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Cell-phones in classrooms: Convince me

“Miss, did you see on the news last night? They showed how kids are using their cell-phones in classrooms during lessons. That’s so cool!”
“Would you like it if your class were allowed to use cellphones to help with lessons? Do you think it will work?”
“Yes Miss, that would be awesome if we could! But I don’t think it’ll work ’cause you know our kids; they will go onto BBM or MXIT to chat instead of where they supposed to go.”

The conversation above, between one of my Grade 8 students and I, illustrates some of my concerns with using cell-phones in the classroom and is part of the reason why I haven’t attempted to use cell-phone technology in my own classroom yet.

I am not oblivious to the technological advancements that are available to be used in classrooms, in fact I have been to a very inspiring and interesting EdTechConf (Education Technology Conference), but am still not convinced that it is currently implementable in ALL classrooms in South Africa. I find that teachers and administrators who so vigorously promote ICT for the classroom, generally come from rich schools who can afford to install interactive-whiteboards and data-video projectors in every classroom, who have up-to-date computer labs, where teachers have all been given laptops by the school, where iPads are available for learners to use, and where learners all have the latest cell-phones and have their own computers and internet access at home.  So, what about those of us who teach in the poorer schools?

Every time that I have alluded to this factor of a lack of funding to teachers from economically advantaged schools, I have been given a superior look followed by a few sympathetic words, after which the topic of conversation was abruptly changed. So, I would just smile to myself and continue to search for ways to improve my lessons and make them more exciting without using ICT, other than occasional PowerPoint presentations or movie viewings with my school’s one data-video projector and retractable screen from the 80′s, when it is not being used by another teacher. Of course I would also like to make more use of technology, as I can see how it can benefit the learners and make them more interested in lessons and therefore was very interested when the use of cell-phone technology in classrooms started becoming more common about a year ago, as this seemed to be a cheaper way of using ICT in the classroom.

Since I have become aware of it, I have considered all the admin around using cell-phones in classrooms and have stumbled upon a number of obstacles that I am struggling to overcome. I even let my Grade 8 English learners do their investigation task on the topic of cell-phones in schools and found that most of my fears and assumptions around cell-phones in the classroom were confirmed. Firstly, as I teach at an economically disadvantaged school, not all learners in my school have cell-phones. The phones of those who do, range from old Nokia’s from the turn of the century, to brand new Blackberry’s with full internet access and all the apps available on such phones. This implies that not all learners have internet access, which is obviously required if you want learners to search for information on Google or other search engines as part of a lesson. Coincidentally, most learners from my school have pre-paid phones and therefore do not always have airtime, which again implies that they do not always have internet access. This means that in a classroom of about 30 learners there could be 20 of these learners who have cell-phones, but only 10 of them who have airtime at that moment. So, how do you include ALL learners in a lesson where cell-phones are being used to search for information, without them feeling left out, getting distracted or complaining about the lack of education to their parents?

My concerns, however, do not stop there. The school I teach at has a very strict cell-phone policy, which states that if a teacher sees a learner with a cell-phone, the cell-phone has to be taken to the principal immediately and the parent has to fetch it. This may seem like an archaic policy, but was implemented because of the problems experienced with cell-phones at the school initially, with learners sending messages to each other during lessons and not focusing on learning, learners spreading rumours about each other on chatrooms on Mxit during school times and learners using cell-phones to cheat during exams. This policy has worked to a large extent with learners not messaging each other during lessons anymore, but even now two learners were caught during the June exams sending answers to each other via Bluetooth on their cell-phones. Therefore, if a teacher wants to use cell-phone technology as part of a lesson, it will have to be extremely well implemented and organised so as not to undo the principles that the cell-phone policy has instilled at the school.

This leads to one of my main concerns, namely how do you ensure that learners go to the website or application on their phones that the teacher has asked them to access and not send text or BBM messages to each other instead? In a poorer school the size of classes are generally between 35 to 50 learners per class, with no teaching assistants, and it is impossible for one person to check that all learners are on the same website on their cell-phones at the same time. By the time the teacher has moved through all of the desks to check learners’ phones, the first 10 learners will already be on Mxit or Facebook. Teachers are either lucky or naive if they think that their learners will not go onto Mxit or Facebook during lessons. I have heard people say that teachers should use Mxit and Facebook by letting learners talk to each other via these applications about subject related content during lessons, but how does this encourage face-to-face communication between learners, and improve learners’ speaking abilities, especially in a language classroom like mine? Why use Mxit or Facebook to talk to one another when you’re sitting in the same room!

