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Great Scott! The use of mobile phones in the classroom by Mick Watson

back to teh future

We have come a long way since 1989 but not as far as Stephen Spielberg dreamt in his cult classic “Back to the Future II”.  In which the year 2015 was a futuristic utopia of self lacing high tops and of course hover-boards. Although I am still hopeful for the hover-board, we cannot disregard the acceleration in which technology is advancing (click this link to see an illustrative video ironically out of date). Technology will be an ever increasing part of our students’ future, so the question is: should we be teaching students how to use this technology? Furthermore, as educators, should we be using these technological advancements in our teaching practise?

Let’s face it, technology is pretty seductive to the humble educator and has been since the twentieth century, but we haven’t always got it right…

“The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years, it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks” Thomas Edison

Nonetheless you do not have to look far to find articles that suggest that ipads (Hutchison,  Beschorner and Schmidt-Crawford, 2012), web tutoring (Bruzilovsky, Eklund, and Schwartz, 1999), and VLE’s (Martín-Blas , Serrano-Fernández, 2008) will do just that, revolutionise. So what about the mobile phone?

Before we start replacing exercise books with mobile phones lets imagine we reached that magical 88mph and travelled back in time one hundred years to a 1915 classroom. You’d probably see a set up of thirty students, one teacher, and an educational text of some kind. Despite scrapping the wheel-in T.Vs and blackboards not much has changed over the last hundred years, why?

This could be because technology does not necessarily improve attainment (Moseley, Higgins and Bramald, et al, 1999). This is well illustrated In an interesting study from Hoffler & Leutner (2008) that suggests that the use of scientific animations are no better learnt by students compared to  still pictures and text. This research came as quite a shock to me when I think back to all of the late nights spent tweaking PowerPoint presentations…

However, we do expect students to enter the workplace “techno-savy” and familiar with computer-based technology, something the royal engineering society suggest schools are inadequately preparing students for. But in an environment where teachers need to use time effectively to teach an immense curriculum in a rather small space of time, we tend to use techniques that foster the highest attainment.

Despite the obvious conflict in the literature in regards to attainment we have to be careful not to neglect the importance of our job as teachers to inspire, to challenge and to excite our students to want to learn. Technology offers us an opportunity to do exactly that. I agree with Derek Muller who states:

“The most important thing a teacher does is make the student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning” (Muller, 2008)

While avoiding the alluring appeal of new technology for the sake of it, I felt it was necessary to investigate the use of mobile phones in classrooms with a critical eye. Ensuring that the technology it utilises is not simply present for novelty value but contributes in some way to the learning experienced by students in my classes at Oriel. Below are some suggested methods discussed in my Thursday thriller session:

Using QR codes

QR codes (or quick response codes) are small barcode-like images that when scanned with an appropriate device offer the user a link to a computer file uploaded to a secure site. This file can then be saved and stored on their mobile phone. Many mobile phones have built in QR scanners and are easily accessible for free through android and IPhone apps.

This means students could use their phones in class to access:

  • Extension work to introduce challenge.
  • Differentiated help e.g. keyword list.
  • Support material for EAL students such as images and audio files.
  • Revision schedules and revision material.
  • Instructional videos for practical experiments.
  • Treasure hunt activities.

To set up a QR code, teachers can save the desired file to a secure storage website such as google drive, dropbox or even the Oriel moodle. Once completed, the teacher can use the website: http://www.qrstuff.com/ to create a QR code that can be inserted into a worksheet or even to a PowerPoint slide.

Real time polling and interactive word walls

Knowing when a class has understood a concept can be a difficult thing to measure and as professionals we have learnt a variety of techniques to assess learning. Technology such as http://www.polleverywhere.com/ can allow students to use their mobile phones to text in to a multiple choice questionnaire totally anonymously and for free. ‘Polls everywhere’ also allow you to produce real time forums that students can text into to form debates and commentary. Something the more timid type of student might be reluctant to do in a class discussion. A further advantage of this technology is that the work can be screen shot and used in future lessons.

To set up a ‘polls everywhere’ forum, teachers should visit the website and register for free. Questions can then be set up with either multiple choice questions or open forums which can be inserted into PowerPoint slides. Students simply need to text the activation code for free and then can begin!

Using multi-media devices to encourage learning

It is astounding in many ways that we still call mobile phones by their ability to communicate when they are capable of so much more. These days it is quite normal for mobile phones to have:

  • Scientific calculators
  • Access to the internet
  • Dictaphones
  • Video recorders
  • Still cameras
  • Organisers
  • Stop watches
  • Interactive atlases
  • Compasses
  • GPS locating

This equipment can be used in a variety of creative ways to encourage student learning and increase engagement. Recently I have incorporated the use of some of these apps to increase the learning of some rather dry physics content (nuclear reactors…). Students first built a nuclear reactor with play dough and labelled it on the table using a whiteboard pen. After this stage students took a photograph of their model using the camera on their phone and used the “interviewy” voice recorder app to record a commentary. Students used this media next lesson to help them write a six mark question.

Hopefully the above ideas and discussion will encourage you to have a go!

Mick’s presentation can be downloaded here: mobile phones in classroom PowerPoint


Brusilovsky, P., Eklund, J., & Swartz, E. (1999) Web-based education for all: a tool for development adaptive courseware. Computer Networks and ISDN Systems. Vol 30 (1-7) pp.291-300

Hoffler, T. N & Leutner, D. (2007) Instructional animation versus static pictures: A meta-study. Learning and Instruction vol 24 (2) pp. 722-738 Elsevier

Hutchison, A., Beschorner, B., & Schmidt-Crawford, D. (2012). Exploring the Use of the iPad for Literacy Learning. The reading Teacher. Vol 66 (1) pp.15-23.

Martin-Blas, T. & Serrano-Fernadndez, A. (2008). The role of new technologies in the learning process: Moodle as a teaching tool in Physics. Computers & Education. Vol 12 (5) 222-229

Moseley, D., Higgins, S., Bramald, R. Hardman, F., Miller, J., Mroz, M., Tse, H., Newton, D., Thompson, I., Williamson, J., Halligan, J., Bramald, S., Newton, L., Tymms, P., Henderson, B. and Stout, J. (1999) Ways Forward with ICT: Effective Pedagogy using Information and Communications Technology in Literacy and Numeracy in Primary Schools Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Muller, D. A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M. D. & Reimann, P. (2007) Saying the wrong thing: improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptions. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. Vol 24 (2) pp. 144-155



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