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Opinion: How to Optimize Smartphones as Learning Tools

Students are going to use their cellphones one way or another, and trying to ban them precludes their potential usefulness as PRTs — portable research tools — that can enrich lessons and engage students in novel ways.

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In my classes, when a student’s computer is not available, I find the smartphone to be a powerful portable research tool (PRT) — a useful tool for classroom learning. [Note: I’m not happy with the noneducational use of phones while students are at school, but that is a separate topic.] At times student computers are out of power or broken or can’t quite connect to the Internet, but most students have a charged and working phone with them. Students are going to be using their PRT, so let’s teach them to use it correctly as a research tool.

I know I’m not the only one who has students use PRTs in the classroom. But sometimes educators are surprised when I explain what I do, so I thought it would be helpful to share.

There has been much written on the topic of phones in schools, such as the March 23 Harvard Gazette article “Do phones belong in school?” or “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom” by Dan Rockmore in The New Yorker in June 2014. One issue is whether or not students are too easily distracted to be engaged in the classroom. Of course, that’s another argument to move away from lecture-style classes to flipped classrooms, mastery-based learning models, etc.

In June, author and lecturer Michael Horn weighed in on the question of banning smartphones and concluded they could be used for good more broadly:

“You can imagine that each student is on their own curriculum. It might be Khan Academy, it might be Duolingo, it might be Quizlet to get reinforcement,” he said. “And they’re going at their own personalized path and pace through the learning, actively working on problems, and then joining in on projects to do deeper learning with other students. And so the cellphones become part of the way to actually learn as opposed to a distraction.”

One major topic is using PRTs as note-taking devices. In 2006, according to the Associated Press, a law professor wanted to prohibit computer use in her classes and have students engaged and thinking instead of taking notes. (Today, any live transcription program or Google Voice Typing handles taking notes.) The research I’ve seen says that handwritten notes result in better and more learning, as mentioned in Dan Rockmore’s article in The New Yorker. The real concern about screens is not taking notes and not being engaged, but students are found doing other things — shopping, emailing friends, watching videos or playing games.

Using the PRT has transformed my ability to teach, and more importantly, for my students to learn. Before the Internet and PRTs, when we had a question or topic of interest to follow up on, I’d send a student to the library or my office to find a reference book, a magazine or to get a stack of newspapers. Often we had to abandon the topic because of the inability to rapidly gather the information we needed or because the available data was outdated and unreliable. Teachable moments died on the vine.

The Harvard Gazette article noted above quotes Victor Pereira, a lecturer on education and co-chair of the Teaching and Teaching Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: “Design better learning activities, design learning activities where you consider how all of your students might want to engage and what their interests are," he told the Gazette, adding that allowing phones to be accessible can enrich lessons and get students to use technology for educational purposes.

That’s what I am attempting to do.

Now, my students and I can create many teachable or educational moments, and my students are much more engaged than when they’re just listening to me talk. They are actively involved in topics they are interested in. We pursue their questions by having them find the answers. Mine are not lecture-format classes — a topic for another day — but are full of activities and discussions. Now with PRTs, they are even more exciting places for my students.

Note: I also have a computer and projector set up, so once we’ve found a good resource, we can all be on the same projected page and I can then help students fully understand what we are looking at when needed. I usually have a student at the computer assisting me. While I’ve used various screen-sharing and adjunct programs, which are useful for various activities, I find simple is better — this just works!

I don’t use PRT during the entire class period. We are screens up and screens down throughout the class. For my topics and in my classroom setting, this works well. I find it easy to see phones on desks face down, and computer screens down. This is an established norm and I find it easy to enforce, because students enjoy using PRTs and don’t want to lose that privilege.

PRTs have increased student engagement. Students are actively involved and know they can ask questions that we can explore. It personalizes every class for each student. They love finishing first, being able to quickly study something and explain what they found.

There is a huge added benefit to this approach. Students are not only learning the content and skills being taken up, but they are learning a whole other set of skills — logic, research and presentation. As I have written earlier, these are vital skills for the new workplace, and essential for survival. Regardless of the subject or topic at hand, the ability to sort facts from fiction and rapidly find accurate vital information is important. In this context, I teach it without making a big deal about it, because I think research is often best taught in context instead of as its own subject. It is rewarding when students share their successes in learning and applying this set of skills.

Two quick examples of how this has transformed my classrooms come to mind. I rarely lecture, and my micro-lessons are very short. I teach by conversation, by asking questions, by students sharing and more.

In my business seminar, students learn about market capitalization — company value computed by multiplying the number of outstanding shares by their current market value. Students use their PRTs to choose a company they like and find both the number of outstanding shares and current stock value, then calculate the market cap. The room gets loud! Students get my help or the help of a fellow student to find either number, and when students help others, they are exercising their teaching and collaborating skills while reinforcing their own understanding.

Once in my current-events seminar, we needed to see the exact text of a law. It was a life-changing experience for my students as we went to the government website and found the exact law, earlier amendments to it as a bill, etc. They loved reading the law for themselves rather than someone else’s interpretation, and they actually loved finding it. We did the same in finding the exact text of a Supreme Court decision. It takes work for them to find these, but when they do, they have a life lesson they will never forget.

This is better for two reasons. One, it is better than just providing a copy of, or a link to, the law. Two, no one planned to read the exact law until it came up in our discussion. This couldn’t happen without PRTs. Students want reality in their lessons, and their PRTs provide access to the facts! This is active learning at its best, not to mention other life lessons about detecting bias, inaccuracy, conflicting facts and more.

As most educators know, we are in a world of change. Borders change, policies change and scientific discoveries change our understanding of how the world works. AI is changing everything. By helping students use their PRTs in our classrooms, we are not only educating them about the subject matter at hand in an interesting and involved way, but we are teaching vital skills. It allows us to personalize our teaching and focus on student interest and success. And just as important, it makes being a teacher more fun and satisfying!
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.