So, there it is. My concerns around cell-phones in the classroom, and I’m sure other teachers will be able to think of even more. However, I have not raised these concerns simply because I feel like standing on my soap-box preaching to the masses, but rather because I want a solution to these problems. I also want to be one of those starry-eyed presenters at these Educational Technology Conferences, so excited about how much their learners are benefitting from the technology they’re implementing in their classrooms, but I’m just stuck behind the barriers created by an economically disadvantaged teaching environment. I am also sure I am not the only teacher in this position. So, I appeal to readers to respond to the statements I have made and concerns I have raised here and to offer me a solution to this problem.  Perhaps, a different perspective on this problem will help me to come to an applicable solution.

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  • Dorothy Dyer

    I know exactly what you mean, having been in the same position as a teacher myself. Now I work for FunDza Literacy Trust, which aims to get teens reading for pleasure. One way we do that is to have new and exciting stories on Mxit, with a story starting every Friday and a new chapter loaded each day. The stories are all stored there so there is a mini-library on the phone.

    If you teach English I think this could be a fantastic resource. But I know what it’s like: kids don’t have airtime, or the right phone, or there’s a glitch and things aren’t downloading etc so it is very difficult in class. So my suggestion is that the reading material is homework: a class needs to read a story by a certain date on Mxit – and it’s also accessible on a computer site – and then questions etc can be done on the story in class. I have started a ’2Teach’ section on our site with questions and activities based on our stories, and I will be very interested to see if teachers do find it useful.
    Have a look at our site: Kids can find us on Mxit at Tradepost – Mxit Reach – MobiBooks – FunDza. (Your kids will understand that, even if you don’t!)

    • Nadia Marnewick

      Hi Dorothy,
      Thank you so much for your response, I will look at your website for sure!

  • Moyo Moses

    Cell-phones in classrooms

    This is an interesting article which gives all of us an insight into problems which our education system has been taking for granted. first and foremost is that technology unquestionably caught us out in the open like a storm and we have no place to hide. How do we respond? To come up with autocratic policies to ban cell phones from school. We do not have proper educational philosophies that empower educators to address these challenges. We stuck in old pedagogical theories that promote the educator as the source of knowledge while marginalising learners as little vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. The second main problem your article implicitly highlights is that we have failed to make our learners responsible and accountable of their actions. All what learners do in the classroom is to try to please the educator without having a clue of what they are doing. Our learners have been using cellphones for quite some time and have self actualised with them. It is now time to take them to the new level. How to use cellphones to address their learning needs.
    For example, if you were to give a challenging class task and let the learners use an source, you will be surprised, all sorts of cellphones will be out and collaborative groups will be at play.

    There has been different types of technologies. It is the duty of the educator to direct learners and their parents of which type of cellphones to bring on a particular day. What you are lamenting about is a result of poor planning. After all, not all your lessons would require learners to use cellphones. Therefore, you plan in adance and psychologically and socially prepare your learners in time. A policy is meant to put things in order. we do not want schools to be in disorder. There is no policy which will stop you from asking learners to bring cellphones and use them in the classroom. Except if you want all learners to bring cellphones. I started using technology in teaching as far as 2002. It’s challenging and needs upfront planning.

    Thes are simple tips:
    1. Make it a point that all your learners have almost the same level of knowledge and skills of the technology you want to teach so that during your lesson their attention is not drawn towards the technology but to the task at hand.
    2. Know you learners. Organise small groups around the troublesome learners as a reward. They will supervise others for you.
    3. Make it sure that other cellphones which are not useful are collected before the lesson starts to minimise distratcion
    4. You may enlist a colleague to help you at the beginning of the lesson or firts time use
    5. Collect all cellphones at end of the lesson and learners will take them after school (Make a list) or have labelling methods done by each learners.
    6. Reward learners by giving them technology based hoemward that would want support from parents.
    7. Do not be too ambitious. Every single step you make counts.
    8. Remember learners have something to show. Ask them to do so at their spare time and encourage them!!!.
    9. Have four eyes during the lesson. therefore use of groups on one big task which the learners will break into smaller ones.
    10. To preserve each learner’s ego. Let every learner bring any cellphone type and acknowledge their effort. At the end of the lesson advise all learners on the best type of cellphone to bring next time.

