Mobile Technology in the Classroom

Mobile devices open up a new realm of possibilities for activities in the classroom. The ability to record and edit audio or video transforms the possibilities for student presentations and projects. The ability to take data in real time changes the game for science teaching entirely. If students can use mobile applications to directly record data and perhaps even graph or analyze it, the scientific method is that much more accessible to them. All of this said, the urge to not allow distracting devices into the classroom is very understandable. While students can achieve great bounds in understanding with these devices, the devices are also the source of much distraction for many students. Finding the balance between mobile devices as merely unneeded distractions and important classroom assets is not easy.

I believe teachers should embrace mobile devices, but be very clear about the expectations surrounding their use. The positive impact mobile devices can have in a classroom, especially once students are at the secondary level, far outweighs the distraction potential. Students will be able to interact with their classroom using the same methods they interact with the rest of the world. Whether we as teachers agree or not, mobile devices are part of the norm for our students. They interact with the world through their screen and if we can help improve and make that interaction more meaningful we should. Opening students eyes to the abilities of their mobile devices beyond simple texting and picture taking will be helpful both in a classroom and in the world beyond. That said, not all students will have access to mobile devices, so the requirement of their use should be restricted to group activities where personal devices aren’t required or activities where devices are provided by the school.

My guiding principles for mobile device use:

1.     The device must enhance the activity

a.     Does it expand the activity in a new dimension (audio, video, data recording)

b.     Can the activity be done with equal impact without the mobile device? (Is the data recording something you could do using a pen and paper to equal effect?)

2.     Does the use of audio/video create innovative presentation possibilities?

a.     Is it just video or is it edited to create a greater impact?

b.     Do students learn to communicate in novel ways that aren’t just recording video, but rather coming up with other ways to use that medium to communicate ideas.

3.     Have clear mobile device rules and consequences

a.     What is allowed on the mobile devices (can students listen to music, text?)

b.     What is the consequence of misusing the device? (5 points off activity grade, loss of device privileges?)

c.      Signed parental agreements for use of school devices

4.     Compile a list of apps used by students at the beginning of the year

a.     This creates of a pool of common apps to help students use in new ways

b.     This also lets you know what apps students are unaware of and come up with novel experiences for them

5.     Be clear and specific about the use of the mobile device in the activity

a.     Make sure the mobile device portion of the activity is tested before hand and be prepared to deal with any technical hiccups… have a backup plan

b.     Give clear directions to students before asking them to use their devices so they are not left wondering what they should be doing and thus get distracted or otherwise disengaged.

My experiences in the classroom lead me to very firmly believe that mobile technology can and will have a positive impact on education practices. The important thing is both introducing the use of the technology in a controlled way and making the goal of the technology use clear. If students are simply asked to play around on computers or mobile devices there is little chance they will be fully engaged no matter how well planned the mobile activity is.

In the sciences, the use of phones and tablets as real time recording devices when coupled with technology that transmits either wirelessly or via blue tooth has extraordinary potential. If students can automatically record data, they can gather more and learn more about how to be critical thinkers as they analyze their real data. For the longest time we were stuck with simulated data to analyze and basic experiments that involved nothing more than stopwatches, which depend on the imprecision of human reaction speed. Now we have technology that can instantaneously record the speed of an object and then transmit that speed to a connected mobile device. Students can now take instantaneous measurements and view problems from a whole new frame of reference.

Beyond data recording, some mobile applications come with the ability to plot simple x, y data and curve fit using basic functions (linear, parabolic, log, exponential). The application I used in my mobile device activity was iSeismometer ( This application uses the accelerometers on a mobile device (it’s available across platforms) to measure the displacement of the device in three axes. When students jump near the device, they see a large displacement in z (out of the floor direction) and small displacements in x and y (in the floor plane). As they moved further away, these displacements got smaller, showing the effect of distance on an earthquake. iSeismometer also allows the data to be transmitted in csv format to a computer, where students can analyze the data recorded with their mobile device if warranted.

The use of mobile technology in the classroom can be a great thing; teachers simply need to stick to their guiding principles and make the use of such technology deliberate and targeted. The 21st century is going to be full of these types of innovations and it is our responsibility to determine how to harness their capabilities in constructive ways.