Using Cell Phones as Learning Tools

Cell phones were once considered a distraction in the classroom. While that still remains true, educators have slowly found that phones can be turned into learning tools.

Phones have evolved over the years into powerful teaching aids that, when used appropriately, can improve learning outcomes.

History of Using Cell Phones in the Classroom

Lisa Nielseon, an educator who started her career as a librarian and eventually went on to be an education blogger and speaker, broke down the history of cell phones in the class.

From the day they were introduced, cell phones were considered a nuisance to educators, which is why schools banned all electronic devices in the 1990s. This was also partly because school administrators feared that these devices would be used by students who were attempting to do things that were illegal.

Unfortunately for these cautious administrators, cell phones became increasingly popular by the late 1990s and, by 2002, there were calls for lawmakers and administrators to reconsider bans of cell phones in the school.

The National School Safety and Security Services noted that many schools were starting to allow cell phones among their students, and by the mid-2000s, the role of cell phones in the school were being rethought.

Policies changed to allow cell phones on campus so long as they were turned off during the day. However, educators couldn’t stop the use of these devices. As the 2000s rolled along , even elementary school students commonly used cell phones on a daily basis.

By 2007, educators conceded that cell phones could play an important part in learning. Universities started using text messages to reach out to students, and a survey released by Cingular Wireless indicated that parents believed text messaging helped to improve communications with children.

The following year, schools in Brooklyn began distributing cell phones to students, and by 2010 there was a significant shift toward embracing cell phones as educational tools.

Text messaging had previously played a role in keeping students connected with their schools, but cell phones were now being used for increasingly broad educational purposes as they became just as powerful as laptops while occupying a fraction of the space.

The history of cell phones in the classroom is therefore one in which cell phones transitioned from being devices that educators feared to tools that educators embraced. Cell phones became not only increasingly ubiquitous but increasingly powerful, making them capable of replacing devices like laptops and computers. It should be no surprise then that school administrators and educators shifted toward embracing these devices as classroom tools.

Benefits of Cell Phones in Learning

Researchers have pointed to the increasing power of cell phones and their capabilities as reasons why they can make effective language learning tools. Many modern cell phones have the power and potential of computers from the past decade and require only a fraction of the energy to operate.

For years, the United States conceptualized computers in traditional terms: as personal computers and laptops. However, recent decades have seen more and more people switching to personal devices for personal computing.

The PC market continued to decline in 2019. Computer sales have been declining every year since the year 2012. On the other hand, the number of smartphones used globally increased to 3.2 billion in 2019 and were expected to reach 3.8 billion in 2021. In short, in the classroom, students may be increasingly more accustomed to using the tools they have available on their personal devices than they are looking up information over the internet.

This provides several avenues by which they may be able to benefit when attempting to use cell phones in the classroom. First, they will be working with a population that is already accustomed to using their phones to perform different tasks. Attempts to do something as simple as use an internet search only require turning on a phone and opening the browser.

For teachers, this means saving on time that would otherwise be dedicated to having to teach students how to use the device. This allows teachers to move quickly into their lessons instead of having to introduce new tools to the students and train them on those tools.

The second advantage is that, with the modern generation of cell phones, even many basic models have performance power that outstrip those of computers from previous generations. In some cases, and particularly in disadvantaged schools working with outdated technology, this may mean access to tools that are more powerful than might be found in the computer lab. Of course, teachers cannot make this assumption.

There may be instances when certain students don’t have the phone needed for a course, and teachers will have to plan around this and arrange for students to occasionally share tools in a responsible way. However, generally, cell phones can benefit teachers by providing a nearly ubiquitous tool to students with incredible processing power that allows for internet searches and apps that can aid in the learning process.

Ways of Using Cell Phones in the Classroom

The Center for Digital Education lists several ways that cell phones can be used in the classroom. The most obvious way is by using cell phones as research tools. Phones can be used to link to the internet and find information from reputable sources that can be used in reports. However, there are also other creative ways that the Center argued cell phones could be used.

One of these ways was Twitter. Teachers can use a Twitter feed made specifically for the classroom to post assignments and due dates, which can help students stay connected. Teachers can also use Twitter feeds to field questions from students who might be otherwise too shy to ask.

Students can ask a question using the class Twitter feed and teachers can respond in-class without singling out the student. This is made easier when the teacher creates a recognizable hashtag that students can use. Other forms of social media can be used for similar purposes, such as maintain a classroom Facebook page to keep students updated.

Learn more about how to use social media in education.

There are other ways cell phones can be used, of course. Class wide texts can keep students up to date on assignments, and students can use their phones as a class planner to record important dates. For projects, cell phones can also play an important role in gathering media. Cell phones can be used to take photos, record video, and make audio logs.

Photos and video can be added to PowerPoint presentations. Or, students can make entire videos, post them to YouTube, then share them with the class. These video projects can document historic sites in the city or act like running documentaries of research they’re doing.

Audio recording can be used to similar effect, acting as a voice over for projects. However, the basic recording function of a cell phone can also be used to record classroom lectures and refer to them when they’re studying.

Apps for Teachers

If students have cell phones, teachers can also use different apps to help deliver instruction and lessons to students. As documented at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design blog, there are plenty of apps that can be used for instructional delivery. These apps target different subjects and can help engage students more closely with their lessons.

Duolingo, for instance, can be used to help educated students taking a foreign language course. Duolingo provides flashcards that students can use, records students’ responses to gauge whether they’re pronouncing words correctly, and has themes lessons that let students learn specific parts of a new language. The wide variety of ways students can learn make the app that much more engaging.

