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New Tools “Cell Phones as Classroom Learning Tools”

Liz Kolb
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Blog: http://toytotool.blogspot.com

Liz Kolb spent 7 years as a classroom social studies teacher,high school technology coordinator and integration specialist. She is now an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Madonna University in Michigan as well as finishing her PhD in Learning Technologies at University of Michigan. She teaches courses for both preservice and inservice teachers concerning technology integration in schools. For more information on her background, please see her virtual CV at http://sitemaker.umich.edu/kolb_504.

Bio Page

Presentation Title
“Cell Phones as Classroom Learning Tools”

This presentation focuses on ways to connect students’ favorite digital toy with classroom learning. Cell phones have the capability to become the “Swiss army knife” for student research and organization. First, we explore using cell phones as data collection tools: audio recorders, digital cameras, and digital camcorders. Additionally, we consider how classroom projects can be developed for cell phones: creating ring tones, text messaging, mobile WebPages, and mobile surveys. Finally, we contemplate the future features of cell phones and how those features play a role in learning.

iPod ready
http://k12online.wm.edu/K12_Kolb_Cell.mp4 (1:10:00 Run Time; m4v; 176 MB)
http://k12online.wm.edu/K12_Kolb_Cell.mov (1:10:00 Run Time; mov; 298 MB)
Audio only
http://k12online.wm.edu/K12_Kolb_Cell.mp3 (1:10:00 Run Time; mp3; 81 MB)

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[tags]k12online07nt02, k12online07[/tags]


  1. Michael

    You have a cute theory going here. As ubiquitous as cell phones are, why not incorporate them into classroom activities? My question is, who is going to pay for all the texting, data transfers, and web time on these devices? As a former employee of a national wireless carrier, I can tell you first hand that these charges add up quick and most parents are reluctant to pay for additional time on cell phones. Maybe you are alluding that the school districts pay for this?

  2. Liz Kolb

    Michael, first thank you for taking the time to view the presentation. One thing that I did not include in the presentation, but have often in others are the “cost” solutions. Therefore, I think you have a very valid question. A few solutions I that I have are the following:
    1) The audio podcast and mobile note-taking resources (such as Gabcast, Gcast, Hipcast, PrivatePhone, Jott…etc) do not ensure extra fees…they are simply a normal phone call. Also many of them have toll-free numbers so that students who do not have access to cell phones can use a landline for the assignment.

    2) I also think this is a really good opportunity for students to learn their cell phone plans and understand the cost involved (especially with text messaging). I am often shocked at how much text-messaging secondary students do on their own, and wonder if they understand the cost involved.

    3) Some cell phone companies (such as Verizon and AT&T) are coming out with “free text-messaging” plans. I believe that this will become more common in the future with phone plans.

    4) I also think there are opportunities for mini grants. Where a teacher or district could pay for a classroom set of cell phones and cell plan (we do the same for other PDA devices such as Palm Pilots and Graphing Calculators…why not cell phones?).

  3. Amy

    I agree with Michael that classroom projects could be very expensive and parents may not be on board with the idea. However, creating podcasts through Gabcast is a really neat idea. I especially liked the idea of collecting sound bytes from field trips. Good work, Liz!

  4. Michael

    Hmmm, so what learning takes place by using this technology rather than other methods? I honestly see no learning benefit but rather I see school districts shelling out money for what some people may tout as creating a ‘natural’ learning environment for 21st century kids. It is exactly this sort of Prenskyesque thinking that leads to an overabundance of electronic paperweights because something more new and exciting comes along the next year.

    Ask yourself this, what are the learning objectives? To use a cell phone? To communicate with a cell phone? To use a cell phone to surf the web? Where in state and national standards is cellular technology explicitly required in curriculum? And finally ask yourself this before taking the plunge, am I simply jumping on a fadwagon that will leave my budget drained and I cannot show any authentic learning has taken place.

    When it comes to using cell phones, I am reminded of the classic Clark Kozma debate. Is it the media or the method?

