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For Teachers Updated December 7, 2017

5 Benefits of Using Cellphones in School: Smartphones as Learning Tools

By The Room 241 Team November 9, 2012

This post has been updated for accuracy and relevance as of December 2017.

Today’s students are digital natives. Nearly three out of four teenagers have access to a smart phone, and so many students take them to school every day. For some teachers, it’s probably more uncommon to see a student without one than with one. 

But are cellphones in the classroom a good idea? Do they serve as a valid learning tool or, or are they just another distraction contributing to the social disengagement of children?

We took a look at the arguments for using cellphones in class, along with the number of students with phones and the number of apps available to them. 

Smartphone ownership

Cellphones have obviously come a long way since the two-pound, $3,995 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was first introduced in 1984. Subsequent generations of mobile phones continued to evolve and became more affordable and portable, and now offer so much more value beyond a means to call others.

In the ongoing discussion surrounding the efficacy of digital devices in the classroom, schools must face the fact that smartphones are already being utilized by students of all ages. According to an eMarketer article referencing a February 2016 survey by Flagship Research, “Among the 14- to 18-year-olds polled, 87% said they ‘own and use’ a smartphone—i.e., penetration about a dozen percentage points higher than eMarketer’s figure for 12- to 17-year-olds.”

Clearly, young people are acquiring smartphones at a staggering rate.

App availability

Get this: The Apple Store had 800 apps the month of its launch in July 2008. As of January 2017, it had 2.2 million. How many educational apps are there? According to New America, as of June 2015, there were over 80,000 educational apps available in the app store.

From colors to ABCs to “The Little Engine That Could,” what used to be taught through books can now be learned through apps—and that’s just for younger generations. The applications for using smartphones from preschool through college are in place and growing.

Reasons to use smartphones in the classroom

With the widespread use of smartphones by younger and younger students, what are the practical reasons for allowing smartphones as a learning tool in the classroom? Consider these points:

  • Students learn in a way they are comfortable. Smartphones are young-person intuitive. More and more students know how to use them, and they are becoming the most used “tool” by teens.
  • Students can get answers quickly. Smartphones provide the ability to get answers really fast. In some situations, a student may not ask for clarification to a question he or she has in an open classroom—because they can use their smartphone to get the answer they’re looking for.
  • Audio and video can bring learning to life. Audio and video capabilities of smartphones can put a voice to John F. Kennedy, a dramatic video image to the Hindenburg disaster, and allow students to hear the music of Chopin or Al Jolson. They can even connect students with other students from around the globe and expand their learning world.
  • Access to educational apps. Equipping your classroom with handy learning apps takes learning up a notch. There are many educational apps available in a wide range of subjects for all kinds of learners. These game-like exercises encourage playful competition among your students, while enhancing the way they learn new ideas. Plus, students (and you, the teacher) will love the change from regular lecture instruction.
  • Smartphones allow for social learning. Smartphones can allow students to work in groups on projects, sharing information and discoveries. They can move toward a common goal, again, in a format they are comfortable using.

How to, not if to, use smartphones

Challenges of leveling the playing field, maintaining proper use and control, and preventing abuse with smartphones are similar to problems faced by teachers in the past. Back then, it was passing a note; today it is texting. Both are fairly avoidable, but it doesn’t mean phones should be banned (paper wasn’t!).

At Concordia, we believe the focus of smartphone use in the classroom should shift from not if they should be used, but how to best use them. While critics will cite the opportunity for cheating, unauthorized socializing, and social isolation issues involved, the fact is students are using smartphones every day, and they are using them to learn. Teachers can be a positive force in helping students use them properly in the classroom.

Our advice: set ground rules for smartphones in your classroom, along with clear expectations of what happens if they’re used inappropriately. Just like with anything else, too much of something can be a bad thing—but just enough, can be perfect for learning in new ways.

Further your knowledge about the digital classroom

Here are more articles to enhance your understanding of how digital devices can affect learning:

And if you’re interested in an MEd program focused on educational technology leadership, we’d love for you to explore Concordia’s fully online option. It takes just a year to complete, and prepares candidates for leadership roles implementing education technologies in K–12 classrooms and community college settings.

Explore our Educational Technology Leadership Master’s program now

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