Cell phones have had a checkered past in schools. When students first started bringing them to class, educators were fairly united in their opposition to the devices on grounds that they were a distraction and a means for easy cheating.
But thanks to an exponential increase in ubiquity and computing capacity, today’s smartphones make BYOD a feasible solution to many of the challenges that 1:1 programs face: They offer higher engagement, enhance student understanding and extend learning beyond the classroom, particularly when students don’t have internet at home or attend a school where 1:1 is not an option.
Smartphones also provide an easy way for teachers to “inspire students to positively contribute to and responsibly participate in the digital world,” as espoused by the ISTE Standards for Educators.
Best of all, research shows that when students are engaged in their learning — and they’re almost always engaged with their phones when given a choice — they are less likely to succumb to distractions. The goal is to give students ways to use this beloved technology to learn, collaborate, share and create in meaningful ways. Even with an increasing number of schools providing 1:1, cell phones are an essential back-up plan; rarely do all 30 students in a class appear with perfectly functioning, charged devices!
Here are seven ways to use students’ smartphones that are sure to engage and inspire:
1. Create short videos.
Videos give students an exciting way to exercise their creative muscles. Students can create their own videos on the fly using their own mobile devices, or they can create one part of a string of videos that the teacher can then wind together. Videos can express any type of learning in any style, from music videos to interviews, book trailers, historical re-enactments, tutorials and stop animations.
Flipgrid is the one of the best educational video-creation sites, easily allowing students to respond to a prompt via video, as well as watch and respond to those of their peers.
Sign-up for an educator is simple and free, and its student interface eliminates many of the issues encountered with uploading videos from cell phones to Youtube, Dropbox or Google Classroom.
The free version allows for one grid where a teacher can create any number of topics. With creativity, the sky's the limit! I have had students create an epilogue to a book via video, become doctors and cure illness, answer interview prompts, solve world problems, give relationship advice and present projects via Flipgrid. They love the accessibility and creative freedom.
2. Access an online dictionary and thesaurus.
Once students learn how to use dictionary apps and websites efficiently, the difference in their work is spectacular. As a German teacher, I find it is incredibly helpful for students to be able to rapidly double-check whether a noun is masculine, neutral or feminine on PONS or LEO. Question about a verb conjugation? Go to LEO or Canoo (for German). Confusion about a phrase in a text, or double-checking the use of a word in an essay? Try Linguee. Tired of using the same word over and over again? Find synonyms in many languages at Open Thesaurus!
3. Collaborate and share with Padlet and Twitter.
I grouped these two tools together because they both increase student participation and allow teachers to gather real-time feedback from students about their learning. Both Padlet and Twitter are more comfortable communication tools for shy students to respond to in-class questions or participate in brainstorming sessions, yielding a great deal of insightful information. Padlet is an especially good option to practice blogging; oftentimes, students will read a text and create a post summarizing, explaining and posing critical questions. Then, they respond to the posts of their peers.
4. Scan QR codes.
QR codes offer instant access to video, audio, websites, contact info or any brief text. The tiny pixels in these jumbled ink squares may seem arbitrarily connected to one another, but when scanned with a smartphone or webcam, they act like a direct physical link to a virtual resource. For example, I use them to link German texts in a classroom scavenger hunt. You can find all sorts of free QR code generators online or search for one like ATTscanner in the Apple App store.
While anything with QR codes will take a bit more effort on the instructor's part to create, students love the twist on learning. On worksheets, QR codes can generate answer keys beside each problem to allow students to self-check their work. The codes can also link to websites or educational YouTube clips that provide more information.
My favorite use for QR codes is the scavenger hunt: Students choose the correct answer to solve a riddle or answer a question. If they choose the correct answer, the associated QR code will lead them to directions that tell them how to reach the next question. Students are engaged by both the technology and the game-like activity.
5. Listen to podcasts and read the news.
For the voracious student who wants to keep learning outside of class, the struggling learner who needs more exposure — and everyone in between, smartphones provide instant access to civics, social studies, English, psychology, math, foreign language and science related media sources, including journals, newspapers, online news sites, podcasts, EdLang videos and more.
Yes, students can access this information on a desktop, but mobile phones offer the added bonus of filling spare time with anytime, anywhere learning. Riding the bus to school? Students can hunt for that article about World War II they were supposed to summarize for homework and take notes using a notepad app.
If they need extra German practice, they can listen to Slow German podcasts on the way to softball practice! Smartphones can be especially useful for foreign language students, since it is almost impossible to learn a language quickly without listening to native speakers frequently and accessing culture directly through newspapers and magazines.
6. Compete against classmates!
Many students become more engaged when educational technology takes on any characteristic of a video game. Two fantastic options are Quizlet and Kahoot, in part because of the vast number of already-created materials, as well as the ability to either edit what other educators have made or create your own “sets” specially tailored to your classes.
For Quizlet, the students’ favorite activities involve competing against each other in the “match” or “gravity” sections of a list. For set up, first save/create a pertinent vocabulary list to a “class,” which you create and can link to a Google Classroom. Then, students are provided with the link to matching, gravity or both. Because it is part of your virtual classroom, students will be able to see who is in first place/actually compete. Matching is timed; students attempt to be the fastest. Gravity is point-based — who doesn’t love shooting asteroids?
Kahoot is a great tool to check for understanding. Students are generally not excited about quizzes, but love Kahoot, which serves the same function. For educators, the ability to “duplicate” a Kahoot and edit the quiz is a great time-saver. The questions and leader-board are then projected as students answer on their own devices. They receive instant feedback.
6. Use the apps, obviously.
Many mobile apps make learning instantly accessible, such as Memrise for languages and vocabulary. But don’t limit your students to the purely educational apps. Get creative and let them have some fun with games. For instance, you could change the language setting of a popular game like Trivia Crack to give students language practice while they have fun.
Polling applications, such as Poll Everywhere, are also useful for collecting direct feedback from both students and teachers during class and delivering the data in a way that’s more accessible and organized than the classic exit ticket.
Turning a gadget that you have heretofore thought of as a distraction into a super-efficient mobile learning device does not happen overnight. Patience and deliberate practice is necessary, for you and for your students. But it is worth it to unlock the ease of access to unlimited information and resources — not to mention the engaged learning — that smartphones provide.
Kelsey Ehnle has a bachelors degree in psychology and German as well as a master's in educational studies and is studying web development. She teaches at Carolina Forest High School in South Carolina, where she seeks out innovative ways to engage students in their learning.