Last week, a 
study by the
Internet and American Life Project
found that cell phones have
become “near ubiquitous”: 83 percent of American adults own one. Over
half of all adult mobile phone owners had used their phones at least
once to get information they needed right away. And more than a
quarter said that they had experienced a situation in the previous
month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not
have their phones at hand.

The findings of this Pew research — the reliance of adults on
their cell phones — stands in sharp contrast to the policies of many
schools, where cell phones remained banned or restricted. Students
likely have these same needs as adults: to get online and find
information they need right away. But often students are banned from
using their cell phones in schools, something that students
themselves list as one
of the greatest obstacles
they face in using technology in the

For many schools, these are formal rules, written in school policy
or in student handbooks. But as phones become more like extended
appendages in everyone’s lives, schools are rethinking their
policies. MindShift
teachers how or whether these rules were changing and
received some interesting feedback.


Educator Nilda Vargas reported that
students can use cell phones to access their online books, while
teacher Shekema Silveri replied that although she requires cell phone
usage in her class, the school policy against it hasn’t changed.
“Most teachers are still afraid of cell phones in the classroom
because they know little about how to use them as a tool for
learning,” she wrote on MindShift’s
Facebook page

High school teacher Kim Ibarra said that her school has gone from
a “no cell phones in school at all — not even in the hallways or
at lunch” policy about four to five years ago, to “cell phone
usage in the classroom if the teacher has asked for
permission ahead of time with an explanation of what will be done and
why it is necessary” about two years ago, to “cell phones can be
used in the classroom if the teacher has students using them for
educational purposes” last year, and back to the more prohibitive
“students may use cell phones in the school only at lunch in a
specified area” — the policy for this upcoming year.


Many teachers noted that written policies don’t always mirror
informal ones, and that there’s a groundswell of those who
recognize that cell phones need not be seen solely as distractions or
as ways for students to cheat. More educators are realizing that cell
phones can enhance learning.

High school teacher Jamie Williams describes his school’s policy
regarding cell phones:

My high school’s policy is cell phones should be off
and out of sight. If seen, they are taken and the student is written
up. Our handbook says students may use phones with teacher
permission. I’m a huge tech nerd and make my students use their
phones throughout my class. My biggest gripe is that most students
have these great smartphones and barely use the device to a 10th of
their potential.

Williams teaches art and technology classes. For his art class, he
asks students to use photos they’ve taken on their cell phones as
the basis for paintings they’ll create. During tests, Williams
allows his students to use both their handwritten notes and those
they’ve saved on their phones. In his video class, most students
have phones capable of shooting in high definition, and use them for
projects. This year, he’s hoping to make a large-scale mosaic of
student life created solely from cell phone images.

Williams notes that it’s difficult for students to have to go
from one class where they’re expected to make full use of their
phones to another in which the phone has to be off and hidden. He
also points to the irony that in a lot of these latter classes,
students are “asked to do research on a desktop computer that
absolutely has less processing power than the computer in their

And that’s probably one of the most important observations: Many
students already carry a powerful computing device in their pockets,
while oftentimes much of the technology hardware at schools is
woefully out-of-date. By allowing cell phones, schools may find they
have equipped students with better devices — that can work
as calculators, cameras, videocameras, books and notebooks, for
example — at no or low cost to the school.


Cell phones are, of course, just one piece of a BYOD (Bring Your
Own Device) program, and this wiki
created by Manitoba educator Darren Kuropatwa gives some tips on how
to prepare for, and take advantage of, cell phones and other devices
brought into the classroom from home.

But the biggest obstacle remains the attitudes of those educators
and administrators who still frown on the devices and fear their
usage, who confiscate them from students, and who see them as a
distraction rather than a powerful tool for learning. It’s clear
that schools must come up with an acceptable use policy for
cell phones in the classroom. But as more adults indicate that they’re
“lost” without their cell phones, it hardly seems acceptable that
we ban students’ access to the devices.

Phone photo by Kyle N. on Flickr.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O’Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

i-e8972c04bb50d1e1ff98a13097161b6f-mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQEDs MindShift,
which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech
trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.