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Why Teachers Must Go Mobile

A former teacher turned mobile phone expert encourages teachers to use cell phones in lessons.
Norris high-fives a third-grader in Kona, Hawaii, after helping the youngster with a math problem.

As a middle and high school math teacher for 14 years in the Norman (Okla.) School District and Dallas (Texas) Independent School District, Cathleen Norris at first thought the idea of using cell phones in a classroom was absurd. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “Would I want that distraction? That would make me crazy.”

But Norris, now a Regents Professor in the department of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas and co-creator of GoKnow Learning, sees the value of cell phones now. First, more people are using smartphones over laptops in their travels, she says. And at the core of cell phones are these facts: they are small, affordable, mobile and operate with a “data plan,” which makes them perfect for educational purposes. “That is why there is an incredible opportunity for this administration to close the digital divide,” Norris says. “They [administrators] use E-rate, and E-rate covers Internet connectivity for children. Every child could leave school with exactly the same access to technology.”

Wary of Change

Norris says that while cell phones are more familiar and, therefore, less intimidating than most computers, teachers are still wary of change, especially with technology. “With cellular, they can build complete lessons,” Norris says. “It’s about showing them how. Any time you change what is done, it trips people up.”

Another issue with cell phones is the small screen size. “Teachers, in general, prefer a larger screen,” Norris says.

"That is why there is an incredible opportunity for this administration to close the digital divide." -Cathleen Norris

Teachers are also fearful of students taking videos of them and posting them on YouTube and of students texting during class. But there are programs from companies such as SOTI ( that can turn off a phone’s camera as well as the Internet so that only the word processor is available to students, Norris says.

As the gatekeeper of learning, teachers must feel comfortable, Norris stresses. “Whether they like the material or not, teachers must meet the students where they are,” she says. “And it’s absolutely essential to catch those kids no later than third grade.”

Teaching How to Communicate

She believes students need to be taught how to communicate with others, via blogs and social networking, because these are the same tools they will use after high school. Using cell phones helps them learn “how to cooperate with each other and write better,” she adds.

Norris suggests that schools create a responsible use policy in lieu of an acceptable use policy. “We should make these children responsible for their actions,” she says. “If they don’t use [cell phones] responsibly, it’s back to pencil and paper. And then, ‘Oh dear, what could be worse?’”

The policy would work to ensure that students understand they can’t use cell phones to take photos of half-naked students, to cheat, or to post videos.

For Norris, cell phones answer one-to-one computer use. “If you give children a way to do their lessons which is comfortable and in a way they enjoy it, they will spend more time on it. And then they will learn more.”