Cell Phones in the Classroom: Embracing the Dark Side?

A recent article in the Oregonian, “High School Life with No Cell Calls and No Texting,” describes a new cell phone policy at Clackamas High School. If teachers or administrators see a cell phone, at any time during the day, in class or out, they confiscate the phone and return it to a parent.

While the author, Andy Parker, refers to student indignation at the policy, the final word in the article comes from the principal. He attributes a significant drop in behavior referrals to the cell phone ban, stating, "We've eliminated a significant distraction to learning. Our teachers are very happy."

The comments on this article are overwhelmingly supportive of the policy, with one, lone dissenting voice—“10 years from now, people will laugh about decisions like this.”

So where does the technology-savvy educator stand on this issue? Are cell phones distractions or can they be harnessed to improve student learning? Is it easier to “just say no” to cell phones than to develop policies that support their constructive use?

Maybe because I have recently fallen in love with my new iPhone and can’t imagine being deprived of it, I can’t help but compare the response to cell phone use in classrooms to the views of some educators about collaborative and project-based learning. “Students are off-task when they are not constantly under the direct supervision of a teacher,” they complain.

Sure, students will talk about the upcoming dance or send pointless text messages from time to time. But what does a student-centered teacher do about that? Ignore it if it’s not excessive and deal with it through classroom routines and rules that support respect for others and for learning. Other concerns like cheating seem to reflect a classroom where students focus on finding right answers, something that isn’t really an issue in technology-rich, project-based classrooms.

It seems to me that cell phones are most often a disruptive distraction in a classroom where students spend the majority of their time listening to teachers talk and finding known answers to questions. In a classroom where students are actively engaged in solving subject-related problems, even inappropriate cell phone may not be much of a distraction to anyone but the user, and appropriate cell phone use can enhance student learning.

What do you think?

What People Are Saying about Classroom Cell Phone Use

Industry Makes Pitch That Smartphones Belong in Classroom
A New York Times article describing generally positive views on using cell phones for educational purposes

Cell Phones in the Classroom
A blog that describes several educational uses for cell phones

Classroom Tech, Part VI: Cell Phones
An interesting blog by an admitted cell-phone hater explaining how the author used cell phones in the classroom

Questions to Think About

  • Even though it seems like all teen-agers have cell phones, all of them don’t. What about access for all students?
  • What kinds of policies and enforcement encourage constructive cell phone use?
  • What can educators who support the use of cell phones in the classroom do if they teach in a banned cell phone environment?
In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.