  5. Liz Kolb

    Michael, While I appreciate your viewpoint and I think there are many others who would agree with what you have commented, I must respectfully disagree. Mostly from my own experience of using the cell phones with my own students and working with teachers who have done the same, I have found the following to be true…

    Of course there are not learning objectives for cell phones, but there are also not learning objectives for web2.0 tools (or even PowerPoint) in general. I think we are looking at how the new “tool” can help in the learning process (not how learning to use the tool is the learning goal).

    In my teaching experience it is not about the “tool” but the “engagement” and “motivation”. My experience with using cell phones is that since it is a tool that 90% of students already own and are already “engaged” with using and enjoy using in their everyday social lives, than maybe by using this tool to help students collect data for homework or create a digital storybook is a way to get disengaged students interested in curriculum-based activities, than I believe it is worth exploring. I do not claim that cell phones are better than other digital or non-digital technologies for helping students meet district/state standards, but I do believe that students’ everyday technology tools are disconnected from their school technology tool learning. This often creates barriers between what students are using/learning in schools with technology tools and what they are doing in their everyday lives outside of school. For example, in schools students are often using expensive curriculum-specific technologies (such as SPSS or even KidPix)–which I might add school districts often pay a lot of money for licensing fees. Yet, the students do not have access to these curriculum-specific technologies outside of school (disconnect). I do not see the harm in exploring a tool that 90% of the secondary student population already own and use as an everyday “toy” and ask them to consider to be a learning “tool” for their own learning and future professional growth. While it may not enhance an assignment more than paper/pencil, it may be the “motivating” tool for a disengaged student who loves using their cell phone.

    As for the cost, as I mentioned school districts are already spending a lot of money on software and hardware. By using cell phones, they will spend little to no money because most of the students (at least at the secondary level) already own one and the web2.0 resources that cell phones couple with are free. Teachers can create assignments that stay well-within the boundaries of their student’s basic cell phone plans. Districts could actually save money by not investing in other expensive PDA devices and software, and focus more on what their students already own.

    Finally, I do believe that a lot of 21st Century business will be conducted via cell phone (some already is, such as my example in the presentation of the online auction site unwiredbuyer.com). Therefore I think it is important that students learn how to use their cell phone appropriately and professionally.

    Again, I think this is a great discussion on this topic and hope that others will let us know their thoughts…

  6. Quentin D'Souza

    Hi Liz,

    A friend of mine really likes Wattpad http://www.wattpad.com/ as a way to share documents online through the cellphone. You can post a document and then SMS it to any phone. You can also make the content available in the future by cellphone by providing a link to that document.

    And perhaps a light jab at Michael here – if all your grade 8 students had a audio recorder, camera, video camera, notepad – would you ask them to use a pencil? We do this everyday because we are blind to the possibilities of the tools that our students already have. I agree with your question when you are ask “what learning takes place?”. I ask the same question whether it is chalk I put on a blackboard or now the virtual ink of my Smart Board.

    I think the problem is we ban this and other powerful tools without realizing their full curricular potential. (Another one is iPods/Video Players – see this MSNBC clip for one teachers approach http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-US&brand=msnbc&vid=847ab432-7104-4889-8ac7-c9fd97f836d4 )I don’t think you have to give everyone the same tools and then pay for its use. You just give students the right opportunities to use them.

  7. Saša

    I loved this presentation! I only use my cell phone to talk to my friends and family – I didn’t know there are so many free applications out there enabling us to post things online so simply. Even Bubbleshare – I’ve used it in class before but didn’t know about the option to post pics there via mobile phone. Thank you very much!

  8. Connie

    First let me say that if I didn’t have time to participate in any other sessions, your presentation made the K12 conference worth it to me!
    I would also like to address the comments questioning the learning that can take place because of cell phones. Just last year my secondary Lang. Arts students created podcasts after researching an issue important to them, while other classes created digital stories from memoirs they had written throughout the semester. If we had know then about Gabcast, etc., the projects would have been much easier, as we had limited lab space and few microphones. Students were self-conscious recording in a lab full of their peers, also. None of these would have been issues, as 90% of my students had cell phones, and the others could have used land line phones.
    When a tool that is readily accessible can be used to improve the learning environment, facilitate learning, and increase motivation, it’s a win/win situation.
    Thanks for an informative and well done presentation!

