stigmatize kids that don’t have The Right One, or have one at all. In our day, it was the right shoes or the right shirt. Now it’s the right phone. Parents who don’t send their kids to school with a fancy smart phone have to endure stories of their kids being teased, or left out of class activities, because they don’t have one. But why does a 3rd grader need a phone? The only reason that I’ve found so far is, because their friends have one.

  • Ken McNamara

    Truly a remarkable and unexpected result.

    My gut reaction was “no way” – but the reality is compelling.

    Thanks for blogging this interesting article.

  • Carl Malartre

    Hi Marie, I love your project!

    If I understand, you favor the forum approach for getting a correction. But I was wondering: could the student input the solution directly in the phone and get an immediate feedback, and if it’s wrong, then go on the forum instead of waiting?

    Carl Malartre
    http://www.BuzzMath.com

  • Marie Bjerede

    Rich is right that equity is a real societal issue as soon as we start talking about giving kids technology for schools – even more so if we are expecting kids to use whatever their parents can or cannot pay for. The question is, does having a cell phone for learning create better educational outcomes and, if so, in what ways and at what age? If it does, we can expect to see a growing digital divide (or mobile divide) between socioeconomically disadvantaged students who access digital content a limited number of hours a week in computer labs and kids who have digital access literally at their fingertips 24/7. The Project K-Nect study was designed to be a pilot, not a research project – there is a lot to learn on this question from formal research.

    Does a 3d grader need a cell phone? I didn’t think I really needed one when I first got it, either: I thought the only reason I got one was in the unlikely event my car were to break down on the freeway. Today my cell phone is a computer that does a LOT more than that first device ever could. I rely on it as a business professional for e-mail, web browsing, and collaborating with my colleagues 24/7. What would a cell phone have to be or do in order for a 3d grader to benefit from it even half as much?

  • Joe McCarthy

    Very interesting results, but I’m wondering how much of the positive impact is due to having a multimedia computer and how much is due to the smartphone form factor. Would similar results be achieved using laptops?

    I find my iPhone is more fun than my MacBook Pro, and yet I believe I achieve greater breadth and depth of learning and [other] productivity on my MBP.

    This study is promising, but I hope future studies will explore the relative contributions of form factors.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Carl – yes, of course there is an important role for autonomous, computer-aided learning. I think the question ties into the debate about basic skills vs. higher-order cognitive skills.

    Bereiter & Scardamalia talk brilliantly about how people gain expertise. They make the analogy about how people learn to drive. At first driving is made up of lots of new distinct tasks to master, such as ‘push down on the clutch’ ‘ put your hand on the shift stick’ ‘move into up and to the right’. Eventually all those tasks get “chunked” together into a simple action ‘shift to first gear’ that becomes autonomous. This means we don’t have to think about it or work hard at it anymore. It frees up our brains for other things – like talking, listening to the radio, or thinking about work. We become fluent drivers, but not experts. Contrast that to a race car driver who repurposes all his attention to tougher challenges as basic things become automatic – that’s an expert.

    Higher order skills and basic skills evolve together naturally when we are trying to get good at something. But ask any athlete or musician and they will tell you that drill is critical to their performance.

    So if problem-based learning and social learning are helpful to ensure we are not just fluent in mathematical computation and algorithms, but learn to think like expert mathematicians, what are the other critical components, what is the optimal role for drill, and how does learning progress when students can practice and receive immediate feedback via computer?

    Joe – excellent point! There are two distinctions: form factor and connectivity. Does connectivity yield great results in spite of, or because of, or independently of the device a student is using? When I read your post, I was on an airplane using my cell phone, but I waited until I got to my MacBook to respond.

    Many sophisticated administrators will tell you that there is a fantastic role for cell phones and learning, but that thoughtful authoring requires a bigger form factor. Many kids will tell you that laptops and even the smaller netbooks are their parents’ device. They use cell phones because they are always with them and they don’t have to wait for booting or synchronization. They use them for everything from math to typing term papers. Rationalization because they really WANT a cell phone? Could be – but even though I find it hard to imagine using a cell phone that way, I’m waiting for more evidence before I rule it out.

  • Mikael O. Bonnier

    I would like to know more details. Which phone where they using? It’s extremely difficult and timecomsuming to type text on most mobile phones. Who paid for the phones. Also I would like to know if the students had to pay their own phonebills. Education for children should be free. Which softwares were used?

  • Antoine RJ Wright

    Without the custom software, I did similar with PDAs and high school seniors in 2002/2003 for the Upward Bound program. We kept costs to a bare minimum and focused on the core functionality of the tool, and then wrapped the lessons around that.

    What I found then was that students when given the bounds of the tool were more than able to grab not just the lessons, but build other experiences beyond them.

    For one reason or another, school curriculum are structured around testing and standards, not so much around allowing lessons and tests to function as a smaller piece of the puzzle that they will have to know well as adults – creating solutions.

    Something like this works when the kids only need to concentrate on creating solutions, not costs and such. And while cost and access are real lessons, and ones that they do need to get as a part of a course collection that uses any kind of tech, getting a control group to this point is pretty neat and should be commended and (at worst) tried again and again.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Mikael – That’s the nice thing about a pilot – the cell phones, currently HTC Touch Pro 2′s, and the connectivity plans were all paid for by the project so the students were free to focus on learning. The software was also free to the students and included off-the-shelf elements and some custom software developed under Digital Millenial Consulting – check out the Project K-Nect website for more information on partners who contributed.

