How Phones Can Increase Learning for All Types of Students

teens distracted by phones in class

Educators tend to fall into two camps when it comes to phones—they either love them or hate them. Many teachers wonder whether games, texting, and social media are too big a temptation for students, and whether the distraction outweighs the contribution to learning. Even fans of smartphones in the classroom admit that there is the potential for distraction, but this can be an opportunity in disguise. Students must master time management to succeed, and training them to use phones appropriately and prioritize their learning is a beneficial lesson in digital responsibility. 

When accompanied with high-quality instruction on digital responsibility, student phones don’t necessarily have to cause trouble in the classroom. Instead, they can be an incredibly powerful tool for learning, and in equalizing the playing field in districts that cannot yet fund 1:1 initiatives. 

“If you can’t beat them, join them.”

It’s an effective strategy for the classroom; instead of getting angry with students for playing games, consider how gaming, apps, and instant access to the outside world can help students develop a passion for reading and learning, connect to units you’re already teaching, and improve research skills. This can be the key to providing adaptive learning strategies without singling students out.  

Below are a handful of ways for teachers to help make the transition to a phone-friendly environment practical and beneficial: 

Allow students to adapt assignments

Today’s students have a variety of apps and platforms on their phones. Allow students to adapt assignments using their technology of choice, as long as they produce quality work that meets the learning outcome. Students might produce a video, make slides or Prezis, collaborate on a paper, or write reviews—all on their phones. Student choice in platform or presentation often produces outcomes teachers never would have imagined when designing a project, and students have more fun in the end. 

Ask students to prepare for the next day’s lesson while on the run

Instead of giving specific homework, tell students what’s on the docket for the next day or the rest of the week and ask them to do some pre-research on their phones, tablets, or laptops. Request that they be prepared with a fact or piece of content for the next day’s discussion. Students might show off a meme, discuss an article, or share a news story. The sky’s the limit! Encourage students who are low on data or don’t have a device to partner up and share, or simply to come ready to evaluate the quality of the sources the class found. 

Let students research things they’re passionate about

Students will go above and beyond expectations if they’re allowed to choose the topics. Give multiple opportunities for students to bring in any material they find that relates to the subject at hand. Students can make research outlines, or you can give five minutes of research time in the beginning of class as a bellringer activity. Allow students to share or work in groups to account for students without phones. 

Trust in students (they won’t disappoint)

Students often seem to be texting under the desk when in fact, they’re fact-checking. Teaching students to check facts in real time adds to the class atmosphere and holds everyone to the highest academic standards. It also takes the pressure off the teacher, who can hand over some of the burden of research to groups of students, getting them in the habit of looking for quality sources and sites at all times. 

Teach students to use speech-to-text and text-to-speech

Teachers want students to read and write more, but some students do not feel confident in these areas. Speech-to-text and text-to-speech can help build the confidence of students who are orally gifted but want to write better. These free tools provide adaptations to build up students without singling them out by issuing special, expensive hardware or software that screams “special needs.” Rather, students can use the same tools as their peers, right on their phones. Students writing using speech-to-text still need to read the text, edit professionally, and format correctly for the purpose of the assignment, so they will be learning even if they use an adapted workflow. These are valuable tools that professionals like reporters and CEOs use. Why shouldn’t students take advantage of them, too? 

Encourage use of translation tools

Smartphone tools are also helpful for English Language Learners. Instead of teachers leveling articles for students, students can use the dictionary and translation features on their phones. This allows teachers to expose students to professional-grade materials and gives students the strategies they need to decode complex materials in the future.

Make a playlist

It’s helpful to give students choices on assignments or research, but sometimes students need a common ground: They must read, experience, and study the materials the teacher chooses. Making a classroom playlist with all the unit materials gives students flexibility to schedule their access, letting them frontload work, manage their time, or dig deeper into the subject at their leisure. Start with the required materials, whether they’re videos, articles, white papers, or other resources. Use an app like Scannable to convert materials that are not online into a digital format. Make a list with links and post it to the class website or a platform like Google Classroom. Allow students to add to the class playlist for a unit or create their own lists to share. 

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