  9. Liz Kolb

    Quentin, thank you for sharing the Wattpad resource!! It is fantastic! I’m definitely adding it to my bookmarks and blog resources. I can already think of a few great language arts/social studies lessons that would couple well with Wattpad.

    I also agree with you about the other “forbidden” resources such as video games and ipods…I think we should consider broadening what constitutes technology in the classroom in order to include these everyday social tools.

  10. Kim Vance

    Hi Liz,

    This was a fantastic presentation! I especially loved the idea of having students create and use their own ring tones.

    However, I too am concerned about the expense of transferring video or photo files via the phone network. Is there some way to transfer files directly to the computer. I vaguely recall seeing a program that would back up the data from your cell phone to a computer. If such a program exists I wonder if the data would be in a usable form?

    As for texting, I teach in a school where most of the students are considered to be living in poverty. And most of the students have cell phones and most have unlimited texting. After watching your presentation last evening I asked the kids this morning. You should have seen the skepticism on their faces!

  11. Wesley Fryer

    Liz: What a GREAT presentation. I’m not through the entire thing, but I am so enthused about the idea of using Gabcast for PD reflections (as well as other things) that I’ve immediately set up an account. I’ve recorded six times now, and am not able to get Gabcast to publish to a new blogger site I setup. I’ve edited the details and selected the blogger API, and re-entered my blogger login credentials. I don’t have anything in the “app path” field, however, do I need something there? Gabcast is working fine to publish my recordings, but it’s not publishing over to blogger. Any advice? I’m going to share specific feedback on your session with Gabcast following the conference credit rubric! (I’ll post a link to that here when I”ve got that online.)

  12. Liz Kolb

    Hi Wes
    Thanks for taking the time to view my presentation (it’s a long one compared to some of the others I have been watching–if I do this again I promise not to be as long-winded). I’m so glad you found the presentation useful. Gabcast and FreeConfernecePro are my two favorite applications that I use most often in my teaching.

    As for the Gabcast question, do you have a new blogger or old blogger account? If you have the new blogger, you have to select the New Blogger button and then login through Google and then select your blog site. You should not have to have anything in the “app path” field. Actually, you should not have to type anything into the fields, they should automatically fill-in with New Blogger.

    Wow! Your students already have unlimited texting? I need to get their cell phone plans! 🙂

    Good question about the expense of transferring the files. I know that AT&T will store your phone files in an online account for you if you have an account through them. I am not sure about other cell phone companies?

  13. Wesley Fryer

    Liz: This is one of the best professional development sessions I’ve ever heard, either online or face to face. This was NOT too long, it was wonderful! Thanks a million!

    I have posted a 20 minute reflection using Gabcast to my blog, that includes feedback you might find worthwhile. WOW! You have really raised the bar of expectations I have for K12Online presentations now!!!

    I haven’t figured out the immediate posting issue with Gabcast and Blogger yet, I just used the embed code from Gabcast to share this. I have had my Blogger account quite awhile and did upgrade my blogs to the “new blogger,” and I created a new blog to use for PD reflections. So I am not sure what is wrong. Thanks for the tips tho, I may create a new blogger account and see if I can get it to work with Gabcast.

  14. Dean Shareski

    Your delving into the use of cell phones is much appreciated.

    One issue I have is that my location in Canada does not offer a toll free number for either Gabcast or Gcast or Evoca.

    Not sure if you have any other resources for podcasting that would resolve my issue but this does have great potential.

  15. Bonnie Muir

    to be honest, I was not going to listen to this presentation because the idea of using cell phones in class seemed too full of challenges–and not a very high return. Oh goodness, was I wrong.

    Thank you for a fun, interesting, powerful presentation. I stopped it and followed along making a Gabcast.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the upbeat nature of the presentation. You have put a lot of work into this. Brilliant!

