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Smartphones: nuisance or teaching tool?

Teachers are kind of  like parents, sometimes. You push them long enough and they come around. Or sometimes, they just get tired of fighting.

Project Tomorrow, a non-profit education group, surveyed thousands of teachers, librarians and district officials in 2010, to gauge their attitudes about mobile devices in the classroom.  Sixty-three percent said they weren’t likely to allow students to use them anytime soon; 22 percent said it was likely they would allow mobile devices in class soon, and three percent said their students were already using them in the classroom.

Fast forward to 2013. Fifty-one percent said either they were already allowing mobile devices, or would likely be allowing them in the classroom.  That compares to 32 percent, who said it was unlikely they would allow phones, tablets and the rest into classrooms.

Our own unscientific survey of classroom-tech policies,  found that teachers have lots concerns about mobile devices, particularly smartphones.  Teachers worried about students being distracted, cheating on tests and more.  Even teachers who use laptops or tablets in class said smart phone use is a big problem.  

Tom Odendahl, an economics and history teacher at a Minneapolis high school, wrote that he has agreed to let some students use laptops and tablets, but can't imagine how a smartphone could be put to good use:

As I write I can envision ways to use devices, but I keep coming up against the reality of how my students use cell phones, and it is not for clarifying questions, or fact-checking my often absurd pronouncements. One popular service I have witnessed during class is shopping for prom dresses.

At the same time,  quite a few teachers said they have have started to allow smart phone use in the class.  Paul Isom is a professor at North Carolina University.

I find students generally use them appropriately, rarely perusing facebook, instagram, etc (except during breaks), and often using them to find answers to questions that come up in class. In more than one case, they've proven very helpful when a question arises. Anyway, to fight the students over laptops/phones/tablets would be tilting at windmills.

 Pam Pailes, the Dean of Students at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, is among those who will make the transition iin the fall.  Her school will switch to a "BYOD" (bring-your-own-device) policy.  Pailes says there’s more upside than downside:

In a traditional classroom, we are asking them to learn in a way that seems stodgy and boring to many young people. In their minds, they can learn so much more if they could just "find it on the internet." Allowing laptops, tablets, phones, etc., into the classroom allows us to educate students to be better cyber-citizens and helps us teach them to use the information available on the web in a balanced and appropriately skeptical.

About the author

Dan Abendschein is the digital and data reporter on our LearningCurve team reporting on tech and education.

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