How to use cell phones in math class

340305918_6413d10fcc_zOften viewed as a distraction in the classroom, cell phones can also be an effective tool for engaging your students in learning, reports a high school teacher who piloted the use of mobile phones in his pre-calculus class.

Teachers who want to bring cell phones into their instruction should first of all select a few roles from the dizzying array of possibilities for mobile participation, write co-authors George Engle, a teacher at Clarkstown High School South in West Nyack, NY, and Tim Green,  professor of educational technology at California State University at Fullerton, CA,  in TechTrends.

In this study, cell phones were used in the classroom in 3 major ways:

  • as an audience response system (polling)
  • as a research tool
  • as a tool for collecting evidence of student work through photographs and video recordings

“These three uses were selected because we felt they would help ease in the use of the devices in a manageable way while at the same time engaging students and allowing them to use the various capabilities of the devices to enhance their learning,”  the researchers write.

Polling was the most common use in the classroom. Students got immediate feedback on polling questions, and the function allowed the teacher to immediately adjust lessons to address weaknesses in  student learning. The teacher could check for understanding at the beginning and at the end of the lesson.

Polling responses were collected at both (the other polling tool used in the study is no longer operating).  The polling site allowed for the collection of anonymous responses from students.

“This anonymity has the potential to level the playing field among students by giving the shy student or reluctant student the opportunity to participate,” write the researchers.  “The students reported enjoying the anonymity, and looked forward to sharing their ideas with the class and reading their classmates’ responses.”


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Here are some of the researchers’ observations about the most common concerns about use of cell phones in the classroom, including inappropriate use of the devices by students,  objections from parents who pay the cell phone bills,  and questions about how to accommodate students who do not have cell phones or don’t have the most up-to-date cell phones.

Lack of access to cell phones.  There was one student in the class of 18 male and female students in the class who did not have a cell phone. The student, Aaron, also had limited Internet access at home.  “Students like Aaron exist in most classrooms and must be taken into consideration when using cell phones or other mobile technologies,” the researchers write. To participate in the polling activities, Aaron used a school-provided IPod with the Text Plus application that allows users to submit SMS texts like any cell phone.  A wireless access point was installed in the classroom to serve this purpose.

In classrooms that do not have a  wireless access point, other options for students who do not have a cell phone include writing the response on a card and handing it to the teacher or using another student’s cell phones.  Obviously, these are far from ideal alternatives.

To meet the requirements for projects and wiki assignments, Aaron was only required to comment on other students’ posts on the wiki, the researchers report. Instead of posting on the wiki, he handwrote or typed his comments and submitted them for review.  The work was collected and included in a portfolio.

“We found this to be a good alternative for him as it kept him involved and showed his growth throughout the year,” the researchers write.

Inappropriate use of devices. At the beginning of the school year,  teacher and students set rules together so the students would share ownership of the rules.  A few simple rules were established:  (a) students should only use SMS texts for class work, (b) texts should be respectful and relevant to the discussion and (c) cell phones should only be visible when needed to complete classroom activities.

Teacher and students also discussed the possibility of inappropriate comments with anonymous polling.  The teacher needs to build trust with the students that they will not engage in inappropriate comments during the class activities.

Parent support and approval. The principal sent a letter to parents seeking permission for their children to use cell phones in the classroom.  Parents were told they would not have to change their cell phone plan in order for their children to participate.  Students would have to use the SMS text, vido and digital camera functions of their cell phones.

An information session was held with the parents the first week of school to discuss the program and to answer their questions.  Although most parents had a favorable opinion of the pilot, 2 parents withdrew students from the class.  One parent had concerns about excessive texting and another believed the technology components of the course made homework more time-consuming.

“The more information parents have about who, when, where, and why the devices will be used the more likely they will be in support of their use,” the researchers write.  “A letter home and an informational session are great ways to get parents engaged and inform them.”

Besides using cell phones for polling purposes, students also used cell phones in class to research new math concepts on the Internet, helping to convert them from passive to active learners.  For example, when students were introduced to the concept of matrices, their first reaction was to mention the popular movie, “Matrix.”  The students had no idea how a matrix might apply to mathematics.  They worked in small collaborative groups to research how matrices applied to mathematics.

The students shared the information they found with the class through texting, allowing for a rich discussion of the new topic.  Students who did not have phones with Internet capabilities were able to use iPod touches with the installation of a wireless access point in the class.

The third role of cell phones in class was to allow students to take pictures or videos of their work and upload them on Flickr ( and a class wiki. Students with cell phones that did not have a good camera function could use digital cameras.

Once images were posted, students were asked to reflect on their work on the wiki.  They were also asked to provide peer review.  Students commented on at least 2 of their classmates’ work, helping the reviewer and the peer to increase their understanding of the material.  Later in the school year, students created videos with their phones or other recording devices.  In their reflections on their work, some students  said talking about their work on the videos helped them better understand the material.

What were the positive effects of cell phone use in the classroom? The researchers say there was an increase in class participation during the pilot program.  Students were able to use their phones either to comment on the lesson, to answer questions, or to participate in research. There was also an increase in the quality of assessments. Students were able to prove their understanding through their wiki projects and on class tests. They also learned to reflect on their work.

According to the researchers, after recording a video for the class on rational functions, one student wrote, ‘By describing all the steps as I went along it helped me to better remember the steps,.”

The program will be expanded to all of the classes of one of the authors.  More instructional activities will be used with the phone and other faculty members will be trained in bringing the technology into their own classrooms, the researchers report.

“Cell Phones in the Classroom: Are we Dialing up Disaster?” by George Engle and Tim Green, TechTrends,  March/ April 2011, Volume 55, Number 2, pps. 39-45.

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