    I encourage my learners to use cellphones in the lesson and they come with all sorts of answers. We work on those anwers to so that learners to improve them. I reject some of the information on poor quality.

    Finally, remember that our education system is seriously undermined by two gimmicks children’s rights and 100%.

    It’s like pushing hard on the accelerator with your handbrake ON!!

  • Nimming

    You raise some real concerns, Nadia, and I had my doubts about how it would work too. I was one of those “starry eyed presenters” at EdTechConf you talk about. :)

    I agree with some of what Moyo mentions above (not sure I like his tone though…) Planning is crucial. Crucial, crucial, crucial. You need to do your homework. I would suggest you start with one class. In that class, find out exactly which type of cell phone each child has (with large classes, it’s useful to have a class list and simply write it on there) and what the capabilities of the phone are – e.g. can it only text, is it only WAP enabled, or is it the latest all bells and whistles phone? Also write down who has a prepaid/ PAYG contract that could limit the airtime.

    From there, you divide your class into groups, making sure that you have at least one phone in each group that has internet access, preferably without the limitation of air time. Plan a lesson that is a web quest, where each site requires some discussion, or group activity. That way, the cell phone is used to get the information, but the whole group still has to work together to do something with it.

    On the day, the pupils hand their phones in to you. We use a system to tag the phones as follows: we have orange (bright colour so it’s not easy to miss) laminated tags – two cards with the same number, one tag has a hole punched through it and an elastic band threaded through. The tag with the elastic band goes round the phone, it’s partner is given to the kid to keep. At the end of the day, the child may only collect the phone that matches the number on their tag.

    As for your concern about the kids being on MXit/ FB etc during your lesson. My kids raised exactly the same considerations when I first broached the subject with them. I decided to treat them as responsible human beings, and thus far they have taken up the challenge. After 9 months, when I asked them to reflect, they all said how amazed they were that although the temptation was there, they hadn’t given in – partly because I kept them too busy to have time to do it, and partly because they didn’t want to let me down. (Shame, one child asked me to stop the trial because he said it was driving him crazy to have his phone switched on and in his hands, but not be able to just socialise.)

    We had a double lesson in which we spoke about the use of phones in class, and they helped me to draw up an acceptable use policy, which they all had to sign a copy of (and which I keep in my drawer to pull out if I need to). The upshot of that is that I told them I wasn’t going to police it (my class is only 32, so not as large as yours, but that’s still too large for me to police effectively) and that I trusted them to do the right thing. I then said that I didn’t mind if they went onto any social site, provided that it had a sound educational value. (For e.g., we have a subject page on FB, where I post links. I therefore expect my kids to be on FB, on that page, browsing the links, and commenting.) Maybe my class is just incredible, but they really bought into the whole thing.

    We then discussed the punishments for those who abused the situation. They would lose the privilege of using their phone in my lesson for a fixed time period (depending on what they were doing and how much I felt they had done it), and that during that time, they would have to sit in the corner of the room, on their own, working through the section out of the textbook (or another resource I would give them). If I felt that many people in the class were abusing it, then I would just stop the whole project.

    I totally get that your school has worked hard to stop kids from messaging each other during class. But I do question the assumption that it’s a new thing. When I was at school, I sent notes to my friends during class, I just did it on paper. If the friend was in another class, then I would still spend the lesson writing a letter to him/ her, and I would still not be engaged in the lesson. Nothing has changed, except the medium the kids are using to communicate. The key, I think, is to find a way to keep the kids sufficiently engaged in the lesson to stop them from having time to think about socialising, not to try and block a new medium of communication.

    And I totally agree with you about the conversation on FB, or wherever, when they’re sitting in the room together. What a waste! No, technology should only be used if has immediate and direct benefit. Don’t use technology for the sake of using technology – it’s just a tool, like any other, and to use it just for the sake of using it is to do both yourself and your kids a huge disservice.

    If you do want to use the backchannel option, then I highly recommend you check out Edmodo – which has a cell phone app as well – which allows you to create a virtual classroom for your class that no-one else can see or participate in. Take one lesson and get the kids to a computer room (do you have one?) to create their accounts. After that, tell them to download the app onto their phones (if they have a smartphone). Then, you can set homework/ extra readings, link to videos (screencast yourself or find them from Khan, or TeacherTube, or SchoolTube), create discussion groups, etc.

