Teachers, Stop Being Scared of Cellphones

Computers & Mobile Education
Teachers, Stop Being Scared of Cellphones
Teachers can create easy HTML5 webpages on tools like Wix.
Teachers can create easy HTML5 webpages on tools like Wix.

Screens are everywhere these days, in the restaurants, on the subways, in front of our faces. The only ones we seem able to control are those little screens on our tablets and cellphones, but bring those things into a classroom and who is in control, the student or the teacher? In March, New York City is lifting the ban on cellphones in school. The long outdated policy’s end has been met with skepticism and outright hostile resistance. Why? Well, as a teacher in a computer lab I’m very well aware of the power of the screen, the beautiful blue screen my students seem entranced with when I’m trying to run a lesson, and that’s just the log in screen.

How can teachers capture and keep the attention of the students in their classrooms if they aren’t in control of the screens on their phones? Of course, that’s only one issue that has teachers resisting this step into the 21st century; the other issue is teachers don’t realize they themselves have the power to make those little screens conduits into the minds of their students.

Mobile app invention can be done on the fly with TouchDevelop.
Mobile app invention can be done on the fly with TouchDevelop.

From apps like Google Classroom to website creation tools that are easily accessible on smartphones and tablets, teachers have the ability to create classroom tools that harness the power of student devices. That sounds great but the learning curve is daunting, right? Not really. Tools like TouchDevelop help educators learn the skills they’ll need to invent class or even lesson plan apps. If you’re a teacher who is running a lesson on the color spectrum or the strength of light in a season, inventing an app to demonstrate this concept would bring students a valuable tool.

Having the power to create a tool or app usable on a cellphone can help teachers customize their classroom, but it can also be an awesome project for students to tackle. As a homework assignment, let students create an app that demonstrates the difference between words or create a language dictionary. Pull out those old tried and true classroom projects and see if you can’t give them an interactive component. But if you, as a teacher, are daunted, let the students have a chance at inventing apps.

To that end my school will be hosting a Mobile Apps Hack-a-thon in March. Our hope is to get the kids making classroom apps that teachers can use, and to excite teachers enough to explore the tools out there that can make their classrooms buzzing hubs of interactive learning.


Tools in the classroom should be free and open source in order for students to be able to translate their mastery of skills across their studies. All the tools mentioned are selected for that purpose.

*Google Classroom (Formerly Google Apps for Education) — This is a very powerful tool that teachers can use to not only create documents to share with students but create sites, multiple-choice exams, even whole classroom sets of emails that students can use. There are COPPA Laws to consider when dealing with creating sites for students under 13 and some functions don’t work for the younger students (Google+ is 13 and older). Another downside is you have to work within the confines of the predetermined formats. For beginner designers and creators though, this tool is a wonderful place to start to bring interactivity into the classroom on mobile devices or desktop.

*TouchDevelop — Windows answer to MIT’s App Inventor is actually more powerful and cross platform. A web-based tool, calling it an App is really referring to Apps as old-school applications, not stand-alone bits of software. Similar to Scratch in its block programming approach, TouchDevelop is versatile and simple enough for students to master in an hour. The added bonus of being able to edit applications on the fly on your smartphone means a teacher could edit an app or quiz while teaching a class.

Other Resources:


MIT App Inventor

14 thoughts on “Teachers, Stop Being Scared of Cellphones

  1. mandyr67 says:

    Reblogged this on mandyr67 and commented:
    This is interesting, it is certainly a way forward . Better than nagging the kids to put their phones away.

  2. Bob says:

    This really over simplifies the subject. Taking advantage of Google Classroom only works when all the students have nearly identical devices (ex. classroom Chromebooks). Otherwise, the teacher is wasting precious class time dealing with tech-support issues. So the BYOD model which barely works in the business world would be a disaster in primary education. No teacher I know resists the 21st century, but they all resist anything that causes distraction or disruption to their students.

    1. Lori Stahl-Van Brackle says:

      I didn’t want to go into the hardware end of the issue, but you’re right about it simplifying things. There isn’t just the issue of everyone having similar devices with similar capabilities there will also be students who don’t have devices at all. But from the conversations I’ve had with teachers, the first hurdle seemed to me to be convincing teachers of the merits of having technology like this in the classroom at all. Will schools be able to bundle hardware for sale to students that have a suite of tools? How will WiFi be managed with 1500 devices demanding bandwidth? These are issues that will all need to be addressed.

      1. Bob says:

        My wife’s a middle school teacher, and I’m an IT professional, so I’ve had several discussions with her and her peers about this subject. The attitude among them is very different from those that you’ve spoken with, so there’s room for optimism. They realistically see technology as a valuable tool, but with a number or logistical and financial hurdles. They would like to use tech more but do not have dedicated access to it. First, it was occasional access to a computer lab. Now it’s Chromebooks that they can reserve once or twice a week (shared with many other teachers). Personal cellphones on the other hand, are a huge distraction. If allowed to have them out, the students would use them for a myriad of purposes, few of which are remotely related to the topics being discussed.

