Emerging Technology

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Mobile Phones as Learning Tools

John Lustig

Minnesota State University, Mankato


Mobile phones are powerful pocket-sized computers that have the potential to be used to engage and empower students in their learning. Even though schools ban students from using or possessing mobile phones in class, some teachers are integrating them into their lessons because they recognize the devices can enable student learning and also fill a void where needed supplies may be missing. Mobile devices expand the learning opportunities for students to become anywhere and anytime.

Keywords: mobile phones, mobile learning, cell phones, teaching tools


Mobile Phones as Learning Tools

Mobile phones and other mobile, handheld, computing devices are becoming so prevalent in our lives that researchers aren’t asking if they will be allowed in classrooms, but rather when (Prensky, 2005, Shuler, 2009). As technology evolves and school district budgets tighten it seems inevitable that mobile devices will shift from being seen as classroom distractions and be accepted as tools for learning, because mobile phones have become more than communication devices and are now “considered to be the next generation of computers” (Sa & Carrico, 2006, p. 1145).

Houser, Thornton, and Kluge (2002) suggest that mobile devices, including mobile phones, are valuable for schools and students, because they possess unique features such as portability, the ability to connect to the Internet, and are available at a low cost to the consumer, that when combined make them potentially powerful educational tools. These messages may be gaining support, considering the opinion of Bill Gates that cell phones, over laptops, hold the most promise for schools adopting one-to-one computing (Lucking, Christmann, & Wighting, 2010).

Considering school policies that ban mobile phones from classrooms and schools themselves makes it easy to assume that educators are resistant to the idea of using mobile phones as learning tools, but innovative teachers are beginning to use mobile phones for student learning (Ferriter, 2010; Hlodan, 2010).

Some teachers are challenging the idea of banning phones and see mobile phones as tools that will enable learning instead of derailing it (Engel et al., 2010; Ferriter, 2010). In their article, Engel et al. (2010) suggest ten building blocks for learning with cell phones to debunk the myths and breakdown the barriers to integrating mobile phones for learning, beginning with building relationships and embracing research. These innovative teachers emphasize that it is critical to communicate with parents and students, and provide evidence that demonstrates how the use of mobile phones is based on research and standards. Even though there is limited empirical data to support the claims that mobile learning tools will empower and engage students and promote learning, according to Hlodan (2010) it will come as more teachers and schools take the steps to integrate mobile phones.

Judy Pederson, a teacher from Santa Ana, California, allows students to use text messaging on specified assignments in her ninth-grade English class to compose back stories and comment on literary characters. Pederson found her students are more engaged and willing to write using their mobile phones than before she incorporated the tool into her lessons (Using cell phones in the classroom, 2010).

William Ferriter, a 6th grade teacher from North Carolina has students use mobile phones to replace supplies that are needed, but unavailable (2010). According to Ferriter (2010), the tools that mobile phones possess make them great resources as timers, classroom responders, audio and video recording devices, in addition to their ability to be information search tools through services such as Google’s SMS question search service (466453).

In my opinion, mobile devices, including mobile phones, are the next piece of technology that will help change how learning takes place in schools. It seems only natural that mobile phones, iPods, iPads, and other mobile devices will shift away from being thought of as nuisances and will become accepted and desired for students to use in schools. To accomplish this requires educators to be flexible and rethink pedagogy and best practices (Prensky, 2005). I think allowing students to use mobile phones for learning will alleviate some pressure on school budgets, but to do so will require adjusting our mental model of schools. The term mobile phone implies mobility, and to maximize the potential of using a mobile phone for learning, students, teachers, and schools must acknowledge and embrace the idea that learning doesn’t only occur when it is delivered by a teacher between the hours of 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM Monday through Friday. Mobile phones have the potential to help bring teachers and students together outside of the school building when learning is taking place naturally. Mobile phones will help teachers provide timely feedback reinforcing learning when it will make the greatest impact for students, which is not always during the traditional school day or when teachers and students are in the same room.

