Despite their ubiquity among students, mobile phones are still viewed as contraband in most classrooms. Students are told to turn their phones off, leave them in their lockers, or leave them at home. This response to what is arguably the most ubiquitous 1-to-1 computing device available in our schools today undoubtedly led many students to list bans on mobile phones as one of the biggest obstacles to technology use in the recent Speak Up 2010 report.

That same report also indicated that parents and students were paying for these devices themselves — and were more than willing to purchase data plans if mobile phones would be accepted in the classroom. This willingness on the part of parents to subsidize technology in the classroom could free up valuable school funds for purposes other than buying hardware. If for no other reason, this may be cause to think twice about blanket bans on mobile phones in the classroom.

Meanwhile, a number of projects underway are moving forward in exploring how these devices can be used for educational purposes in countries outside the U.S. where there are far fewer computers per household.

The World Bank‘s ICT and education specialist Michael Trucano recently highlighted a number of interesting pilot projects in Pakistan that are demonstrating how those with even very low-end mobile phones can leverage these devices to open up new learning opportunities.

Trucano describes a project at Asghar Mall College in Rawalapindi where students receive a daily vocabulary quiz via SMS (mobile phone text). The multiple choice quiz is addressed to each student individually. The students reply to the quiz via SMS, then receive an automated response based on their answer. This response notes whether or not the student was correct, and uses the correct answer in a sample sentence.

“This sort of thing is no substitute for school, of course,” writes Trucano. “But, given current test messaging rates in Pakistan — a country with some of the fastest growth in recent years in text messaging in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as some of the lowest tarif rates — it is quite cheap. It is ‘on-the-go.’ It is supplemental to what is being taught in the classroom, and increasingly easy to do, given the technology tools and code base out there. While Pakistan may not see high household penetration rates of desktop computers connected to the Internet for many, many years to come, most every household already has access to a small connected ‘computer’ of a different sort — the mobile phone — and this project is seeking to capitalize on this reality.”

Trucano also notes that some of these students may have been educated in very large, lecture-based classrooms up until now, and the feedback via SMS may be their first experience with this sort of “personalized” response.

In that vein, some questions to consider:

  • What’s the impact of messages related to classwork when they’re part of a large stream of messages students receive from friends, family, horoscope advice, sports scores and so on?
  • What sort of learning happens best (or is reinforced best, perhaps) via SMS?
  • How can these sorts of messages be adapted to students’ progress and how can they be sequenced and scaffolded over time?
  • How many students are able and willing to participate in these sorts of educational activities via their mobile phone? Can students afford the texting fees? Do they want to use their text-messaging allocations for this purpose?
  • Can we subsidize this sort of SMS traffic for student populations?
  • If these sorts of messages between home and school become more common, will there be a way to include parents and parents’ phones in the loop?
  • Can these quizzes be sent to parents’ phones so that they can have the opportunity to pose a question to their children? “This would, in a very small, modest way, alert parents to what students are supposed to be learning,” suggests Trucano. “If students don’t know the answer, this may trigger parents to push their kids more, and/or to question whether the school is doing a good job in this area (including whether or not the official curriculum is being followed at all!).”

Although the World Bank blog post focuses primarily on the pilot project in Pakistan, there are a number of other text-messaging apps and programs out there, including StudyBoost and Remind101, that let teachers send quizzes and assignments “home” via SMS and that let students run through flashcards and study guides.

SMS educational apps may seem incredibly simple, but they may well be aimed at just the communication medium that students are most likely to use — text-messaging on their mobile phones. How can schools and parents take better advantage of students’ phone usage and ownership — even if it isn’t something that necessarily happens in the classroom?

Seven Questions to Ask About Texting in Class 10 May,2011Audrey Watters

  • Marissa

    I think texting/cell phones in the classroom is absurd. Even lap tops can be distracting. If you are there to learn you don’t need to focus on who is texting you or what youtube video you can watch. It get’s annoying to be in class and have all these phones going off constantly or to see people use phones to cheat on tests/quizzes. It’s not fair to those of us who’s mommy and daddy don’t pay for school and who take the grades we deserve instead of cheating. I wish this younger generation (and i’m 24 so i’m not that much older, I just act like an adult) would grow up and realize they are spoiled brats.

