Harnessing Cellphone ‘Addiction’

Educators can use the obsession with smartphones to bridge the learning connections between school and home
BY LIZ KOLB/School Administrator, April 2017

Liz Kolb
Waiting in line at the local coffee shop, I noticed each person was texting or swiping on his or her cellphone. After I ordered my latte, I used an app to pay for it, hardly looking up from my device. Busy ignoring the world around me, I barely noticed when my name was called. 

This is typical of my everyday experience. If I peek into the car next to me, the driver likely is using a phone despite the dangers of distracted driving. High school students walking into school are tripping over curbs because they are preoccupied with their devices.

I often hear parents and colleagues vent that teenagers are addicted to their phones, yet adults, like me, are just as complicit. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of adults claim they could not live without their smartphone, and according to Common Sense Media, 50 percent of teenagers say they are “addicted” to their phones.

Cellphone addiction is ubiquitous in our society. While there are valid health and safety concerns about cellphone overuse, this device is also full of potential for bridging communication gaps between students, teachers, parents about learning. For example, my daughter received an iPod and began texting her grandparents. In less than one week, she sent them more than 50 messages. The messages dealt with what she enjoyed doing, receiving help with homework, sharing favorite books and friendship problems at school. Her grandparents shared that they learned more about their granddaughter in five days than they had in a year! They relished being able to communicate with her easily, and she appreciated having them as a resource to answer questions, share stories and offer advice.

What if the device of distraction could be harnessed into a powerful tool for learning and thoughtful digital citizenship? Educators have begun to turn students’ attachments to their smartphones into a learning obsession by changing the conversations that happen around mobile devices.

Mobile Learning
Parents and teachers can use effective instructional practices — modeling, co-engagement and authentic experiences — to transform student cellphones into powerful learning tools. Here are a few examples of how this can be done.

» Modeling.
Despite the belief that children are digital natives, most students struggle with connecting their everyday tech use to classroom learning. My 4th-grade daughter can build a castle in Minecraft but has no idea how to locate reliable web resources for research. As a parent, I should play a key role in modeling how to use her smartphone to participate effectively in society, yet for years, I modeled inappropriate use. I texted while driving, posted to Twitter during work hours, infringed on digital copyright or randomly searched a concept rather than using a reliable website.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to change my personal actions and the conversation around my phone use and began to model the behavior I would like my children and students to imitate. I did so by being explicit about choices I made with smartphones and verbally sharing why I made those decisions. I might say, “I am not going to use my phone right now because I am driving and that is not safe,” or “I am going to use my phone to look up the meaning of this phrase using a reliable website to find the meaning. It is important to use trustworthy websites because websites are not always factual.”
Liz Kolb, a researcher on technology use in education, has helped her daughter, a 4th grader, incorporate her cellphone into learning activities. 

» Co-engagement.
I got involved in my daughter’s learning by using our cellphones to co-engage in her learning activities. Learning is social, so students need opportunities to collaborate with others and reflect on experiences. Cellphones have built-in social components such as texting, phone calling and collaborative apps.

My daughter’s teacher recently had students write fiction using Google Documents. My daughter shared her Google Docs with me and told me what time she would be working on the assignment in class. This allowed me to use my smartphone to synchronously log into Google Docs as my daughter was working on her story. We used FaceTime on our devices to chat about the paper, and I helped her edit the document.

Beyond the synchronous classroom experience, the Google Docs app enabled us to work together on her story on the go. We added photos from family outings and audio interview links, jotted down quick notes and shared it with other editors. I modeled how to use phones to gather information and use grammar tools to support writing. This has given me a first-hand experience into seeing how she learns.

In addition, I began using texting as an opportunity to ask my child questions that can be more difficult to ask in person. It allowed both of us some time to marinate with our responses rather than having to provide a quick response in person. We have used it to start difficult conversations, after which we are able to sit down and discuss it in person.

Teachers also can create co-engagement by setting up two-way text alerts in tools such as Remind, Cel.ly or Group Me, all examples of free applications that create mass text alerts to groups. Teachers share assignments with students. Students work on tasks inside or outside class, using text feeds to update the teacher. The teacher can differentiate messages for the learners, such as students at different reading levels so they can receive tasks based on their abilities. Teachers can personalize instruction, texting back and forth with probing questions. Students receive real-time feedback and ask questions easily. The teacher also can set up a private feed to work on learning goals in collaboration with parents and students. Parents can see for themselves how teachers differentiate learning for their child.

» Authentic learning.
Learning is more powerful when it can be integrated into students’ everyday experiences. During my 20 years of teaching at the secondary and collegiate levels, I often heard, “Why are we learning this?” Cellphones give teachers and parents an opportunity to offer authentic purpose to classroom learning. For example, students tend to think the quadratic equation is disconnected from their lives. Yet the formula is used in common-life experiences, especially around speed, distance and time. Thus, if parents are taking their children kayaking, they can calculate how long it will take to paddle to and from their location using their smartphones to look up the formula and learn how it works. Further, children can document their journey with their phones by making a video journal, blogging, tweeting the journey or interviewing others on the adventure.

Another authentic example of mobile learning comes from a high school English teacher. His students are paired with successful alumni with whom they communicate via text message. The students ask their mentors about college applications, for advice on social issues and for help with schoolwork.

Other ways I’ve seen cellphones used to create authentic learning opportunities include:

  • Students and parents can become iReporters, using their phones to gather information about events happening around them. They can send their reports into news agencies such as CNN iReport.
  • Teachers or parents can use scavenger hunt apps such as GooseChase to create content-related activities for students to do outside of school, such as a historical tour of their local community.
  • Students and parents can record audio with tools such as FreeConferencePro. This is an easy way to conduct interviews for oral histories in the local community, share reflections on what they see on a family trip, create audio gallery walks of student speeches or interview experts.

Authentic and Aware
Meanwhile, at the coffee shop, I would still have my phone in hand, but I would be using it to do mathematics to figure out my coffee rewards and researching the type of beans used in the coffee. I would be sharing my findings with my daughter, helping both of us communicate and learn through our devices in an authentic setting, being very much aware of the world around us. 

Liz Kolb, author of Help Your Child Learn with Cell Phones and Web 2.0 is clinical assistant professor in education technologies and teacher education at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. E-mail: elikeren@umich.edu. Twitter: @lkolb

Additional Resources

School system leaders may find the Common Sense Education website a useful source of information.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit organization maintains a well-stocked website that includes reviews and ratings of educational technology products as well as resources on digital citizenship, teaching strategies and a privacy initiative. The site also holds dozens of webinars on practical matters in K-12 education. 

Common Sense Education says its mission is to provide high-quality digital literacy and citizenship programs to educators and school communities. “Together, we work to empower students to harness technology for learning and life,” the organization says.