Lessons learned on cell phones in school

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a bit of a mini-experiment on using student-owned cell phones—tools that I believe are disrupting the learning environment—as responders in my sixth grade classroom.

Specifically, I’m using Poll Everywhere—a service that provides free educator accounts—to gather, sort and report student responses on a few quick formative assessments.

I wanted to sit down for a minute and process some of the lessons that I’ve learned mostly because it will help me to get my head wrapped around the role that cell phones can play in our school.

Here are a few important takeaways.

Regardless of economic background, the majority of my sixth grade students really DO have cell phones and text messaging plans.

I was always relatively confident that the rates of cell phone penetration in our school were pretty high, but I wasn’t positive that significant numbers of sixth graders—who are only 11 and 12 years old—would be packing cells.

They are, after all, still pretty young.

What I found after conducting a quick team survey, though, was that well over 70% of my students have cell phones that they bring to school regularly.

More importantly for my plans to use cell phones as student responders, 58% of my students have cell phones with unlimited text messaging plans.

Instructionally, having devices in the hands of 6 out of every 10 kids made it possible to pair students into groups of 2 or 3 when they were working on our formative assessments.

Together, groups worked through questions and decided on answers that they wanted to submit to the surveys I’d created in Poll Everywhere.

While I probably would have rather had individual responses from every kid, collaborative problem solving and responding was productive, too, as students served as tutors for their peers on challenging problems.

HAVING cell phones and remembering to BRING them to class are two different things for middle schoolers.

One of the hiccups that shouldn’t have surprised me is that we never had the same number of cell phones available to us in the same class period two days in a row.

My kids are middle schoolers.

Remembering isn’t their strong suit!

They’d leave their phones at home, they’d have their phones taken away by their parents as a consequence for misbehaving, and they’d have their batteries die in the middle of our lesson because they’d forgotten to charge it the night before.

That meant we almost always had to adjust our groups from day-to-day, responding to the number of cell phones that we had to work with.

While this wasn’t a real problem, it did steal minutes from the lessons that we were working on.  More importantly, it left me flustered because I didn’t see it coming.

Teachers need to be willing to tinker with student devices if necessary.

Maybe it’s just because my students are still relatively new cell phone users, but I had more than one child who wasn’t comfortable using their phones to send text messages.

That meant I had to spend some time working their menus trying to figure out exactly where the messaging options were hidden—and then running mini-tutorials for the owners to get ‘em up and texting on their own.

Again, it wasn’t an impossible hurdle to overcome—but it required a bit of unexpected patience and a willingness to tinker with a wide variety of different devices that I’m not familiar with.

If I had it to do over again, I would have built an experimentation day into my lessons to give kids a chance to practice with their phones and with Poll Everywhere.

Doing so would have worked out these kinds of kinks in advance without feeling frustrated about spending class time troubleshooting with student phones.

Communicating with parents saved me some headaches.

I did a pretty good job keeping the parents of my students posted about what we were planning on doing with cell phones in class.

My original worry was that students with limited texting plans would blow through their monthly allotment on classroom assignments and parents would be left with big bills.

What I found, though, was that many parents had “safe lists” programmed into their children’s phones that limited just who their kids could—and couldn’t—text.

Once they understood our project, all of these parents added our classroom Poll Everywhere number to their children’s “safe lists.”

If I hadn’t asked, however, we would have lost the use of a few more devices.

Poll Everywhere isn’t a perfect service yet.

I actually love Poll Everywhere as a tool—and have used it a bunch of times with teacher audiences in presentations.

I’ve even gone as far as to pay for a Pro membership simply because I believe in supporting services that are doing good work.

It’s not a perfect service yet, though, because it wasn’t originally designed to collect information on a bunch of different questions related to the same topic and then to report out results on those questions at the individual user level.

While the service is working to polish that functionality, it’s still a bit balky.

Copying questions—an essential feature for teachers working with multiple class periods—isn’t terribly smooth.  Neither is grouping individual questions into multiple question polls or clearing results so that questions can be reused.

What was probably most frustrating, though, was that some reports could be printed easily while others couldn’t.  That just didn’t make sense to me.

While I believe Poll Everywhere is moving in the right direction with their product, it took a bit of digital resilience on my part to make the service work for me right now.

 

In the end, I believe my experiment was successful primarily because student cell phones paired with Poll Everywhere made it possible to collect instant formative assessment data on my classes.

I was able to quickly identify skills that they had mastered and skills that they were still struggling with—and to tailor my lessons based on tangible evidence collected automatically.

Typically, that process is a data nightmare for me.

While it would be great if our school had multiple sets of student responders—making it possible to collect results at the individual level and eliminating the need to worry about whether or not I was going to have enough devices every day—we don’t.

And considering how tight budgets are, my guess is that we won’t—at least until the economy recovers.

Which means tinkering with student-owned cell phones as response systems is a logical step that is just plain worth taking.

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Related Radical Reads:

Using Cell Phones in Schools

Can Texting Help Teens with Writing

It’s a Pedagogical Problem

Using Student Responders Responsibly