    • As a Technology Teacher, I teach WITH and ABOUT technology. The focus of my curriculum is about the ethical use of technology in society. We must remember that tech itself isn’t good or bad, it’s how the user chooses to use that tool. Every issue that Marissa mentions has a solution. For example, she mentions that “phones going off”. Why not educate our kids to use the silent or vibrate features as part of their K-12 education? Maybe then they will become adults who don’t need to be reminded about silencing their phones (like in today’s world). If you TEACH and MODEL the correct uses of technology tools, they become helpful tools of our society. As educators, we are charged with preparing kids for their world. By banning and blocking technologies from the classroom, then what world are we preparing our kids for? I’d consider that “educational neglect”. Read more at my blog

      Rob Zdrojewski
      Technology Education Teacher and Trainer
      My Teacher blog:

      • Blankenship

        Excellent and considerate response to Marissa’s comment.  You are absolutely correct.  We must prepare our students for the real world and not limit our students because of our unwillingness to change as teachers.  It’s not about taking away a typewriter and adding a computer and calling ourselves innovative.  These devices can make a huge impact in our classrooms only if we research and plan effective ways to enhance our instruction along with taking the time to educate our students on the expectations of cells in the classroom.  Currently, I am working closely with our Technology Director in passing a laptop/cell phone friendly environment.  I truly believe we would have less problems with cell phone violations if we would just allow the use of these devices and model the expectation.  It’s time we allow our students to “power-up” at school!

  • Amanda

    I love the idea of integrating technology that is readily available and affordable. Anything that helps kids stay involved in their education is great, and since it has become the norm to communicate via SMS, it is quite logical to integrate it into the classroom. In my special needs pre-k class, there is a student who has problems with the use of her thumbs, but she loves playing with my Blackberry. The solution? She can text my sister and best friend, but she has to use her thumbs like a big girl! It obviously may not work for every student and every teacher, but if it works in my classroom, I’ll use it, thanks!

  • Allowing students to use cell phones was a difficult decision. I wish I had been more open to it earlier in my career. The reality is, schools don’t have the technology we need to prepare 21st century learners. However, the mobile divide is virtually bridged even in the inner city. Why not capitalize on this? When cell phones are appropriate ask kids to leave them on the right hand corner of their desk. When they are not needed, they are out of sight. If a kid violates the trust you put in them, take the battery. Phones can be the internet, calculator and even a poll device.

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    I’m the founder of a company that just launched a FREE service that specifically targets the use of SMS in schools. It’s called Celly (as in cellphone) Celly creates moderated chatrooms (we call them “channels”). The service, only a month old, is being rapidly adopted for a variety of school use cases:

    1. Teachers are creating a channel for each of their classrooms so that students can post questions and receive messages and reminders from other classmates and teachers. These channels are being used both in class and out of class to extend the learning day.

    2. Mentoring crews–schools are using channels where upperclassmen form individual groups that help monitor/guide underclassmen and enable underclassmen to text questions to their group mentor.

    3. Extracurricular groups–Athletic teams, band, clubs are creating channels for group coordination about practice times, event planning, transportation.

    4. Field trips–schools are creating channels to help keep track of students on class outings. Sometimes trips are multi-day so coordinating the whereabouts of everybody and organizing rendezvous times/places is done using Celly channels.

    5. School alerts–school admins are creating information/alert channels for news about schools for both students and parents.

    SMS improves accessibility of educational services: not every student can afford an iPad or iPhone. SMS is easy because there is no app to download, install, or configure. And of course, SMS is utilized by most students. But to enable cellphones and SMS in schools as a Bring Your Own Devices for learning, our thesis is that social networking needs a makeover for educational contexts. 

    To this end, we’re building Celly from scratch guided by direct input from schools and community members and informed by lessons of the past.  For example, Celly provides educators with moderation controls that insure messages can be filtered for appropriateness and picked out for selective rebroadcast to a wider group (e.g., in question & answer scenarios). Moderation also eliminates spamming of large groups with swarms of chat messages and enables the channel moderator to guard against abuse like cyberbullying. Celly lets educators control how and who joins a channel (e.g., the channel moderator can decline a new user who picks an offensive user name or a moderator can KICK an offensive member), who can chat on the channel (e.g. everybody, just moderators, etc.), and when the channel is active (e.g., only during classroom hours or during a daily time window). To address privacy mandates, a key design point with Celly is that members can securely join and participate in a channel without having to exchange phone numbers: members can join a Celly channel by name, by simply texting the channel’s identifier. 

    First generation social networks like Facebook and Twitter aren’t designed for fine-grained, flexible privacy and moderation requirements found in dynamic social networking scenarios like the classroom. They follow the design path of “public unmoderated static” vs. “private moderated dynamic”, the latter being the path Celly is trying to pave. Ultimately, Celly is trying to provide an egalitarian, affordable way to help students, educators, staff, and parents easily and quickly communicate as groups that extend the learning day beyond school walls. Please give our service a try. You can get started by simply texting START to 23559. We’d love to hear your feature requests. Please email us at and we can put you on our educators email list. Thank you! Russell Okamoto, Founder Celly, Inc.

  • whoops, sorry for all the metachars and i put in the wrong link,

    should be

  • Miller, K

    Phones are banned in many schools. I 100% agree with this. They are a major distraction and completely disrespectful more often than not.

    Leave it to the teacher/professor to make the decision in their own classroom. Having an official ban on mobile devises is a practical way to give support to the faculty on their decission to waste time on students wasting their valuable curiculum time.

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