    Antoine – how fantastic and forward-thinking that you did this over 7 years ago! Absolutely agree that we need to keep trying and learning.

  • Trevor Perrier

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa the ubiquity of flash enabled smart phones isn’t large enough to do something on the scale of Project K-Nect, but 7/10 high school students will have a java enabled phone. This has let me give every student a java based stop watch for physics experiments

    Definitely much smaller scale then this, but these kids have never done a true investigative science experiment and the cell phone is a cheap way to collect time data.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Trevor – what a great way to use cell phones for learning. It’s smart – turning the technology that’s at hand into a scientific tool.

  • Philemon Tapol

    Im currently doing my thesis about the advantages and disadvantages of the usage mobile phone during class periods. I hypothosis that the use of using cell phone is very important in means of aguiring infomation that is online.

  • jim rowley

    Great article. I have been desiring to do this in my classroom for the past 4 years. I was turned down for a grant by two major phone carriers. Would you be willing to share your data that you collected? I am interested in seeing your results. Thanks

  • elizabeth corcoran

    As we melt the walls that isolate school from the rest of our lives, we have a chance to similarly chip away at the idea that “learning” only happens in a classroom. Marie’s got a great example of how to turn the dream into reality. Let’s figure out how to make it spread!

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Also: check out this piece in the NYTimes on cell phone usage: http://nyti.ms/c0Xorj

  • mobile phones

    During the 2007-2008 school year, Wireless Reach began funding Project K-Nect, a pilot project in rural North Carolina where high school students received supplemental algebra problem sets on smartphones (the phones were provided by the project). The outcomes are promising — classes using the smartphones have consistently achieved significantly higher proficiency rates on their end of course exams.mobile phones

  • Ian Bult

    I think we have to be careful with cell phones, I’ve found many of my students using their cell phones to store formulas and stuff they weren’t allowed to use

  • Scott Newcomb

    Mobile Learning has positive results!
    Check out our school Mobile Learning Website.

    http://www.smriders.net/Mobile_Learning/

  • Brien Bennetr

    Truly a remarkable and unexpected result.

    My gut reaction was “no way” – but the reality is compelling.

    Thanks for blogging this interesting article.

    Technology Guy

  • Hannes

    This is indeed a great discussion! I think the cell phone must first be understood primarily as a device for mobile computing more than communicating before K-12 school will embrace it. That said cell phones will always be for communicating, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but tends to be abused by the bubble gum chewing girl.

    There are plenty of reasons for having phones in schools, Every single student uses their phone in school, it’s not really a distraction. Every teachers knows students use their phones in the classroom, and most of the time when they see a student using it they never say anything because they know it’s not a distraction.

  • Hannes

    This is indeed a great discussion! I think the cell phone must first be understood primarily as a device for mobile computing more than communicating before K-12 school will embrace it. That said cell phones will always be for communicating, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but tends to be abused by the bubble gum chewing girl.

    There are plenty of reasons for having phones in schools, Every single student uses their phone in school, it’s not really a distraction. Every teachers knows students use their phones in the classroom, and most of the time when they see a student using it they never say anything because they know it’s not a distraction.

    Has anyone read the book Secrets SMART Study System offered by 4 hour study week which not only nourishes your study habits but also gives effective study tips.

  • Ali

    to Rich: As a student in high school, I have never seen or heard kids being teased about their cell phones. Some kids have good ones, some have crappy ones. Phones are phones.

    As to this article: very interesting! I am writing a debate argument about the uses of cell phones in class, and this article provided useful information.

  • http://www.10-minute-trainer.com Barry Tooker

    No matter what they try to do to restrict phone use in school, someone will always find something fun to do during class. I remember back in high school, I spent most of my time in Math class playing tetris on my TI-83 calculator lol.

  • http://www.wiziq.com/events/co11.aspx Dr. Nellie Deutsch

    This is a great topic and something that schools need to accept. Cell phones are used a great deal by our students and we need to cater to their ways of communicating with each other. I am looking for someone to speak this coming Saturday February 6, 2011 at 2 PM EST (Toronto time) at the CO11 free online conference on this very topic since our scheduled speaker had to cancel. If you’d like to present, there are over 45 participants so far who would like to learn more about this topic.

    Here is the link to the sessions: http://www.wiziq.com/events/co11.aspx

    My email is nellie.muller.deutsch@gmail.com

    Thank you.
    Nellie

  • LaShuna Proctor

    It was a very interesting article. It is apparent that technology has increased greatly over past years and it will continue to soar. Personally, I would never agree to students using cell phones in the classroom but if it helping them to learn, I say, “Go for it!”

  • Melissa

    I think that this is a great way to get students excited about learning and interested in class activities. The ways of technology are advancing, so why shouldn’t the education system as well?

    And Rich: I am a college student and have never heard or seen students be “picked on” for their cell phones. Also, that is completely unrelated to this article because the students in these classes were issued smart phones that were owned by the school. Therefore they all had the same phone…

  • donald russell

    this is boring