Another useful app is Instructable. This app contains over 100,000 do-it-yourself projects and instructions for getting those projects done. This app is perfect for maker classrooms that put an emphasis on creation and making projects that put science and engineering lessons to use.

Students can also use more general apps to help them with their daily work. Evernote is a prime example of an app that’s perfect for distributing lessons to students. Teachers can get rid of handouts entirely by creating shared notebooks where a student’s assignments can be found, and lessons and media attached. This makes it far easier for a teacher to use classroom time effectively instead of having to worry about daily handouts.

As can be seen by this brief review, there are multiple apps available to instructors that can help enhance classroom lessons. Students benefit because they are able to go hands-on with their materials even when they’re outside the classroom.

The lessons found in Duolingo and Instructable can be put to use when they’re away from home. Evernote, meanwhile, allows for lessons to be distributed without time consuming handouts, which is beneficial to both students and teachers. This helps students stay on top of their work more closely.

Examples of Cell Phones in the Classroom

To this point, we’ve discussed the history of cell phones and how they’ve generally been used in the classroom, but we’ve yet to examine specific examples of how teachers are integrating cell phones into their lessons.

Specific examples can help illustrate not only how cell phones are being used, but how effective they are when they’re used. So, here are just two of the ways that cell phones have been integrated into the classroom.

A specific example of how cell phone technology was integrated into the classroom was laid out by authors Warnich and Gordon. In this specific example, educators used Poll Everywhere, which is a free audience response system. An audience response system works by allowing the audience to vote on a topic or to vote, as a group, for what they believe the correct answer to a question is.

In this example, History teachers received immediate feedback from their students. The classroom’s responses were transmitted and instantly displayed at the Poll Everywhere website, and graphs and tables displayed responses from the audience to reflect how many students were voting for which answer.

The teachers simultaneously displayed the answers using a projector. After all votes had been taken in, the instructors used the responses to determine whether the lesson was appropriately taught, determine how many students had accurately picked up on the lesson, and used the responses as a springboard to further discussion about the topic.

The use of an automated response system was therefore important to generating increased participation from the class as well as important to increasing teacher awareness about how well students were learning.

Another example of using mobile phones to enhance learning was found in lessons developed by a group of Sri Lankan science educators. The researching duo Ekanayake and Wishart published a study about how these teachers were enhancing their lessons using cell phones.

These teachers used the media features of cell phones to make science lessons that much more interactive, to help engage students more heavily with their lessons, and to help students learn in an inquiry-based style.

This approach asked students to capture images and video on their mobile phones from outside the classroom. To help support a discussion about household chemicals, the instructors asked students to go around their homes and take photos they found of chemicals within their own homes. Then, during the class, the students transmitted their images to the teacher using a Bluetooth connection.

Once a collection of photos were gathered, group discussion broke out about whether to classify these chemicals as detergents, medical supplies, or other classes of chemicals. Finally, the groups created visual stories involving the groups of photos gathered from each student’s cell phones. This approach helped to promote independent investigation on one hand but also collaborative work on the other.

In just these two examples, it’s clear that students can become more engaged if a teacher uses cell phones appropriately. Within the classroom, students can become more engaged because the cell phone itself allows for direct communication with a teacher.

In these two examples, the examples took the forms of poll responses and images. However, once individual responses are collected, this can lead to an increased level of classroom collaboration as group discussions and projects break out based on individual responses.

Academic Outcomes of Cell Phones as Education Tools

Researchers, of course, have wondered just what the impact of cell phones might be when used instead of other devices, such as computers. Authors Sung, Chang, and Liu put these devices to the test to see which had the best impact, a computer or a cell phone.

After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that learning was aided more when students used mobile devices instead of computers. However, they also warned that there were multiple combinations of hardware, software, and teaching methods that maximized learning.

Still, the overall conclusion remained the same. Handhelds were better for a variety of hands-on learning styles, including cooperative learning, game-based learning, inquiry based learning, and self-directed study. All these forms of learning were associated with improved learning among students, since these methods of instruction allowed students to become more engaged with their material and take ownership of their own learning.

Guidelines for Implementing Cell Phones in learning

Sung, Chang, and Liu also cautioned that there are certain principles that teachers should pay attention to when integrating cell phones in the classroom. First, they noted that the many features of a mobile device were not sufficient for encouraging increased learning outcomes. Instead, appropriate instructional strategies had to be developed that would help support learning.

For instance, teachers still need to ensure that students aren’t simply idling on their phones. So, using wireless communications broadcast between all class members could be used to caution students to stay on task and alert them to how much time was left to work on a project. In general, the researchers cautioned teachers to remain vigilant and to ensure that students remained on task.

The researchers also indicated that the technology used in classrooms needed to be as closely integrated into the curriculum as possible to maximize learning outcomes. Instead of only using the technology when convenient, teachers should find ways of planning ahead for the use of these devices. In other words, the use of mobile phones in classrooms should be purposeful.

The researchers found that in many cases, teachers used mobile technology for only a few units of teaching instead of integrating the technology into lessons throughout the semester. By increasing the use of mobile technology, teachers might uncover new instructional designs that were optimal under different circumstances.


Mobile phones have taken a long path from once being perceived as distractions in the classroom to now being seen as tools that can educate students. There are multiple benefits to using cell phones as a teaching aid, including improved learning outcomes, increased engagement among students, and an easier ability to keep students up to date about assignments. However, as with all tools, teachers need to plan ahead to ensure these devices are used appropriately within the classroom.

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