Are we all ready to use cellphones for learning?

The discussion on whether to ban or embrace cellphones has been going on for a while.  The ISTE article “Taming the Chaos” by Doug Johnson describes the scenario. The idea of using cellphones productively in the classroom resonates with my view of educating students to take advantage of current technologies for their lifelong learning as an added benefit apart from recreational uses. So I have been waiting for opportunities to use cellphones to support learning in the classroom. Such an opportunity emerged while planning for record keeping of student workout during a PE Fitness class.

The goal of the PE class in the weight room is to teach students about maintaining a health-enhancing level of physical fitness. In order to do that, students are required to record their workout in terms of sets, repetitions, weight, heart beat, etc, and also write reflection journals. Recording your performance in order to reflect on it and check improvements along time is an interesting idea. But thinking about all my trips to a gym, the idea of keeping a record of  workout does not seem so natural. So it occurred to me that (almost) everyone takes a cellphone to the gym and that would be a way to make record keeping a more natural effort.

There were several challenges along the way, including a request for wireless access at the weight room. Another challenge was to figure out which application to use. A choice was made in favor of Google Spreadsheets as it allowed calculation of target heart rates based on age and generation of graphs. I made tests on my iPhone and it looked great apart from the funny data entry, which is different from the view on a regular computer (you need to click on an edit key to add values to cells). Even though most students have Blackberries, there wasn’t much time for extra testing on somebody elses’ phone, so I trusted that having different options for recording performance would cover “testing on the go”( smartphones, desktop in class, own laptops or paper chart).

It was interesting to observe student in the weight room as they had to record performance. At the beginning  just a few students brought their smartphones and they were not properly setup: one was very slow, another was not connecting to the wireless, and the Blackberry (as it turned out) did not allow editing a Google Spreadsheet. As classes progressed, more students started to bring their smartphones as the teacher kept insisting on it. As I visited the weight room, I started to help the students get their cellphones connected to the school wireless. That seemed to indicate that students in fact use smartphones for messaging and not for Internet access.

As more students brought their smartphones I started to encourage video recording of their workout to be posted on their journals. It was another surprise for me to see that most students did not know how to send videos or pictures to themselves by email. Another indication that teens do not use smartphones for that purpose in their daily life (while for me this is a regular habit to help get the opinion of my family when I am buying something).

At the end of the semester we had students using smartphones, personal laptops and the class deskptop for workout recording. The paper option was used by just a few, as the paper tended to get lost an required updating the online document later.  The teacher reported that students became much more engaged in the Fitness class due to all the recording and reflection using technology. That alone was a great encouragement.

The whole experience seems to show how students are not immediately ready to use of smartphones in the classroom for applications other than instant messaging. For me that was a surprise as the tendency is to think of students as tech savvy with these little gadgets. But students learned quickly.  The trick is then to prepare students for the activity assessing their readiness before starting. On our end, the trick is testing as much as possible as smartphone views can be a suprise in different models.  So I think we still have to cover some ground before smatphones become a more natural tool in the classroom. But it is worth the effort to gain in student engagement.


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