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Using Smartphones in the Classroom

Tired of telling students to put away their phones? A veteran teacher shares tips for using mobile devices as learning tools.

Found in: Advice and Support

Ken Halla knows a thing or two about using technology in the classroom.

For the past 5 years, the 22-year teaching veteran has worked to transition his ninth-grade World History and AP Government classrooms into a mobile device-friendly environment where students can incorporate the latest technology into the learning process. Along the way, Halla created three of the most used education blogs in the country—“World History Teachers Blog,” “US Government Teachers Blog,” and “US History Teachers Blog”—to help fellow humanities teachers incorporate more technology and more device-based learning into their own classrooms.

Ken Halla with students.

“Not every classroom can get a laptop every day, so [devices like smartphones], even if you have to pair up, become something useful for teachers,” Halla says.

“The number of kids with phones has just been blown out of the water the last couple of years,” he adds. “Two years ago, if any of the kids in my room had a phone, it was a dial-phone that maybe they could text on. And now it’s all smartphones.”

According to data compiled by the research firm Nielsen, 58 percent of American children from 13- to 17-years-old owned a smartphone as of July 2012—an increase of more than 60 percent over the previous year. And with over 50 percent of mobile phone users in America now using smartphones, the numbers only seems to be growing.

With their easy internet access, a multitude of education-friendly apps, and the ability to be used at a moment’s notice (after all, what smartphone-owning teenager would go anywhere without their phone?), smartphones have all the tools necessary to boost student learning.

Here are Halla’s top tips for using mobile devices effectively in the classroom.

Ensuring it stays academic

Many teachers have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to phones out during class, since they assume—most of the time correctly—that their students are using them to text friends or update their various social media sites. But there’s a simple way to ensure that students use devices for educational purposes: change the classroom dynamic from lecturing at the front of the room to having no traditional front of the classroom at all. During class, Halla roams around the room helping students with their work, all the while overseeing everything to make sure that they’re staying on task.

“It’s harder to do the negative behaviors when the phones are out and the teacher is walking around,” he says.

Use smartphones to stay organized and assess learning

A great app for keeping students on top of their work is Remind101, where students voluntarily sign up to receive a text reminder when they have an upcoming assignment due. Not only does it help students better organize their assignments, but it’s also engaging parents. Halla says many parents sign up for the app to keep track of their children’s homework.

“I was stunned by how many more kids started doing the homework,” he says. “I just thought they didn’t want to do the work, but it was more that they were unorganized and had forgotten to do it.”

Aside from the education-friendly apps now available, Halla has found online resources that can help support classroom productivity and be easily accessed via smartphone.

Halla recommends polleverywhere.com to test students’ knowledge of their subject material before an upcoming test. Teachers can set up a question or questions based on what the students are currently learning in class, and then provide them with a text number. Students see the question with several potential answers—usually an A, B, C, D, or E template—and then they’ll text in the answer. As the students’ answers are compiled, the site creates a graph showing their responses. Polleverywhere.com also costs nothing to use for a survey of 40 or fewer participants.

“It’s a good way to see how the students are comprehending the material,” Halla says. “For example, if a lot of students are picking option C and B is really the answer, then I can go back and review the material again.”

Apps for the social sciences

Halla recommends a number of apps that are perfect for teaching social science courses. There’s World Wiki, an app that provides demographic information for almost 250 countries around the world; iAmerica, an app with information about each U.S. President and the history of the White House; U.S. Constitution, so students can have easy access to one of the most important American documents; and many others that are designed to provide students with further classroom support.

Halla has created a list of some of the most useful apps he’s found for the classroom, which is available on his blog. While not all apps are available on Android devices, the large majority of them can be accessed on iPhones, iPads, and iPods. Also, before implementing smartphones or iPads into your own classroom, find out which apps are approved for classroom use in your district; and, if you find one you like that isn’t on the approved list, consult with your school and district administrators before proceeding

Let fun foster productivity

As a final tip, Halla suggests being open to letting students have some fun with their devices. He was surprised to discover that his students are quieter and more focused on their assignments when they are allowed to listen to their music during individual classwork—provided they use headphones and the music is not too loud to distract their classmates.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “The noise level in the classroom goes down, and the work amount goes up when you let them listen to their music.”

Halla asks students to only use sites that streams music. That way, they can stay focused on their work without the distracting need to find a new song every few minutes.

And when it comes time to get back to classroom instruction, Halla simply has the students remove their earbuds, put down their phones, and focus on what he’s teaching. After all, not all learning can be done digitally—but Halla says that teachers have to adapt to the changing times and find a way to successfully incorporate these devices into their own classrooms.

“I’ve always been that type of person who likes to adapt and change as time goes on,” says Halla. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be teaching this many years down the road.”


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