As a teacher, I see the potential for mobile phones to fill a technology gap that currently exists in most classrooms. In my classroom mobile phones will enable me to easily and effectively push digital information to students by using SMS to send out content information with links to other content and media rich web-based resources. Since many mobile phones have cameras and video cameras, students will use their phones to collect and record authentic information in real-time and use it for their learning. My students will be able to use their phones to write and publish directly to the Internet. Students will also be able to post information directly to me and to web-based tools where I will be able to view, analyze, and formatively and summatively evaluate their learning.

The continuing evolution of this technology and how ubiquitous it is in every other aspect of people’s lives tells me that schools should figure out how to tap these tools for learning. Considering most students already carry mobile phones, most classes are already equipped” (Houser et al., 2002, p. 1149) to assist in delivering anyone, anywhere, and anytime learning (Houser et al., 2002; Patten, Sanchez, & Tangney, 2006). In encouraging anywhere, anytime learning, “mobile devices will allow students to gather, access, and process information outside the classroom” where they can help bridge school and home environments in a real world context (Shuler, 2009, p. 5). The portability of mobile phones and devices allows students and teachers “to use them in the classroom, during field trips, at home, or wherever the learning or students’ activities occur” (Sa & Carrico, 2006) p. 1145).

According to Prensky (2005), the frequently used, time-tested, effective learning strategies of “listening, observing, imitating, questioning, reflecting, trying, estimating, predicting, speculating, and practicing” can also be accomplished via a mobile phone. Considering this, the fact that a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 85% of high school students own one (Using cell phones in the classroom, 2010), and that mobile phones will help students become problem solvers, critical thinkers, creative, communicators, and collaborators, which Shuler (2009) points out are all necessary for 21st-century success, I think mobile phones will become tools for learning in schools sooner than later. The indicators appear that as mobile phones evolve, they will become even more powerful, which when combined with the fact that students already have them and know how to use them, suggests an even a greater reason for schools to embrace them as learning tools for students.


Engel, G., Griffith, R., Newcomb, S., Nielsen, L., Suter, J., & Webb, W. (2010, November 3). 10 proven strategies to break the ban and build opportunities for student learning with cell phones. Retrieved from http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2010/11/ten-building-blocks-to-break-ban-and.html

Ferriter, W. (2010). Cell phones as teaching tools. Educational Leadership, 68(2), 85-86.

Houser, C., Thornton, P., & Kluge, D. (2002). Mobile learning: Cell phones and PDAs for education. 2002 International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE’02), 1149-1150. http://doi.ieeecoputersociety.org/10.1109/CIE.2002.1186176

Hlodan, O. (2010). Mobile learning anytime, anywhere. BioScience, 60, 9. p.682(1).

Lucking, B., Christmann, E., & Wighting, M. (2010). Hang up and learn: Cell phones in the science classroom. Science Scope, 33, 9, p. 82.

Patten, B., Arnedillo Sanchez, I., & Tangney, B. (2006). Designing collaborative, constructionist and contextual applications for handheld devices. Computers & Education, 46(3), 294-308. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.011

Prensky, M. (2005). What can you learn from a cell phone? Almost anything! Innovate 1(5). Retrieved from http://www.innovateonline.info/pdf/vol1_issue5/What_Can_You_Learn_from_a_Cell_Phone__Almost_Anything!.pdf

Sa, M. & Carrico, L., (2006). Handheld devices for cooperative educational activities. In Proceedings of SAC’06, ACM Symposium on on Applied Computing, Mobile Computing and Applications Track, Dijon France, ACM Press, 1145-1149. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1141277.1141549

Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of potential: Using mobile technologies to promote children’s learning. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Retrieved from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publications/index.html

Using cell phones in the classroom. (2010). Curriculum Review, 50(2), 10. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.


John Lustig,
Dec 5, 2010, 6:49 PM