The Value of Using Cell Phones to Enhance Education and Some Concrete Ways to Do So

I am offering a class through the Office of Instructional Technology this Friday that among other things shows educators how to use Google SMS to enhance teaching and learning. When participants ask questions and colleagues (in this case the class facilitators) send emails like this one or this one that inquire why I offer a class informing educators how to use sms texting as an educational tool even though cell phones are banned in NYC schools, my answer is easy. I am fortunate to work in an office that believes in being leaders rather than followers in providing innovative support to educators. With technology changing at lightening speed, many of our educators don't yet know what it is they need to know in this vast and ever-changing 21st Century landscape and it is the responsibility of our office to help inform the educational community.

So, even though cell phones are banned (and I don't endorse not following a mandate), I promote teaching how technology tools can be used to enhance teaching and learning because we must prepare our students and teachers for the world of today, not the classrooms of yesterday. Even if our teaching is guided by certain mandates that cause the world inside school walls to be very different from the world students encounter after dismissal, part of our job as educators is to help prepare students to succeed outside the classroom. Once they leave the building many students plop down their 3 bucks to bodega owners to collect their stored phones and jump on social networks that they access outside of school on a filterless internet. (Note: Imagine what else that $15 a week could be used for: home internet, college fund, books???). If we don’t teach how banned and filtered technologies can be used then we are not empowering students to operate in safe, appropriate, and acceptable ways with or without technology whether inside or outside school walls.

Additionally, teachers need to experience, understand the educational value, and be comfortable with technology tools before using them to enhance teaching and learning. If we are exposing teachers to ways in to incorporate cells into the classroom, we are providing that teacher and classroom with tremendous power and access and an ability to model for students how to use a cell phone as a learning tool. At a recent school visit Will Richardson wowed students when he took out his phone and had them ask a question that they thought he wouldn’t know the answer to. After a few colorful attempts the question ended up being “What’s the population of Spain?” They watched as he sent a text message “Spain population” to 46645 (GOOGL) and got the answer back about 10 seconds later. Amazement ensued as Richardson showed them how they had the access to nearly any information they wanted in their cell phones…unfortunately they wouldn’t be able to reconnect with that learning until they handed
$3 over to the bodega owner who stored their phone while they were in school.

Some teachers I speak with think they have a case against using technology in education after they explain that if students have access to all this information they’ll be able to cheat on tests and other assessments. I tell these teachers that in a “Whole New Mind World” we need to begin engaging in “know where” (to find it) rather then “know what” (the answer is) teaching…meaning it is more important to teach students how to access any information rather than memorize it. Ideally they’ll do something with the information that is more meaningful and authentic then placing answers in a test booklet. The other big argument is about safety and that technologies such as cells can be used to coordinate fights or drug deals. Yes, this is true. This is one way they can do it, laptops are another, word of mouth is another. Perhaps one of the most popular ways of coordinating the details of a fight is communication via passing a paper note. However, educational technologist Alan November once shared an interesting observation. If students were passing inappropriate notes in school (about fights, cheating, or anything else) should schools ban paper???? Banning the tool rather dealing with the actions may not be the best option.

Educational gaming expert Marc Prensky joins me in encouraging educators to reconsider their view of using mobile technology—and to imagine a pedagogy that embraces this potential. Essentially small computers, cell phones can support language lessons, display animations of medical and chemical processes, be used for polling and testing, serve as the gateway to larger learning resources—and so much more.

He also explains to educators that in a Flat World, while U.S. educators are busy banning cell phones in schools, millions of students in China and Japan, the Philippines, and Germany are using their mobile phones (respectively), to learn English; to study math, health and spelling; and to access live and archived university lectures. Prensky shares that the average cell phone now a days has more computing power than many of the computers of 10 years ago. He goes on to ask, “how can we harness that power in education?” Below are some ideas.

10 Ideas for Using Cell Phones in Education

  1. Student response polling or pop quizzes (no need to invest in additional devices)
  2. Use sms to find definitions, currency conversion, math equations, translation and more
  3. Use as an internet browser to access endless information
  4. Research
  5. Read news articles and current events
  6. Read books
  7. Download and use education programs such as Google Maps and use as GPS
  8. Use as a digital or video camera to accompany school projects, publishing, etc.
  9. Educate students on appropriate and acceptable social use
  10. Use the voice technology to share engaging lectures or lessons

Here are a few places educators can visit to learn more about how to use cell phones to enhance teaching and learning.

5 Resources for Educators Interested in Enhancing Education with Cell Phones

1. See if your school district offers
classes like we do at the NYC DOE.
2. Read this article about
What Can You Learn From A Cell Phone? - Almost Anything! - How to use the 1.5 billion computers already in our students' and trainees' pockets to increase learning, at home and around the world
-Marc Prensky
3. Visit
From Toy to Tool – Cell Phones in Learning a blog dedicated to conversing on methods for integrating cell phones into classroom learning by Liz Kolb.
4. Access to a camera phone? Check out
8 Ways to use Camera Phones in Education by Jeff VanDrimmelen of
5. Check out this PowerPoint by Sharon Tonner about Mobile Phones In Education - Constructive Not Deconstructive!


  • Should we teach educators and students ways to unleash the educational value of technologies even if they may not be accessible in schools?
  • How will schools be impacted that are a part of Bloomberg’s pilot program that provides every student at certain schools with cell phones in an effort to increase student achievement? Should those phones just be seen as a reward and a tool to use after school or should those teachers and students have an opportunity to learn about, model, and implement ways to use these devices as powerful learning tools?
  • Should the decision of use of cell phones and other technologies be at the discretion of the mayor or should informed educators and building leaders be empowered to determine if they want to employ such a policy?
  • Should educators and students be encouraged to make an educational case for allowing various technologies to be used acceptably, appropriately, and educationally in schools?
Join the Conversation
Leave your comment on this blog.
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For further viewing visit
The Natives are Restless: Deneen Frazier, Educator/Actress
Take a uniquely entertaining and enlightening journey into the minds and hearts of today's digital natives. Using recent research, Deneen portrays a riveting cast of characters to reveal the students' struggle to connect what they do in school with what they do in the world.
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Who's Talking about this post?
The New York Sun
Despite School Cell Phone Ban, Course Sees Them as Aid


Read an administrator's opposition the district's cell policy
Are We Still Talking About the Value of Cell Phones?

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