When I was in high school (1986-1991) cellphones were not in every student’s pockets and were quite expensive to own (and far too large to carry).

In 1983 the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and become the world’s first commercial handheld cellular phone. When it was made available for purchase just a few months later on March 6 1983 it ignited a demand for personal wireless communication. (http://www.retrobrick.com/moto8000.html)

Oh yes, the price was some $3,995 in 1983 dollars.

The phones were just gigantic and they were only phones. These were devices that enabled people to stay connected while on the move and away from their home and desk – it was revolutionary. But it was just a phone. From that point on, the cellphone continued to evolve, both in size and in functionality.

In 1992 the first Smartphone was introduced to the world as a Concept product at the COMDEX computer industry trade show in Las Vegas., NV. The mobile phone was called “Simon” and its feature set included a touch screen, stylus, calendar, World Clock, address book, calculator, eMail, Fax, games and a note pad. Smartphones have come a long way in just 17 years.

 The school environment has changed in so many different ways since the days I walked the halls of my high school. Almost every student today has a cellphone, a smartphone, a tablet, or an iPod (or all of the above) on their person. They use them constantly, they live and breathe with them daily. They are attached to them. It is their portal to their friends and their family. It is their social connection. But whereas the cellphone was just a phone in 1983, it is everything else as we approach 2012. From 2004 to 2010, the percentage of teens with cellphones consistently increased (Lenhart 2009) 3.

  • 2004 – 45%
  • 2006 – 63%
  • 2008 – 71%
  • 2010 – 75%
For these teens, cellphones and smartphones have become indispensable tools in their daily communication and social experience. (Lenhart 2010) 4
Fully 72% of all teens — or 88% of teen cell phone users — are text-messagers. That is a sharp rise from the 51% of teens who were texters in 2006. More than half of teens (54%) are daily texters. Among all teens, their frequency of use of texting has now overtaken the frequency of every other common form of interaction with their friends (Lenart 2010) 4.
One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, or 3000 texts a month. (Lenhart 2010) 4
Beyond the ability to send small text messages via cell and smartphone devices, the addition of cameras allows photos to be taken and shared  through a variety of different networks: SMS (short meassge service = texting), email, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Flickr, etc. Short audio messages can be sent rather than having long phone conversations as well. All of these features rest upon the fact that smartphones today offer ready access to the Internet. In fact, Internet access can be consumed free of charge when in a public WIFI hotspot (depending on your district many schools are WIFI enabled – in HWDSB (my school board) all secondary schools are wireless currently and all schools, elementary included, will be upgraded within the year). This then provides a tremendous opportunity for equity of access for those that may otherwise not be able to afford it.
Cell phones help bridge the digital divide by providing Internet access to less privileged teens. Still, for some teens, using the Internet from their mobile phone is “too expensive.” (Lenhart 2010)5

The chart below provides a high-level snapshot of the percentage of teens who use their handset to go online, email, access social network sites, instant message, take/exchange pictures, take/exchange video, play music/games, and make purchases.

So, why aren’t we harnessing the power of the devices to enhance our teaching and learning environments?

Here are some teachers taking a deficit approach to cellphones – where is the real “Problem of Practice” here? Is it the really the cellphones or is it the teachers and the barriers that restrict self reflection and the growth of professional practice? UPDATE (Nov. 8th, 2013) Unfortunately, the video that I originally provided here is now private and no longer able to be viewed.

In it’s place, I offer this great video, albeit a couple of years old, that really highlights the deficit approach to using cellphones / smart devices in the classroom while,  at the same time, highlighting how some classrooms, schools, and districts are embracing the devices as tools for learning.

What do the phones think?

A quick search of the Internet will quickly show how many schools and districts  ban and restrict cell and smartphone use for students “during instructional time”.

In the above scenarios, students are restricted from using their phones in the classroom. In fact, they are encouraged to leave them at home all together. The same studies outlined above show that students prefer phone communication with their parents over texting (although this too is changing). The cell and smartphone is a powerful tool to stay connected and parents want to be connected with their children. Disallowing these devices in the classroom not only restricts amazing learning opportunities but it creates a disconnect between children and their parents. This particular reality has resulted in many unhappy parent phone calls to schools out of confusion in this regard. As a parent, I also believe that I would take exception to a teacher taking my child’s phone away from them if they were using it for learning. If they are using it inappropriately then by all means confiscate it as a teaching moment. But how is one to know if the device is truly being used inappropriately or as a tool of learning?

Another example,

In this policy, electronic devices are once again stated as “…not to be used in the classroom setting by students or staff”. The line that follows, however, is perhaps the most confusing and will provide the segue to my next point. MP3 players may “…be used to accommodate learning styles of students). Here is where the problem becomes clear. Most of these policies look at phones, MP3 players, and Internet accessibility as separate devices. Whereas there are still devices that are “one trick pony” devices, the leading trend in today’s technology is towards all-in-one devices that are phones, music players, web portals, games, magazines, books, movie players, comic books, office suites, and more. If we are truly accommodating learning styles and multiple intelligences then we can no longer tell students to put these all powerful tools away. We must embrace them, understand them, and utilize them. Since the phone is really only a small portion of the device, and people use the other functionalities more often anyway, then do tell them to “put the phone away” – when I say that I mean, put the “phone functionality” away. Put the phone in “airplane mode” which effectively disables the telephone component of the device. Access to the Internet and multimedia functionalities are all retained. If the real problem is that teachers don’t want children taking phone calls in class then this is the answer. Otherwise, there really is no excuse not to capture the multi-modal abilities that can be afforded by such a device.