  16. Karl

    Interesting presentation. A thought though … I’ve been engaged in research that includes a series of focus groups with university students and one of the most consistent and most forcefully made arguments has been that students do NOT want their mobile phones used for educational ends. They have almost a visceral reaction to the idea of the university or lecturers contacting them via sms or phonecall … with the limited exception of cancelled lectures.

  17. Liz Kolb

    Hi Dean
    Thank you for watching the presentation. Great question about toll-free numbers and Canada and other countries. Sadly I do not have a good answer. I do not know of a resource that has toll-free world-wide. I will definitely be looking now that you brought up this point.

    Of course if you are using a cell phone, it should not matter if it is a toll-free number, but I understand that not all students have cell phones. Just out of curiosity about how many secondary students in Canada have their own cell phone?

    Karl, this is interesting data. Did the students tell you why? At the university level I can see how students look at a cell phone as a social, non-educational toy. I know the young pre-service teachers I work with often think they should not use cell phones in learning because when they were in high school or middle school, because they never saw any “positive” modeling of cell phones as learning tools. Additionally they were told over and over again that cell phones are distracting and harmful in education. I wonder if this is the reason why your university students do not want to include cell phones in learning? Just a guess, I’m interested in their reasoning. Thank you for sharing this data.

  18. Karl

    It’s simple – they would find it ‘creepy’, an invasion of privacy, too intrusive into their personal lives. The mobile is part of their private space, and they’re very adamant they don’t want that space invaded by educationalists. If determined to use mobile phones, then a way around this is for them to have two … much as they almost invariably state that they keep their university email separate from their personal email.

  19. Yolan Mistele

    Liz, I listened to your presentation today during a 4 hour drive to visit relatives. I wasn’t expecting that anything that you would be presenting would be feasible. How wrong I was! Really great info about how to use a tool that is so popular with teens. I can’t wait until I have time to watch and participate along with your presentation. Thanks for opening my eyes and ears.

  20. Phyllis Bartosiewicz

    Thank you, Liz, for all of the work in putting together this session. I had the pleasure of viewing it this morning while I was sipping my coffee, at home, waiting for my granddaughter to emerge from her first overnight visit. I loved it!! It was packed full of wonderful information. By the time I was finished I was so excited, I had to tell someone. Sadly, the only one around was my husband who had pretty much the same reaction as Michael above. But he is only a lawyer and doesn’t have the opportunity to spend his days with middle school students. Just this week, I asked for a show of hands of students who have cell phones. Very few students did not raise their hands. This is a technology tool they already possess. To give them a legitimate reason for using their cell phone during school would thrill them. But all of the great activities you outlined would also introduce them to the concept of a cell phone as a productivity tool. I believe as you do that this will be a reality for them when they enter the work force.

    Another reason that I was so excited was that I could envision sharing your presentation with other teachers in my district. Some have expressed the desire to have students create podcasts. Your presentation suggests some simple ways to accomplish this task, without buying more technology. And I am sure that they will be inspired, as I was, by the many other ideas you shared.

    Again, Liz, thank you for a wonderful presentation. BTW – my daughter has a phone plan with unlimited text messaging. Providers are obviously responding to the desires of their target markets!

  21. Frank

    Great job Liz! You’ve put together a well organized, sequenced, and detailed presentation.

    There is another element that is crucial for any presentation abstracted from the literal face-to-face: personality. As easy as it is to be dreary live, it’s drop-dead easy canned.

    Your narration and pacing, along with clear illustration of the resources you present truly ring the bell.


