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From Cell Phone Skeptic to Evangelist

Liz Kolb, former teacher and founder of

Liz Kolb started her education career as a teacher of middle and high school social studies in Wyoming City Schools in Cincinnati. She was also a teacher and technology coordinator at Grandview Heights City Schools in Columbus, where she adamantly opposed cell phones in school until she had an “ah-ha” moment.

She then created and founded the Web site Cell Phones in Learning ( while writing the book Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education. She just earned a doctorate in education with a focus on learning technologies and is an adjunct professor at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich. Here, Liz answers questions of wary school administrators regarding cell phones in class.

DA: How and when did your enthusiasm for cell phone use in the classroom start?

Kolb: In general, administrators tend to be skeptical of using cell phones in class, just as you once were. What are the reasons are for this, and are any of them valid concerns?

L.K.: There are a few reasons and they are all valid. First, most administrators did not grow up using cell phones in learning; therefore, they do not have a vision of how they could be a learning tool. Since we know from research that teachers often teach the way they were taught, it is no surprise that teachers and administrators are reluctant to integrate students’ everyday technologies. At the same time it is interesting that most educators use cell phones on a daily basis for their own professional or personal organization and management, yet they still have trouble seeing how students could benefit from learning how to use their own cell phones in a productive way.

I call it the Swiss Army knife of education tools.

Second, the media has presented many negative perspectives of teens and cell phones, such as sexting, cheating with cell phones, texting while driving, and using them as a tool of distraction during class time.

Finally there is a fear of the unknown. Administrators are well aware that most students know more about cell phones than they do. Many administrators have never sent a text message, while teens are sending multiple text messages in minutes. Some administrators are fearful of students knowing and understanding something more than they do. Others are fearful of community or parent backlash at using such a controversial tool in school learning. What is interesting about this particular fear is that every teacher I have spoken with who uses cell phones in learning has told me that they have only had positive responses from parents. Some have thanked them for teaching their children about the limitations of their cell phone plan. In addition, using cell phone SMS (or reminder tool) text alerts can be a beneficial way for administrators to communicate efficiently with parents, since many parents are mobile and have a cell phone.

How can administrators promote cell phone use in class while keeping students from unacceptable uses?

L.K.: It’s called mobile literacy education. Because over 70 percent of U.S. schools ban cell phones and the rest often have strict use policies, schools do not educate students on appropriate or inappropriate uses of cell phones. Students have no idea what the lifelong consequences of their casual text messages or mobile photos could be. For example, most students (and adults) do not understand that text messaging, photo or video sharing on cell phones are archived. Cell phone companies have records of every phone call, every text message, every photo or video message sent from and to cell phones. Web sites such as Google, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube have records of all images and videos sent to their sites, as well as some ownership over them. Students think of their cell phones as private tools and the messaging as private. Thus, we are hearing about young teens sexting because they think it is a private act. Usually, another child ends up showing sex messages or nude photos to a parent or teacher and that person ends up reporting it to the police. And we are starting to see young teens and preteens being brought up on criminal charges for this. If you ask these students, they will say they thought they were sending a private picture or message to a friend, not child pornography (what some students are being charged with). This is serious. This is a charge that could go on their permanent record. It could have big consequences for their futures, especially in the job market.

The answer is that you don’t just give a teenager keys to a car. There are rules to the road. And 90 percent of teens abide by them when they understand the consequences. So it’s about getting kids to understand that everything you do on cell phones is public, not private, and it can come back to haunt you later in life. And the second issue is that if students are busy using cell phones for educational purposes, there is less of a chance they will use them for inappropriate purposes.

Liz Kolb's Web site, Cell Phones in Learning, features podcasts, product write-ups, blogs and YouTube videos.

Here are some specific inappropriate uses of cell phones. How could administrators handle each of them?

L.K.: Cheating: Some students are using phones to text test answers or even to take photos of exams.