        1. Al says:

          “If allowed to have them out, the students would use them for a myriad
          of purposes, few of which are remotely related to the topics being

          I’ve been in a few meetings where it’s not just the students.

          This is why I would say the issue is not the technology, it’s the human lack of ability to focus. Sometimes you can package things so students can focus on the phone. There are plenty of times where the skill to be built is “don’t look at the phone”. Again, there are many adults who need this skill.

          And I will admit, I find myself in that glass house…. which is probably how I ended up on this comment thread.

    2. Dave Basener says:

      My daughter is in Middle School and several of her teachers use Classroom (which contrary to the original article is not a replacement for Google Apps for Education (GAFE) nor was it previously know as that, it is a separate complex of apps bundled into a functional unit and made available to GAFE installations). There is absolutely no problem with devices. My daughter uses it variously on a Windows laptop, a Chromebook, an iPad and an Android tablet. There may be problems if you use an outdated version of Explorer or Safari, I don’t know, but that is easily taken care of by just telling the owners of the devices to use Firefox or Chrome which are automatically kept up to date.

      Classroom is extraordinarily easy to use for the student, though I do know some teachers who have difficulty with some of the assignment distribution choices as well as the fact that there is, inexplicably, no grade book.

  3. Angus_Mesmer says:

    That may be the moment when I get my walking stick out and start waving it around. Feel free to read the following in Abe Simpson’s voice.
    I have taught youngsters. And those darned phones are everywhere, all the time.

    I have taught English (in France) and French (in England). I even took an all adults course last year. I am not scared of cellphones. it’s just that I hate to see them in a classroom environment.
    Phones beeping, ringing, vibrating, and generally disrupting the lesson…
    All that texting, checking Facebook… that’s not exactly a good thing in class. Not to mention the cheating. And of course most of the pupils/students are persuaded that because you are a fossil you can’t tell that they are doing any of the above.
    “But I need it for the clock” is a very common answer.
    When I was young, we had wristwatches. (And like my dumb Nokia, those didn’t need to be charged every day, that part is what I personally consider A Very Bad Thing, so much electricity required, with more gadgets being found to link, every day. Ecology, anyone?)

    Apparently the nurses find me too agitated, and say that I should go back to bed.
    That’s what being nearly 30 does to you, I suppose. Bah! Humbug!

    1. Lori Stahl-Van Brackle says:

      Classroom management of technology is a totally different topic, however, I believe you have more power if you give control of the devices to the students and set clear expectations and reasonable penalties when those expectations aren’t met. My students will sometimes be lured to the dark side and log into their computers before I tell them to, right in the middle of a lesson. The get one warning, then it’s a 5 minute penalty where they have to write about the assignment while everyone else is working on, say, Scratch. With cell phones I imagine making students leave their phones on their desks, screen down will mean 1. you know where the devices are and 2. you can see if they’re on them. Is it a whole other set of skills, another layer of management? Yes, but if you have a reason to use the technology it may be worth the juggle.

      1. Fred Jones says:

        How do you know what a student is looking at on their tiny screen? How do you know what all 25 students are looking at on their tiny screens? BYOD is an unmitigated disaster, and I am not afraid to say it.

  4. Rhonda R says:

    No one seems to be concerned about the long-term effects of the digital impulses the young brains of our students are receiving over time. Is all this technology going to leave us with a generation one day whose brains do not function the way they should?

    I used to be at a one-to-one school where every student had a MACbook, so technology was used in every class and students would complain of headaches and eye strain from the glare of the screen by the time their afternoon classes came around. Not that technology was the only teaching mechanism being used in the classroom, but it does have a downside, I believe.

    I really would like to see more research from the brain-study folks regarding the technology use by our children over time.

  5. John Daniels says:

    I couldn’t agree more. In my high school ESL class in Japan I encourage the students to use their cell phones as dictionaries and occasionally for split second research for students with inexplicable knowledge gaps. To appease some coworkers I require that the students ask to use their phone before doing so, but it is ridiculous to have access to computers in the classroom and pretend that they don’t exist. When used openly, there is a much lower chance that someone will use their phone for inappropriate reasons.

  6. Angus_Mesmer says:

    One more thing, not directly related to cellphones, but with a definite link to education.
    To comment, I have had to use Disqus, and link it to my Twitter account.
    Disqus is one of those apps which are NOT read-only. I definitely object to people and bots using my social media accounts to post whatever they want. I revoked its access, but still.

  7. Chris Muller says:

    Reblogged this on The Great Equalizer.

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Lori Stahl-Van Brackle was, until September 1, 2016, a Computer Talent teacher in a New York City public middle school. Before she was a teacher she was a journalist and in 1995 created her first Web site for the magazine where she was on staff. She's been excited by digital making ever since. As a teacher she inspired her students to use computers as creative tools and make instead of just consume. She has used open-source programs like Scratch, hacked board-games, and had her students create 3D printed projects. Now she is serving as the Director of Instructional Technology for the Manhattan Field Support Center/NYCDOE. In this role she hopes to help other teachers use technology in their classrooms in creative ways to help engage their students.

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