  22. Janetta Garton

    Liz, your session amazed me. The applications that I see most feasible in our district include: podcasting, private voice mail, mobile notetaking, text messaging, and assignment notebook. These choices are tied to cost, of course. I don’t think a significant number of our community members pay for a data plan, but know that many have texting including in their plans. I liked the idea of changing a student’s concept of what a mobile phone can be used for, moving beyond the social toy to the life skills tool. Fostering the habit of using a phone for organizational strategies is a powerful idea. I think students would be engaged by the use their phone, as opposed to a paper agenda/planner, which might result in the formation of a good habit. We spend thousands of dollars to purchase agendas for our students, which I think is a great tool. Yet, I know for myself this paper tool doesn’t work me, as I use the digital tools provided by my Treo. Phones truly are handheld computing devices. The mobile notetaking is a great tool for productivity. I often have an aha moment while driving, and record a quick memo on my Treo to be sure the idea goes beyond my car. I also think copyright needs to be considered when recording and uploading audio files. Use public domain or creative commons works for students recordings. The free conferencing might prove useful for a parent teacher conference in which getting both parents together for a conference is a challenge. The wallpaper and ring tone application seemed a bit over the top. I struggle with that having an academic impact. I think it is true that most high school students have phones, but I would want to have strategies to make sure those students won’t feel isolated or embarrassed. Would we have fewer issues with students using phone cells inappropriately at school, if we were modeling appropriate use in the classroom, allowing students to use their phone for academic purposes, instead of banning them? I think so.

  23. Ann O

    This was so much more than I expected. As others have shared, I had no idea of the scope of how a cell phone can be used. I plan on writing a reflection soon on my blog. I’ll tag it with your session id. I think I will try a podcast from the phone too. It would help with many projects that I am trying in the class. I know I have to watch/ listen to your session again. Thank you a million times over.

  24. Ann Marie Di Iorio

    Your presentation was a great resource. I now have a long list of
    sites to explore. You presented
    so many possiblities for using
    cell phones as a learning tool in an
    clear,concise manner.

  25. Julia Kalmens

    Thank you for the presentation and great ideas! I don’t teach a class, I am a tutor and sit in a big room with other tutors. We have a lot of computers, but a cell phone and an iPod could be such convinient things to use at the desk.
    I have a question about that one site recommended for setting contact lists and putting an email there for people. Is it http://www.jat, or jad? or jut? I missed the name and an airline company came up. Thank you.

  26. Nila Marquard

    Cellphones area tool readily available to our students. Thank you for the informative presentation and helping us see why it is so important for us to teach our students how to use their cell phones responsibly and educationally on the classroom.

  27. Shawn Foster

    Have you considered posting a transcript or captioning this video? I’d like to show this to some of my college students, but need it available for my Deaf students as well…

  28. patti fink

    I have been interested for some time in creating LP’s for using cellphones. Today I had time to start the research on what is already developed. Thank you! I expect to return to the states for next school term and will be incorporating your work into mine and setting up LP’s accordingly. This is great!! P

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  33. Janice Johnson-Palmer

    Liz…This was thought provoking. I have heard a number of people talk about the use of cell phones in the classroom, but your presentation was the clearest and I really appreciated your examples. Teachers would really need to think about how and why they want to use this device and not just do it as a gimmick.
    By the way, there are three resources you talked about that no longer are available: PrivatePhone, Eyespot and the PBS Kid project.

  34. Adelina Moura

    Hi Liz, thanks for this great presentation. I’m developing my PhD in mobile learning area with secondary school students. All of my students have their own cell phone and they are very motivated to use them as a learning tool. I teach Portuguese Literature and they recorded audio texts about curriculum contents. Last week they created some interesting micro stories in only 200 characters. I’m very glad to enter in this discussion and share some of my experiences.

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  36. Jada bo

    Yes, there are benefits of teaching technology in the classroom. However, do you not think that we are going a bit too far with this? Being a teacher myself, I feel as if technology has hindered student learning. That’s what the internet is for. Too many students are using MSN, myspace, facebook as a means of communication. They do not know how to just socialize anymore, and by bringing in yet another technology into the classroom, we are moving children away from doing hands on activities and telling them that it is okay to use cell phones in the classroom. Have you seen how students do their projects now? They have no use for books, internet, internet, internet. We are not teaching them proper research tools. Though the cell phone idea is interesting, from what I’ve seen, we need to teach children to be less reliant on technology and more reliant on their brains and learning how to actually research and do things without the assistance of technology.

