Viewpoints: Cellphones in the classroom

Faculty and staff discuss educational technology daily on Iowa State's ComETS (Community of Educational Technology Support) group email list. Cellphones in classrooms have prompted some interesting discussions on the list over the past year. Following are some selected, edited comments on the topic, posted by ComETs participants

Larysa Nadolny


One focus at a time

My class has about 120 students in it.  What I have found to be effective is to talk about it in one of the first few classes, then provide a reminder about midsemester. I talk about how distracting the phone can be (and the research supports that), and how it is important to put it out of sight and somewhere you won't hear it or feel vibrations. When students work in groups and need to look something up, they are encouraged to use whatever device they have (laptop, cellphone, etc.). My emphasis is for them to focus on one thing at a time -- either me, their group members or technology through a related activity. We also use cellphones occasionally for polling or games. This has worked very well.

Larysa Nadolny
Assistant professor, School of Education

Jack Gallup


It is here, it is useful

A fish scale helps it to swim. Students' devices may help them to respond to their environment as well. In the present, we all must accept that we all co-exist with devices. Abe Lincoln and Rufus Dawes would have loved to have used a cell phone at Gettysburg. Turned out, hot air balloons helped out somewhat.

It's an uphill battle thinking that our future children won't always be device-reliant/capable at this point. Let us learn from how swimmingly they use them. One's ability to use the tools available to them during the time in which they live may be the carrot to chase and nurture here.

Better to put our guiding arm around this fledgling chimera than alienate it outright. It is here, it is useful, and it is very, very fast. The pace of problem-solving has reached a new level.

Jack Gallup
Assistant scientist, veterinary pathology

Tom Brumm


Ring in the treats

Each instructor has the right to decide what his or her policy is, but should discuss it with students.

I ask students to mute their cellphones in class and if a cellphone "goes off" during class, they have to bring "treats" (a bag of marshmallows counts). I'm usually the first one that has to bring treats. I have done this with a class of 120 and have "assisted" students if they have to bring treats. If someone doesn't bring treats, no penalty or harassment ... it's taken in the light-hearted spirit intended.

I find it a bit disingenuous to restrict cellphones if we as faculty use them in ways we don't want students to. How many meetings and seminars have we attended where we've been using our (smart) cellphones to check email, text, look things up or play Bejeweled? I'm guilty (although I don't play Bejeweled).

Smartphones can be valuable. Googling something being discussed in class is useful. OK, Facebook not so much.

Tom Brumm
Mary and Charles Sukup Global Professor in Food Security and associate professor, agricultural and biosystems engineering

Lesya Hassall


Special needs

As a faculty developer and the support person for audience response technology on campus, I see many special-needs students in our classrooms who rely on mobile technology to communicate with and navigate the world of academia. The challenges these students face might be invisible to the untrained eye and mobile technology can help them in organizing their thoughts or performing other academic functions.

I like the suggestion to have a mutual agreement early in the semester regarding acceptable classroom uses of technology. Doing so acknowledges that our students learn differently and have ways to deal with the challenges. We also want to make sure we teach them to use technology responsibly and effectively. In the long run, this feels like a more authentic way of talking to our students than simply banning their smart devices from the classroom.

Lesya Hassall
Program coordinator, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Join the discussion

ComETS is a local ed tech community which regularly shares local and national educational technology news, reviews and articles. Faculty who have ed tech questions, tips, advice and success stories are welcome to contact the site admin Jacob E. Larsen to share with the rest of the community. Faculty, staff and grad students also may join the ComETS discussion list for dialoguing, sharing news and publicizing events.