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. 

Special Education Referral Process

While I was unable to interview any teacher or councilor in person, I was able to complete e-mail exchanges with two teachers and a school councilor. One of the teachers is a high school teacher at an alternative education school near Modesto, CA. The other is a first grade teacher in Santa Barbara, CA. The school councilor works at one of the combination middle/high arts school in Denver, CO. The high school teacher in Modesto and I had the most extensive conversation and much of this post is comprised of her responses to my questions.

The school councilor provided me with the basic outline of how they proceed with special education referrals. She noted that the school uses RTI (Response to Intervention) and that there are several steps before a formal referral occurs. She notes that all of the IEPs are individualized and that provisions provided for students vary over the referred population. Parent involvement is equally variable with some parents playing a very active role and some not very involved at all in the process. This was useful to know, but did not provide more insight than materials available at special education specific sites on the internet.

My conversation with the first grade teacher amounted to a case study of a 1st grade boy she has been working with. The boy has frequent disruptive behavior, is attention seeking, walks on his toes, is generally destructive, rolls on the ground and does not follow directions. The frequencies of these behaviors were high enough for her to contact the principal, who had a psychologist observe him in the classroom. After the observation the psychologist gave her a few ideas for coping with the boy’s behavior. They are going to see if these methods work before furthering the special education referral process. They suspect the student has a combination of ADHD and Autism. If more intervention is needed, the teacher would love to have a special education specialist in the classroom providing extra help. The school, however, does have separate classes for emotionally disturbed and moderate special education students. Students with other disabilities are generally included in the regular classroom.

The high school teacher I corresponded with works in an alterative education high school. Her number one priority is keeping kids in school and helping them finish their education. This philosophy greatly shapes her approach to special education referrals.

When she identifies a student for a special education referral, she pays careful attention to the gaps in their work. If something is consistently off they are a likely candidate for referral. Signs of a struggling student include agitation, frequent bathroom breaks, work avoidance, bad attitude, and refusal to accept help. She makes sure to note that there is a difference between a struggling student actively seeking help and one avoiding help. Failing some tests isn’t a sign that a student needs a special education referral; they are simply working through the material.  If they are consistently failing and will not accept help, then they are struggling and may need a referral.

She believes in trying as many alterative methods as possible before referring a student. She believes they need to learn strategies to help them cope both inside and outside the classroom, so it is best if they try many alterative methods. She uses visual options, technology, verbal, group work, solo work and one-on-one methods. Some students are allowed to choose locations to complete work if that helps. If these strategies don’t work, then it is finally time to call in the special education specialists.

If the alternative strategies are partially successful, she checks to see if the student and/or parent still wants a special education referral. In cases where the referral would cause the student to drop out of school, she chooses not to continue the process with the hope that the alternative methods will be effective enough. As I stated before, she works with at-risk teens and staying in school is a large part of what she wants for each of her students.

I asked her about disruptive behavior and how well it correlates with the need for a referral. Since she works with at-risk youth, many of her students exhibit disruptive behavior. She pays attention to when the disruptive behavior occurs. If it always correlates to reading aloud or some other type of work avoidance, then it is a sign of a real problem. If the behavior is generally random, she understands her students are likely just being jerks

Full inclusion is her preference in the classroom. She has taught to classrooms with mostly deaf, legally bind, brain damaged and mental birth defect students. She admits each student was an individual challenge, but including them in the regular classroom was worth it.

She is very invested in special education students and has been on more than half the IEPs for her school since she has requested to be the teacher present in the IEP meetings. She notes that a large portion of the special education population in her school is composed of students who are minorities and were referred for “stupid” reasons. She wishes she could do something about that, but it hasn’t been within her power to change how other teachers treat those students.

I believe that teachers like her are the future of special education. She has put a lot of time into learning alternative techniques and fights for each of her students to remain in her classroom. Being as invested as she is can be exhausting (she can tell you all about that too), but we need educators like her as we move to include special education students in the classroom and remove the stigma of “special” education. I grew up in a school that believed in inclusion and it benefited not only the special education students, but also those of us with no major learning disabilities. We all live in this world together and the more we are exposed to people of different background and abilities, the better off we are.