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  38. Wesley Fryer

    Jada bo:

    Cell phones and social networking websites are not going away. By ignoring them in our classrooms and ignoring the ways these tools can be used to constructively support learning, we are risking irrelevance to 21st century learners who tend to be very “wired” and connected, as you recognize in your post.

    Why should we teach children “to be less reliant on technology?” Shouldn’t we teach them and help them learn how to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, using whatever tools are available to them– including technology? In this presentation and the others for K12Online, you won’t hear any of the presenters advocate ways that learners can use technology so they “don’t have to think” or “don’t have to use their brains.” Quite the contrary. By using technology tools and Internet websites, learners of all ages can and should be challenged to regularly use higher order thinking skills to synthesize, apply, and evaluate information and ideas.

    When students are engaged in a technology learning project, there are many opportunities for them to be engaged “hands on.” You lament that students “do not know how to just socialize anymore.” A well organized and facilitated classroom project using technology requires students to not only socialize with others in their face-to-face classsroom group, but also other learners in classrooms which are geographically distant.

    Almost any technology tool can be used well or poorly. The key is HOW it is used. Have you listened to all of Liz’ excellent presentation here? She provides a wealth of good ideas as well as actual examples for how students are using cell phones in “minds on” ways that support learning.

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  41. Jim Rowley

    I am excited to hear all of this great discussion. I am a 6th grade teacher who has been trying to get cell phones into my classroom for 2 years. Any ideas where to start? Thanks for any advice. Jim

  42. L. Lee

    After reading through all the comments, I see that this is going to be a hot debate for quite a while. Our school, too, bans the use of cell phones during school hours.

    I can see the point that there are some good curriculum oriented ways to use cell phones. I can also understand wanting to make sure our kids stay connected to each other in ways not involving technology. I’m not totally sure where I fall in the continuum…

    But I think we might be missing an important use of cell phones/iPhones – not as curriculum support, per se, but as organizational tools. Maybe it is too obvious, but I have a lot of students who have difficulty keeping track of deadlines their personal calendar. I’m thinking that if they can be taught to use the calendar and to do lists on their cell phones, that would really be a helpful life skill.

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  44. Patrick Doering

    The idea of using cell phones in the classroom is another wonderful option in this day and age of technology. The biggest hurdle at the start is going to be to get kids to see that their cells are a much greater tool than what they currently use it for. Getting past the notion that kids will just use the phone for social purposes and not educational purpose will take time for some to get use to. One has to believe that kids want to learn new and exciting things and that they’ll put their best foot forward when embarking on a new adventure.

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  48. Cathy Risberg

    I couldn’t agree more with Liz about the motivating and engaging aspects of mobile technology – especially phones. From my classroom experience with mobile technology, I feel phones can most definitely help to differentiate the curriculum to meet the learning needs of a very diverse student population. I had the chance to write a Palm Education Pioneer (PEP) grant proposal in 2001 – with the help of Arlene Borthwick from National-Louis University and a classroom parent, Dinaz Tambe, for handhelds (Palm IIIc’s) to help differentiate the math curriculum in the two 3rd grade classrooms at Quest Academy in Palatine, IL. Our joint action research demonstrated just what Liz has indicated – student engagement and motivation to learn increased and the unique needs of our gifted and 2e/twice-exceptional students(gifted with learning differences)were better met with a choice of educational technology tools. So I couldn’t agree more with Liz. As our U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has recently indicated, the time has arrived when our schools need to open the classroom doors and embrace the best of what mobile learning has to offer every student.

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  52. kevin Khumalo

    hmm, students will allways to wiling to pay extra as long as they are using thier phones or other gargets other than using school computers. students are like thier gargets too much

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  59. Timothy Gangwer

    When high school students were asked what they thought of the idea of using their cell phones as an educational tool, one student put it best: “We can use our cell phones under, or above our desks. As out=r teachers, which do you prefer?”

    60% of high school students admit to using cell phones during class.

    98% of high school students own cell phones and 68% of those are able to access the Internet.

    In a recent study, teachers were asked, “How many of you dismiss cell phones as not having a positive impact on learning?” The answer…only 13%.

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