The MySchoolWorx Community Blog

When smartphones + Kids = good news

There seems to be no shortage of news about unfortunate events involving youth and cell phones. From bullying texts to online predatory scares to an increase in nearsightedness, cell phones – and smartphones in particular – are influencing our kid’s daily lives in ways we might not have hoped.

The reality is that cell phones are here to stay, and the pressure for kids to have them is increasing. The number of children with cell phones has doubled in the last decade. 85% of teens aged 14 to 17 have them. According to a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, so do 69% of 11-14 year olds and 31% of kids aged 8-10.

With busy parents and active kids, a cell phone for communication can be a huge convenience.  Truth is, most parents buy their teens cellphones for security reasons.  In addition to security of knowing their child is just  a call or text away, other safety features like GPS tracking give parents a sense of added security.

Today’s computers fit in your pocket.

Yours may be among the schools that still ban or limit cell phones to emergency use only in the classroom. Policies notwithstanding, the fact is, kids are bringing phones to school either for parent communication and security reasons, or simply because their size makes them difficult to detect.

With so many schools strapped for technology funding, some are wondering if we are overlooking opportunities to leverage the Internet for learning by way of devices already in kids pockets. Some educators think so.

Laptops and desktop computers have been the primary digital tools used by teachers and students, but it can be costly to outfit classrooms with technology hardware.  Affordability is part of the reason why tablets are becoming popular in the classroom.

In essence, smartphones and tablets are mini-computers, and more schools are beginning to look for ways to use them as academic aids.

Teachers are looking for constructive ways to incorporate cell phones in the classroom.

Schools across the country that are adjusting policies for smartphone use are finding that smartphones, like tablets, can actually serve as good learning tools for higher grade levels.  A rapidly growing volume of Apps (applications that link to device sized websites, or full web sites) geared specifically toward the education market have evolved to support the use of tablets in the classroom, and most are available from a smartphone.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Study, 73% of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers said their students use phones in the classroom or to complete assignments.

Ken Halla, a high school World History and AP Government teacher who leverages smartphones in the classroom seeks out Apps specific to the subject matter. He has since started several blogs for teachers who are seeking to incorporate online educational content for his students by way of smartphone Apps. Chief among his tips to fellow teachers using smartphones is to always keep it academic.

One online tool he uses frequently in the classroom helps him gauge his students’ comprehension of material, often times prior to testing by way of a polling App.  He sets up the questions, students click on the link and respond with answers, and then he is able to focus on specific areas students may not be grasping, or may need further help on.

Two of the most popular smartphone Apps began life as full Web versions, and are now available in Apple and Android formats – Google Earth (Apple and Android ) and  iAmerica, a US History App that focuses on American Presidents.  

Beyond smartphone Apps, practical uses for phones are almost limitless, and help engage students through a learning medium that is second-nature to them. Think documenting science labs, capturing teacher’s notes, collaborating on group projects. Not all uses need to be cutting edge; one foreign languages teacher I read about uses cellphones to call classmates and speak with them in French, Spanish, etc.

Most teachers are finding that incorporating smartphones in small ways is best; they keep students engaged in the classroom while thinking about the subject matter in new ways.

How can teachers ensure that phones in the classroom are applied strictly for academic use?

Most schools already have written policies regarding cell phones at school.  Some teachers who are using smartphones for limited academic purposes in the classroom begin with a classroom contract that each student (and in some cases, their parent) must sign.

Contracts like these cover the extent to which phones are used in the classroom, however are largely no tolerance contracts for issues that involve cheating via text, cell phone theft, inappropriate picture taking, and unapproved Internet access. These are big concerns for parents and educators alike, and what prompt some schools to have a no phone policy.  When using them in limited, positive ways, students and parents need to understand the limits and the outcomes of abuse.

In addition to limiting smartphone use as academic aids, in-classroom uses should be grade-level appropriate. Many of those schools testing academic use of smartphones are doing so at the late middle school or high school level.

Which is perspective for parents who are determining whether their son or daughter is ready for a cell phone at all.

When are kids old enough for a cell phone? There is plenty of good opinion on this, but the consensus seems to be sometime in middle school, provided there are rules and guidelines for use attached. Some parents wisely start their kids with an inexpensive “dumb phone” – one that allows basic communications and has the safety features you want – before earning an upgrade to a smartphone. Regardless of type, experts agree that parents who start with a written “contract” that outlines rules of use set expectations that are better lived up to. There are many such “contracts” available online, but one I especially liked incorporates smartphone features and was written by a couple of parents, then posted on the mother’s blog.  If a child starts with a dumb phone and graduates to the smartphone, then violates rules of the contract, parents downgrade them to the “dumb” phone.  

One parent I know who had their tween sign a written “contract” prior to receiving the privilege of a phone, carried that over to other privileges. When his daughter became old enough to drive, he created another contract that applied to driving the family vehicle.

There are other considerations. Susan Davis looks at it from a medical perspective in “Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?” One area of concern is the importance of keeping cell phones away from kids of all ages at bedtime.  Rest is important to being alert in the classroom.

Content access and usage limits are things most parents are concerned about.  Many hand held devices offer some sort of parental controls and parents should consider them. If you are unsure on how to set them up, take the time to consult your plan provider, or look for options like Kajeet, which offers a line of smartphones specific to kids that allow parents to set time limits, filter websites, block numbers and prevent texting while driving.

It’s up to parents and educators to teach kids these good habits, and often that begins with modeling our own good habits.  At home, that can mean powering down all cell phones during family meals and conversations, and when mobile, never, ever text and drive.  In the classroom, teachers also have the responsibility to demonstrate appropriate cell phone use.

Used wisely, smartphones can provide both safety and educational opportunities for students.


Do you use smartphones for academic purposes in any way in the classroom? Do you have a favorite Smartphone App?   If so, we’d like to hear from you in the comments below.