Classroom Tech: Using cell phones to create a positive digital footprint

The PhoneDog
Mascot from  Charleston, SC
| Published: September 2, 2010

ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITER: Michael Pennington is a 7th grade world history teacher and building technology coordinator in Northeast Ohio.  Michael runs a blog with a colleague and friend, Garth Holman.  At, Michael and Garth reflect on how they engage students in curriculum through the integration of technology.

I work in a middle school full of kids in sixth through eighth grades.  Just a few years ago cell phones were seen as the newest teenage addiction, a drug that had to be repressed and condemned by schools.  It’s not really all that bad, though.  

I am willing to wager my Android smartphone that parents are paying for students’ cell phones.  It stands to reason then, that parents are okay with their kids using these devices.  So parents are okay with cell phone use, the students are okay with cell phone use, yet schools have adopted zero tolerance policies.  

The question of how to provide students with technology plagues the majority of school districts.  Rising costs and disappearing school funding makes it difficult to provide necessities like chairs and chalkboards, let alone laptops and smartboards.  Challenging obstacles require creative thinking by schools; the same creative thinking that we want from our students.  Schools need to realize that many students already have all the technology they need, right in their pockets and lockers.  Most statistics agree that upwards of 80% of teenagers have cell phones.  These kids are not just making calls, they are texting, checking email, updating FaceBook accounts and Tweeting.  They are making social connections, sharing information, collaborating, planning and researching.  Schools are becoming more flexible with cell phone usage policies, but it is a slow process.

Our school policy is that cell phones must be kept in lockers and turned off during school hours.  Yet, kids text during lunch, in bathrooms and even during class. The invention of “skinny jeans” makes it even easier to see students carrying their cell phones through the halls. As a teacher I have a choice: become cell phone Gestapo, scanning pockets and Uggs for phones, ignore the problem entirely, or turn the problem into an opportunity.  

This year I am inviting students to use their cell phones to leave a positive digital footprint in their wake.  I want students to embrace technology and learn skills that will help them throughout their lives.  I want students to communicate with me and with other students.  I want students thinking about history (which I teach) when they are at home watching television, eating dinner or walking around the city. 

Kids need to develop an empathetic view of the world.  They need to think critically about why things happen, what influences their choices and how they can positively impact on the future.  This year my students will blog, Skype with their peers at another middle school almost forty miles away, create Delicious accounts and learn to tag.  This year’s students will work on a digital textbook that my students last year collaborated on with another school.  

My goal this year is to use the technology that students already possess.  I want my students to use their cell phones to learn, collaborate and create knowledge.  I will be teaching in tandem with Garth Holman, a colleague and friend in a school district some forty miles down the road from us.  Everything I mentioned that I’ll be doing, he’ll also be doing - it will be happening in two schools, between two heterogeneous groups of students.

Using cell phones in an educationally appropriate way is difficult.  My district is not going change its cell phone policies based on my beliefs alone.  This year’s cell phone use will hopefully give me concrete examples of positive cell phone use that I might use to help enact policy changes in the future.  For now I will ask my students to use their phones for class participation – homework – beyond the forty minutes I have with them each school day.  Students using websites like Wiffitti and Flickr will engage in learning and have active roles in shaping their experience in my class.

For those of you unfamiliar with Wiffitti, you may have used it without even knowing.  Wiffitti allows you to create a “wall” where people can post messages.  Each wall is assigned an SMS number and short code used to post texts; stadiums and television shows have used this technoology for years.  Garth and I have a shared page set up where we can post a question and have all 230 of our students respond and engage with each other in a digital environment.  Then we can project our virtual wall on our real classroom walls for discussions, or even discussions between our two classrooms via Skype.

We are also going to post Twitter feeds on our blog and give our students the opportunity to “follow” experts via their cell phones and computers.  This will enable students to see, hear and learn from real historians, archaeologists and scientists who post information and questions in real-time.  What’s nice about Twitter is that students without mobile data plans can still use their home computers to engage in the world around them.

One last idea to consider concerning the use of cell phones in education:  We want students to understand that history and geography are all around them, at all times.  Students are going to have the ability to text pictures to our class Flickr account, assemble the more significant photos into a Google Earth layer, and use Mosaickr to turn our collected images into giant mosaic prints.

It’s been said a hundred times: Today’s students learn differently than those of just 10 years ago.  Technology is not a choice, it’s a reality that has changed the world in which we all live. School needs to be organic, not linear: It is not about testing and standard, but about nurturing creative question-askers, collaborators, and thinkers.  We need students who can use cell phones, Twitter accounts, and the rest of today and tomorrow’s tech to collaborate with field experts, classroom teachers and one other.

I challenge you to open your classroom to the world this year.  Adapt, create, and take a risk or two.