Smartphones have given birth to larger counterparts over the past few years as well. The tablet (essentially a large smartphone) continues to dominate the market. Thus far, in the fiscal 4th quarter of 2011, 11.12 million iPads have been sold – a 166% increase from the year-ago quarter; and iPads are now being distributed in 90 countries. This year’s total iPad sales are around 25 million (Jordan) 2. While the iPad does dominate with around 3/4 of the tablet market, Android tablets are carving out their share of the market as well.

Android tablets are slowly carving out a space, to the tune of 4.5 million shipments in the last three months. That’s 26.9% of the worldwide market, edging up towards the iPad’s 66.6%. The growth is considerable, since not long ago the iPad made up a huge 80% chunk of sales. (Crider) 1

So, Smartphones and tablets are becoming more and more prevalent and ubiquitous. Not only are the students bringing them to class, but they are proficient with them. They communicate with them, they socialize with them, and they learn with them. Electronic technology has changed the way teenagers consume and the way they produce. Sheer memorization is no longer required as “the answer” is at the tip of everyone’s finger tips. Once only a trait of the highly educated, “knowledge” has moved from elite to ubiquitous. Memorization is now no longer necessary. Taking this into consideration, real learning and real inquiry can now occur without the barrier of having to know or remember everything. When this factor of learning is supported by another tool, then the search for true understanding through discovery and inquiry can take place. By using their devices for the tools they are, students can spend their time truly learning and not dealing with mundane rote routines.

The Growing Success Document issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education specifically states as one of the seven fundamental principles of assessment, evaluation, and reporting is that in order “…[t]o ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students, teachers use practices and procedures that: are carefully planned to relate to the curriculum expectations and learning goals and, as much as possible, to the interests, learning styles and preferences, needs, and experiences of all students“. Everybody learns in different ways. “For instance, visual learners need to see visual representations of concepts. Auditory learners learn best through verbal instructions and discussions,by talking things through, and by listening to what others have to say. Tactile (kinaesthetic) learners learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around them.” Technology, in all of its forms, provides the opportunities to meet the needs of students, their individualities, and their unique learning styles by the sheer fact that they provide multimedia and multimodal experiences for learners. Touch screens allow tactile learners to use their hands while exploring a website, interactive game, or production application; audio learners are met by the fact that books can be read to them while they follow along with the written text; visual learners are met by the  dynamic content that can be consumed via the screen of the device, the videos that can be played on them, and the sheer quantity of diverse multimedia elements that can be explored. Technology (including smartphones and tablets as part of this discussion) can be harnessed to explore all of those nuances of learning and provide the rich tool to differentiate learning for our students. By knowing our learners and their learning needs, technological tools offer an optimal medium for differentiated instruction. The user experience mentioned above provides multiple learning paths and entry points for students so that they can explore topics and challenges of inquiry at their just right time, level of readiness, and ability. Everybody learns in different ways and whole class instruction is not always necessary or appropriate. The sheer number of online (web 2.0) tools available today on the read-write web provides so many opportunities for differentiating learning. This type of instruction also allows students to take greater responsibility and ownership for their own learning, and provides opportunities for peer teaching and cooperative learning. Peer and self reflection through diverse online tools through the phones and tablets provides authentic opportunities for assessment in all the tripartite forms as outlined in Growing Success (for, as, and of).

Techological tools such as these also create the optimal conditions for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as defined by the Education for All document (Learning for All) published by the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Every student is unique, and will therefore benefit from a flexible curriculum that provides him or her with the appropriate pathways for reaching learning goals, as well as fair and accurate assessment. A classroom based on the concept of UDL is specifically planned and developed to meet the special needs of a variety of students, including students who are disabled and those who come from a non-dominant culture. It is flexible, supportive, and adjustable, and increases full access to the curriculum for all students. (Education for All, pg. 10)

Embracing and allowing the use of smartphones and tablets in the learning environments for our students provides so many amazing opportunities for rich and authentic assessment tasks (for, as, and of learning), as well as increased opportunities to differentiate learning, meet the individual learning needs and styles of students, and create an inclusive learning environment where every child has the access to opportunity to meet their full potential unobstructed by the barriers of traditionalist teaching or closed mindsets.

It is time to take the phones out! It is time to let the kids take control of their own learning and for us to walk beside them amazed by what they will accomplish. Let’s not hold them back any longer. We need to support and prepare them for the increasingly complex world that awaits them beyond our walls. Let’s plug into the youth culture of today and embrace their world so that we can teach them and co-learn alongside them as their teacher, their mentor, their guide, and their student.


1 Crider, Michael. “Android scores 27% of worldwide tablet sales in Q3 2011.” Android Community. Android Community, 21 10 2011. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://androidcommunity.com/android-scores-27-of-worldwide-tablet-sales-in-q3-2011-20111021/>.

2 Jordan, Patrick. “iPad Sales Numbers for Q4 2011 Announced by Apple.” iPad Insight. iPad Insight, 18 10 2011. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://ipadinsight.com/ipad-news/ipad-sales-numbers-for-q4-2011-announced-by-apple>.

3 Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens and Mobile Phones Over the Past Five Years: Pew Internet Looks Back.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew Research Center, 19 08 2009. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/14–Teens-and-Mobile-Phones-Data-Memo.aspx>

4 Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens, Cellphones and Texting.” Pew Research Center Publications. Pew Research Center, 20 04 2010. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1572/teens-cell-phones-text-messages>.

5 Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens and Mobile Phones.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew Research Center, 20 04 2010. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Teens-and-Mobile-Phones/Chapter-2/Part-4.aspx?r=1>.