Teaching with cell phones
November 02, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
Cell phones and schools – their relationship is evolving in Lake Orion.
In the past, the district's teachers may have viewed cell phones in class with a wary eye. Today, however, a growing number of educators are treating them differently.
They recognize cell phones can be used as tools to enhance their instructional activities in various ways, teachers and district administrators say.
This realization prompted the Lake Orion School Board last week to approve revisions to the district's policy regarding cell phone usage in school.
The policy previously allowed students to have cell phones and other mobile learning devices in school, but they had to be turned off. The revision essentially allows students to place them on vibrate or silent – something the vast majority of students in middle and high school already do, according to Heidi Kast, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The next step is for a technology committee led by Cliff DuPuy, the district's technology and media services director, to establish formal cell phone-use guidelines for teachers and students to follow. He and Kast stressed that it will ultimately be up to the discretion of individual teachers if they want to integrate the use of cell phones into their teaching.
"We need to strongly engage today's students," the assistant superintendent said. "Everyone needs to recognize they learn differently. I'm very pleased to be able to offer our teachers this additional tool to teach classes."
A number of teachers in the district have already been using cell phone technology to teach.
This includes instructors at Waldon Middle School, where a pilot program has been underway since last year featuring mobile learning devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones with texting capabilities.
Scott Cox, a 7th grade science teacher who moved from Waldon to Oakview Middle School this year, has been using cell phones in his instructional activities for the last 12 months.
He uses a web-based application to compile sets of multiple choice and free response questions. Cox's students then take out their cell phones, access the application and text their answers back to the site that tabulates the results in real time. The teacher can then immediately determine how well his students understand the material being taught.
Cox said he takes advantage of the cell phone technology to administer review games and pre-test questions, as well as gauge student comprehension during lectures.
"There's no doubt 11- and 12-year-old students know how to use this technology today," he said. "They understand how to text their answers to me and they're all for it."
Cox sees cell phone technology complementing the curriculum. "If the teacher uses it well and the students adapt to it, this has a nice real time-use in the classroom," he said.
Waldon seventh grade math teacher Nick Coccia also uses cell phones to teach in his classes, including quizzes and short-answer exercises.
"Cell phones are a successful educational tool because students are motivated to use them in an educational setting," he said. "They provide a fresh approach to class and it gives them the chance to use a technology that the students feel attached to."
Oakview Spanish and French teacher Carolyn Adler uses cell phones with her students in a very different manner.
She uses a Google application that enables students to call in to a designated number, where Adler's pre-recorded message asks them questions in a foreign language. The kids then converse back to her in the language without any notes, books or help from others.
Their recorded responses go directly to her Gmail in-box. She can play them back on her computer and grade them later. Students typically do this as part of a pre-assessment at the being of a language unit and then again, at the end.
"I know what I'm hearing from them is genuinely what they can express in the language with no assistance," Adler said. "It really shows what a student has learned over the course of study."
She added, however, that these exercises do not replace daily the one-on-one interactions in a foreign language that takes place in her classes.
During the school board meeting, DuPuy also demonstrated EDMODO, a web-based application that is an educational Facebook site of sorts. A teacher sets it up and students can log-in to the site from their cell phones or computers to access a variety of course materials and discussion boards in class and elsewhere.
"The best part about EDMODO is that the application is free to the district and students," DuPuy said.
Kast reiterated more than once that the integration of cell phones into the classroom is not mandatory.
"Teachers don't have to do this," she said. It's totally up to their discretion to supplement instruction. We know it will work for some and not others."
One member of the school board, trustee Connie Meech, expressed reservations about changing the cell phone policy and expanding their use in the classroom.
"I think cell phones actually disengage students," she said. "I've personally experienced watching kids at texting friends and ignoring others at family gatherings."
Meech also pointed out that there are some students who do not have or use cell phones. "Not all kids are into it," she said, asking the board to consider an expanded pilot program first to see if kids readily embrace using their cell phones in class, then change the policy.
Township resident and parent Julie Curcio agrees with Meech. "I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves, changing the policy before the guidelines," she said.
Curcio also wondered if this approach to teaching becomes popular, will it put too much pressure on parents to provide advanced cell phones to their kids?
DuPuy and Kast said that students without cell phone would not be excluded from instruction. Some high school classes, for example, use "clickers" that enable students to submit answers electronically to a teacher. Traditional instructional materials also are available.
Meech also expressed concerns with kids taking inappropriate pictures with their cell phones. Kast said teachers have kept an eye out for inappropriate use of cell phones in the schools for years.
"Students know what they are allowed to do with their phones and what is not allowed," she said. "They don't want their cell phones taken away."
Trustee Steven Drakos was initially against the policy revision he said, but changed his mind after further investigating the district's plan.
"Out of respect for our teachers I was against the change at first, but have come full circle," he said. "I think the potential is unlimited. We have to have faith in our teachers that they will use this technology effectively."
The committee establishing the new cell phone guidelines will be looking at the Novi School District, where such a cell phone usage already is in place. Several other local districts, including Plymouth/Canton, Utica and Chippewa Valley, also are experimenting with the technology.
Parent Curcio thinks it may be premature to definitively determine the educational value of cell phone use in the classroom. Nevertheless, she is keeping an open mind, as long as such instructional methods do not dominate.
"My biggest concern is that there should be limit to the number of hours students are engaged in this type of learning, versus traditional instruction," she said.
After voting in favor of the policy revision, board secretary Deborah Porter explained how she has seen firsthand how young people use mobile learning technology to their advantage.
"I sit next to a 21-year-old intern at work and I know for a fact that he learns and works totally different than we do," she said. "He is a great worker and we'd like to hire him. I think we need to give this a try."