Liz Kolb
two students smile excitedly as they look at a phone

When we talk about school devices, we usually mean laptops or tablets. But there is another device the most teenagers own and are adept at using that can also come in handy in the classroom  student cell phones. They don't have to be a distraction; they can actually be a way to get students engaged in learning.  

But it's important to keep in mind that although most teenagers own a cell phone, not all phones are created equal; functionality and phone plans vary widely. While a whopping 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, according to ew Research Center, many only a basic phone. That means that activities requiring mobile apps or storage of large amounts of data are not accessible for all students.

That’s why it’s important for teachers to select activities that both they and all of their students can do using any phone or phone plan. So before creating activities, make sure to survey students about their phones and phone plans.

In general, all phones can text and make phone calls. Below are three ways to connect learning with any phone.

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1. Text alerts

Text alerts are messages that go out to an entire group, such as students, parents or both. Alerts can be one-way (teacher to student), two-way private (teacher to student to teacher) or two-way open (teacher to student to students/teacher). Here are some pedagogical strategies for using text alerts to enhance learning:

Managerial 

Send quick announcements, such as homework reminders or upcoming class activities. It is usually one way from the teacher to the student or teacher to parent.  

Project based

Use the alert as a way for students to produce or participate in a classroom project. For example, an English teacher might ask her students to text an original poem for an assignment along with a visual image of what inspired the poem. Or a social studies teacher might create a virtual debate where students can text back and forth in the voice of a historical character.

Small group

Put students into groups based on their reading and mathematics levels or academic interests and then send tailored messages to those groups. In addition, you can open up the groups (two-way texting) so that they can text back and forth with other group members to collaborate, brainstorm or even create virtual book clubs.

Polling

Send a multiple-choice or free-response poll to students during class. The students can text an immediate response. These are helpful as quick exit tickets, share-outs or basic feedback.

Tutoring

Send one-way alerts to help with FAQs during a class activity. You can also assign an older student to send out tutoring help to younger students. Do this by setting up a tutoring line (two-way private), where students can text when they need help and an older student or adult volunteer could text back helpful hints or tips.

Text pals

Pair students with students in a similar grade/classroom from another school. By using the two-way private text alerts, students can learn from each other as pen pals. You can be on the two-way alert to monitor the conversation.

Field trips

Send out a two-way alert during field trips with an activity or poll asking the students to text back their work, such as sending in an interesting fact or image.

Assessments

Use the two-way private alerts to send quick surveys, polls or quizzes to better understand how well each student comprehends a topic. The responses return to you in a private texting file online. Now you have an archive of the quick assessments that you can use to personalize learning.

Personalizing

Send out private alerts to specific groups or students to help scaffold their learning during a class assignment. For example, if a student finishes a class activity quickly, ask her to respond with a summary of how she was able to solve the mathematics problem and the reasoning she used.

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Here is a handful of tools to help you create text alerts:

Remind

Teachers can use this tool to schedule text messages in advance. This works great for weekly homework or prescheduling in-class alerts. You can even schedule tweets and send with attachments. It’s a great tool for one-way alerts. 

ClassParrot

This app allows teachers to text groups of students and parents to remind them of assignments, tests, events or share advice and tips.

Ready4K

This app is for parents of PK and elementary age students. It is a text alert that facilitates opportunities for parents to engage with their children's academic learning.

TalkingPoints

This multi-language communication texting tool allows teachers to communicate through the app in families' home language.

2. Moblogging

Some websites allow students to create a new blog post via texting — a.k.a. moblogging. Moblogging is an inclusive option for students to publish digital journals, and it creates opportunities for authentic, real-time collaboration. Below are pedagogical examples of how you can use moblogging to enhance learning:

Field trips

Students can live-blog from their phones about their off-campus experiences rather than waiting until they get back to the classroom. Parents and community members can read the blog as students post live updates!

Classroom reflections

When students are working in groups during class, it is sometimes difficult to know what learning is occurring in each group. Ask students in each group to reflect (via moblog) on their activities as they work so you can offer quick feedback and allow students to review their collaboration.

Ebooks

There are online resources where students can write and publish a piece of literary work using their phones.

Here are a few tools for moblogging:

Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr

These blogging platforms allow students to text directly to the blog from an email address.

Twitter

Students and teachers can text to post on Twitter and receive messages and updates on any Twitter feed.

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3. Phone calling

One feature of every phone is calling. There are numerous possibilities to connect voice to classroom learning, including:

Podcasting

Students can call in a live podcast on a topic of research. Podcasting directly to the internet from a phone is easier than traditional podcasting because you don’t need to upload a file to a host. You can also do it from anywhere.

Interviews and oral histories

Students conduct interviews to record the experiences of their peers and other community members. Capturing oral histories directly from a phone is appealing because students can conduct their interviews in historical locations.

Discipline discourse

Students call to record their explanations of subject-area concepts or how they arrived at answers in a discipline of study, such as solving a mathematics answer.

Salon/debate

In contrast to an in-class debate, where some students may be nervous to speak in front of their peers, a phone-conferencing tool allows for full participation that archives each person’s speaking role in the debate.

Here are some online tools for phone recording:

Google Voice

With this tool, teachers can get a local phone number that they can give to students and parents. Teachers can record voicemail messages for all their students or different groups of students to hear when they call in. Students can leave voicemail messages that become MP3 downloadable files. 

FreeConferencePro

This allows large-group phone conferencing. With one phone call, you can set up a phone conference with up to 200 callers and archive it.

Talkshoe

Students can live-broadcast from their phones. The broadcast can include “guest callers” who call in to the broadcast, just like an authentic radio show.

Hipcast

With this tool, anyone can call and record a podcast that posts directly to the internet. Recordings are archived and can be turned into a playlist as well as downloadable MP3 files.

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Liz Kolb is a clinical associate at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is the author of several ISTE books and jump start guides, including the best seller, Learning First, Technology Second and  Phones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for the K-12 Educator (2011). She has published numerous articles and book chapters on new technologies and education in prominent publications, such as Education Leadership, Scholastic, Edutopia, and ISTE's blog and member magazine. She is also the inventor and coordinator of the 4T Virtual Conference, which is a free annual conference for practitioners. Kolb is a former social studies and computer technology teacher who spent four years as a technology coordinator and integration specialist in Ohio.

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published June 16, 2015.