    Alternatively, chat to the kids about setting up small groups on MXit, and set them a question to discuss after school. That way, if they don’t have airtime, they can do it in person, if they do, they can do it on MXit. Either way, the following day, they need to have come up with an opinion/ solution/ plan/ whatever outcome you like.

    Talking about videos, if your school has a computer room, you could always just put videos on there, for a limited time period, which the kids either have to watch at school, or put on a flash and watch at home. You could then try using the flipped classroom – that’s an easy way to get technology into your lessons without needing to use it during the actual lesson time!

    Good luck! and keep us posted on what you decide to try out.

    • Nadia Marnewick

      Thank you so much for your suggestions, I will definitely try to implement them in my classroom next term.

  • Monareng MTL

    I hold the view that ICT integration into the classroom is both necessary and easy to implement.I find the reasons provided for the termination of cellphone use in the classroom refutable and repressive.The supporters of this termination not only lack vision of the 21st century authentic learning,but are trapped in pedagogical practices of the past and thus anciently reluctant to embrace new ways.I find insufficiency in the general notion that learners do not have cell phones(or cannot afford them).A study must be undertaken before such utterances are mistaken for truth.The position of South Africa on the African continent screams out messages of great hope.If we can donate R60 000 000 to Libya,R90 000 000 to Cuba,if we are ready to spend billions on state jets,if we spend billions on parties each year,if our states men are avaricious with the tax payer’s money…then our reasons not to invest in the child’s education are an imminent ticket to hell fire.I will undertake a study to check how many learners have access to a cell phone with internet.Let us not confiscate cell phones from learners,instead,let us find innovative pedagogical practices to harness the technology and enhance teaching and learning in the classroom.

  • Zoe Morosini

    Such an interesting article! The comments by others are great, as well. Lots of food for thought. I teach in an urban school in the United States, and phones are a big issue for many reasons, many of which are mentioned above. Keep the great stuff coming!

  • Jenny

    Great article Nadia!

  • Dorian Love

    I teach in a well-resourced school now, but I taught for many years in an inner-city school, and have struggled with these issues myself. As a teacher I have an ageing Nokia with no Internet access, I have no iPad, and although I have a laptop it’s owned by the school.

    The primary way of dealing with paucity of resources is to make the most of what you do have. For example, if you have only one computer in a classroom/school, then make sure that it is used on rotation for as many tasks as possible. If the computer has no Internet access, then make the browser home page a landing page for links to pages which you have downloaded at home and saved to the hard drive. If you can’t tweet, then get students to write out their tweets on a twitter board.

    When I was teaching in a squatter camp and in the inner-city I tore my hair out daily. It was a real struggle to get anything off the ground, but I do feel that making the effort to do something was both what kept me sane, and kept my classes fresh.

    There are many real issues, and real concerns around using cell phones – but it is through grappling with those issues that I feel we have a way of coming to terms with deficit. As every year passes more students have some kind of access, and we need to work from the view that if we can just push the boundaries wherever we can, we will make a difference.

  • adelino

    Thank you Nadia and thank you to all who commented on this artical. I may not have written it but it is these articles that have inspired me to go further and do more. I am a parent of a 7 year old and my sons education is his key to his future and is with many kids his age and all in South Africa. We see on the news of text books not being deliverd, classrooms and in unbearable conditions and etc.

    I have done exstensive reasearch no only in reading articles and news watching but in finding means in actualy making it possible.The question is can it be possible where and inititive be made for rich schools and poor schools be not so far apart? The anwer is Yes, but it requires help not only from goverment but educwtors too.

    Its is not viable for a learner to be going to school with a device that costs more than R1000.00 such as ipad of R7000.00 rand. This is more than majority of teachers monthly salary.

    Allow me to be very brief wnd to the piont. I can conclude that i have attend a international manufacture that can produce 1000 educational devices a week. A cost of 1200 per device. The devices are tablets. The next was could they a 1.5 square meter tablet and the and was yes. I them looked the costings and ways to bring it less and with implemtation outlay on the fees ability it getting done. After months of traveling and telephonic discussions. The result was unbelieveable. An international goverment(which i fannot mention) has agreed to inject R40m as first phase intiative, this falls as goverment contribution.

    In short, if i as an infividual from middle class able to construct this together in less than 12 months on my on pocket finance, taking that risk. My question is why does not goverment who say there are doing something really do something about our childrens education?

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