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Doing a 180 on the issue of cell phones

Christine Hudecki , Teacher Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School

“Phones are a distraction”. “Teens don’t have the self-discipline to have a phone in class”. “It’s best to 100% ban the cell phones from the classroom”.

That was my attitude for many years. Ten years ago when I started teaching high school, there were only 1 or 2 students in each class with a mobile phone. Now it’s 1 or 2 students in each class that do not have a phone. Ten years ago cellular phones could make voice calls and send text messages. Now standard software and free apps enable students to do a wide range of useful activities: take pictures, record voices, capture short videos, set up a calendar, plan/manage their time, set up reminders and alarms, create to-do lists, do math calculations, check current events and of course, snapchat and Instagram their friends. I decided to start my new school year with the goal of frequently integrating the use of smart phones into my grade 10 science and grade 11 physics lessons in meaningful ways.

This past summer I took several courses which allowed me loads of time to share ideas with other teachers. Frequently I found myself talking about how young people need to know how to use technology as a tool and not just as entertainment. We all know our students can confidently navigate social media, but can they use technology to learn, plan and organize their lives? Would using technology engage the students more in their lessons? I wanted to use computer technology more often in my lessons, but the school has a limited number of computers and getting a class set often requires booking two weeks ahead! So much for spontaneity!

But wait! (Picture a light bulb going on here). Most, if not all, of my students likely have a smart phone in class despite my ‘no cell phone’ policy. They are essentially walking around with pocket computers! Before I invested a lot of time into recrafting lessons to incorporate cell phones, I decided I needed to confirm my hunch that most students had one.

Using the phone to survey the students on the first day
Part of my lesson on the first day of school was to have the students complete a Google form survey using a live link posted on my science website. The survey was short so I figured if there were students without phones, they could share or even complete at home. A short 10-question survey gathered information about the student’s attitude about the course, their desired mark, what kind of extracurricular activities they did and whether they had a cell phone. The wonderful thing about Google forms is that without any extra work on my part, all the data is collated into a spread sheet and displayed in pie graphs for easy analysis. Here are some of the findings:



An astounding 96.6% of the students had a smart device that could connect to the school WiFi and 66.7% of the devices were iPhones! Other students have androids and a few grade 10 students were using iPods that connect to the internet. This data gave me the go-ahead to work cell phones into my lessons.

Phone etiquette
I started by discussing etiquette: we call them ‘smart phones’ or ‘smart devices’ (to emphasize their usefulness as educational tools), we use them as needed for the lesson and when they are not needed they are silenced and out of sight. If we could not use them responsibly, then I would need to reconsider using them as an educational tool. I also briefly described how college and university required students to be knowledgeable about the internet beyond social media. It was time that the students used this powerful educational tool they carried around with them in their back pockets! To date I have had no problems with inappropriate cell phone use. Admittedly I have all academic and university level courses, but when I banned cell phones, I did have problems with these same students texting instead of being engaged in the lesson. Maybe legitimizing the use of smart phones diminishes the need to be on it for other reasons?

The phone can connect to my science website
I encourage students to self-check their mathematical problem solving. I have solved the assigned homework, scanned them and posted this on my website. It is not just the answers, but the worked up solutions which is more helpful to students than the single number answer at the back of a textbook.



The phone has a camera
Sometimes we do a problem solving activity that does not have the answer uploaded to my website. When this is the case, I write up answers and put it up on the whiteboard. Students are encouraged to self-check as they go. (As an added bonus, the kinesthetic learners can get out of their seats!). They are also encouraged to take a picture using their smart device.

Other times I encourage the students to pay full attention to what I am doing without having to also concentrate on getting the note down. In this case, the students will take a picture of the whiteboard after I have gone through a problem. Below is an example of vector components using a football analogy.

And of course the camera is good for teachers too! All the photos in this article were taken on my smart phone.
The phone has a stopwatch
We used the timer function on the phone to calculate the frequency of a pendulum and to determine the speed of a transverse wave travelling along a 6 foot spring.

The phone can connect to an online dictionary and other reference sources
I have also had students look up words in the dictionary (www.webster.com). The other day in grade 10 biology we got talking about medical advances and medical ethics. The students weren’t sure about the meaning of ‘ethics’ and instead of me always giving the answer, I tossed it back to them to look it up for us before we continued on. It’s quite empowering for the students.

What do the students think?
As I considered exploring other more advanced tools on the smart device, I thought I should get a read on how the students feel about all of this. Most like using the smartphone as a tool. Some of the things students did not like about using their smart phone were: cracked screens made it harder to use touch screen and read small print, the screen is small and older phones were slower at processing. Although I don’t have 100% buy in, I am pleased to see that a large portion of the students do enjoy using the new tool in the classroom. I plan to continue integrating this tool into my lessons.

Editor’s note: What else can the phone do in a science class?
I asked Christine to keep her article to the applications that were easiest to implement. We would love to hear from other teachers about different ways to incorporate this powerful device in their lessons.

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