Creative ways teachers can harness students' phones for more immersive learning

Education experts share their favorite tips for using students' phones as engaging learning tools.

By on November 6, 2015

Cell phones have long been considered an unwelcome distraction in the classroom. But with the majority of teen students, and nearly all college students, now arriving at school with their own devices in their pockets, educators across the country are learning to embrace cell phones as powerful tools for learning and engagement.

The most obvious uses of phones as learning tools are found in the app world. Apps like PhotoMath allow students to solve math problems in real time using their phone's camera. More importantly, PhotoMath shows the student all the steps it takes to solve the problem — a high-tech version of "showing your work." And many creative writing and English teachers are using the Rory's Story Cubes app, a storytelling game, to spark students' imaginations and prompt them to create stories while having fun in the process. (Bonus: it can be used by students of all ages.)

But apps aren't the only way to engage students using their phones — even students who don't have smartphones can participate. "Have your students take a picture of a representation of [a topic you've been teaching]," suggests Richard Byrne on the site Free Tech for Teachers. "For example, if you recently taught a lesson on acute and obtuse angles, have students take pictures of examples of each as they see them during a walk around town." 

Smartphones can also be robust tools when it comes to good old fashioned note-taking. "Encourage students to use their phone to take a picture any time they feel something is especially important during class itself," suggests education consultant Spencer X. Smith. "It could be a particular slide, a worksheet or even a classmate's project (with their permission)." Smith argues that, with many students now using searchable cloud-based apps like Google Keep or Evernote, which tag photos with time and location, having those photos on their phones "drastically helps retention…Instead of asking students to reference the full slide deck if they need a refresher, they can use their own pictures," Smith says. "Those pictures spur specific memories individualized to each student. As a result, they're able to recall that exact moment in class much more readily."

Teachers know that when it comes to learning, simple organization skills are at least half the battle, and smartphones are particularly helpful in this area. "Students should use their smartphone calendars to schedule important events, and their smartphone notepads and reminders to keep track of daily tasks," advises Robert D. Kohen, Ph.D., of Kohen Educational Services. "Another great way to get work done is by using the smartphone timer. Students should commit to setting aside a specific amount of time to do work — and only that work — in advance. Using their smartphones, students can then schedule this time and run the timer while working." Kohen notes, "Smartphones can do wonders for helping students stay organized and on top of their game."

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