Cell phones are not the root cause of cheating. Cheating has been happening in schools since the one-room schoolhouse. However, as educators we have the power to control and structure how cell phones are used in the classroom as well as educating students on the consequences of their actions. For example, teachers can tell students to put their cell phones on vibrate and leave them in the front of the room when they enter the class.

Another answer is to redesign assessment. For example, in Australia some educators are starting to say, “Use your cell phone on your test,” thus developing assessment to better reflect the 21st-century workforce, which embraces networking and knowledge collaboration with digital tools as one resource to gather data and construct knowledge. By developing assessment that is inquiry-based and focused on higher-order thinking skills, it alleviates the concern over using a cell phone to look up an answer or even take a photo of an exam. Finally, in a recent study by Common Sense Media, over 25 percent of students surveyed admitted to cheating via cell phone, but over 50 percent of the students in the survey said they did not believe using the cell phone to send answers to their friends was cheating. This tells me we need to teach mobile safety, etiquette and appropriate use.

Using video or photos to embarrass staff or students: Recording teachers doing or saying inappropriate things in class and/or taking photos of students changing clothes in locker rooms.

The answer is that you don't just give a teenager keys to a car. There are rules of the road.

There are many examples of students using school-sanctioned cameras and camcorders to take and post inappropriate pictures of faculty and students. You do not need a cell phone to secretly document and publish school happenings. Schools have not taken away cameras and camcorders. As a matter of fact, because messages are archived on cell phones, it is easier to find out who took and posted the inappropriate media.

Disrupting class: Talking to or texting friends or family members.

This is very easy. When students enter the classroom, they put their cell phones on vibrate or turn them off. They place them on the teacher’s desk. When the teacher is ready to use them for learning, she or he tells the students to get their cell phones. Just as teachers create classroom rules about raising hands, gathering at the door before the bell, or being quiet during an exam, they can do the same for cell phones.

What are some other concerns administrators should have about cell phones?

L.K.: Access and cost are big concerns when you are considering using a technology that students, not the schools, own. While the statistics continue to increase on the number of students who are cell phone owners, they have not reached 100 percent. Therefore, it is legitimate to be concerned over those students who do not have their own cell phone or who do not have the fancy smart phones with GPS, Internet, or other advanced features.

At the same time, there are plenty of activities where one cell phone can be used for an entire class of students (think of an elementary “center” podcast recording activity), or a few parent cell phones can be used with groups of students (think of a field trip to a zoo, where each student gets to use a parent chaperone’s cell phone to take a picture of an animal and also record the sounds the animal creates). There are also plenty of mobile resources with alternative data gathering options, such as 1-800 numbers for audio recordings, so you can use landlines or picture uploads via the Web instead of sending them through a mobile phone.

What is the process by which administrators can start to implement cell phone use in lessons?


? Begin small. Model the use yourself. For example, at an open teacher meeting, administrators could have teachers answer survey questions on their cell phones, when they would normally use e-mail. This will get them acquainted with using cell phones and what they can do.

? Ask for teachers to voluntarily start a student cell phone project. Before teachers begin, they should always teach about mobile safety and digital footprints. This site has suggestions:

? Set up a social contract with students on rules and regulations around cell phone use as well as the consequences.

? Encourage teachers to start with a cell phone project that is optional, maybe for extra credit.

? Have teachers keep the cell phone activity outside of school so that students do not need to bring cell phones into the classroom. For example, students in a biology class could take pictures of the various animals that they come in contact with over spring break. They could send their images from the cell phones into a private photo-sharing account online, such as Flickr mobile or Photobucket mobile. Back in class the teacher could open up the photo-sharing site and discuss, analyze and evaluate the real-world evidence that the students have provided.

? Once some outside-the-classroom projects have been successful, begin to revisit policy to include cell phones in instruction, but still have structures around their use. I recommend getting students involved in creating the policies. It is a great opportunity for them to talk about what they believe to be appropriate and inappropriate uses of cell phones in society.

—Angela Pascopella