Smartphones: the pros and cons of mobile technologies in the classroom

Written by Pano Savvidis // November 3, 2011

Smartphones: the pros and cons of mobile technologies in the classroom

There has recently been a great deal of interest in the issue of whether or not mobile phones have potential to enhance or hinder learning. Numerous studies have been undertaken into the potential that m-learning has. These have been met with an equal number of rebuffals from sceptics who point out the negative impact of mobile phones in the classroom.

In my teaching career I’ve witnessed both extremes. Mobile phones have been used to great effect by pupils and by colleagues involved in a handheld learning project that I led. Likewise I’ve endured countless hours as a Head of Year dealing with issues relating to mobile phone theft, abusive text messages and issues relating to learning being disrupted due to incoming calls / texts.

What are the main pros and cons of using mobile technologies in the classroom?

The Pros…

If you could have any equipment available to you in your classroom all of the time, what would be on the list?

I asked this question to staff in numerous training events I’ve led on use of ICT. The answers almost always included the following:

  • Video Camera
  • Dictaphone
  • Scanner
  • Internet Connection / Browser
  • Computer / basic office software
  • Camera
  • Video player
  • Interactive board / tablet

There are of course many other things that were listed, some IT based, others not. The point here is simple. The majority of pupils, in Secondary schools at least, bring most if not all of these things into your classroom every day. They know how to use them. They like using them.

So pro number one is the versatility of smartphones. Most modern smartphones can do all of the above and more, which leads onto pro number 2.

Learning in the classroom? What about outside it?

Enthusiastic learners will make use of their phones for legitimate educational purposes on their way to and from school. As a History teacher by trade I was always pleasantly suprised by the number of pupils who would take a photo of an old building, statue or memorial on their way to or from school, usually without prompting. It’s a low level example but demonstrates that if the technology is there, they will take the opportunity to use it.

Outside of the classroom you can utilise all sorts of features:

  • Geographers may make use of GPS thats built into many devices to create a geocaching exercise
  • English Teachers might like the idea of QR code based literacy activities whilst on a visit to a local theatre
  • Science teachers might like the Augmented reality tours of Numerous Science Museums
  • DT teachers might like the fact that pupils can easily record examples of different designs at exhibitions
  • …the list is very long…

It enables flexibility. For example, my son, currently in Year 3, had a homework task involving creating a cartoon. His teacher was a little shocked to find his animated cartoon e-mailed to her the next morning. Granted, it wasn’t quite Pixar standard but it enabled him to put his ideas into practice in a way that traditionally would not have been possible. (He used a free drawing by touch app for the iphone to create the images then got me to import them into an animation app which he then programmed with timings, text and background music).

Cons

  • Phones can and will go off in lessons.
  • There is an inclusion argument: it is unfair if not all pupils have access.
  • Control. It’s very difficult to check what pupils are ‘really’ doing on their smartphone.
  • Bullying. If phones are there, they may be used for the wrong reasons.
  • Insurance. Smartphones can cost a lot of money and if they’re being used in lessons, whose insurance is liable?

A personal opinion

My own feeling is that the pros far outweigh the cons. The things that put people off are things that we should be tackling positively anyway. Bullying on a phone, for example, is no more or less wrong than bullying in other guises. ‘Control’ arguments ought to be dealt with in much the same way as any other classroom management issue. Pupils need to have good behaviours modelled, to have good examples praised and to know what the consequences of drifting off task are.

Inclusion can be dealt with in a number of ways. Many schools have purchased handheld devices for classroom / educational use. A recent local heritage trail that I assisted in had groups of 4 working with one school owned device each. The pupils simply took it in turns to take different roles within the group.

Recommended links

Using Handheld Devices in the classroom an online cpd guide.

Smartphones and handheld computers: the new battleground in UK schools

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