The Mobile Device Conundrum

I regularly come across blog posts, twitter posts, and comments on BYOD and how students should use smartphones in school. Smartphones are occasionally used in my science and physics classes, and can offer some interesting opportunities.

Smartphones are much more than learning devices though. For every one part of learning there is hidden in a smartphone, there are probably about 3 parts digital addiction. Phones in classes are driving me nuts.

I know, I know. We have to let kids harness the incredible powerful technology, keep them engaged, etc, blah. The question is, at what cost?

When students are waiting outside my classroom door before class, they are playing video games on their phones. When they come in to class, they sit down and play a video game. When I  ask them to pull out their lab sheet from last day, they don’t hear me the first three times because they’re immersed in a video game.  Consider a specific example: a dc circuit lab we recently did in science 9.   While the students were supposed to be working on a lab, many were off task busy playing a video game. This isn’t an example of students being given boring textbook work, I’m describing a situation where students first brainstormed their own questions about electricity and then spent time using hands on equipment to learn how circuits work. No reading a textbook, no fill in the blank worksheets, just scaffolded activities. Unfortunately that is not enough to keep students off their phones. I get that not everyone is super interested in electricity, but there were many opportunities for students to engage on several levels.  Kids could have just played with the circuits (I wonder how many bulbs  I can light up?), some could pursue the lab purpose, some could direct their work to their own question, some could follow a more in-depth pursuit of analysis.  Many just wanted to play on their phone.

Some people say that we have to use phones in class because kids are going to use them anyways. I can’t think of a worse justification for a pedagogy. In the circuit lab example above, it is possible to replace the hands on activities with a computer simulation.  Unfortunately the better simulations require Java, which doesn’t run on phones and tablets. I did utilize an iPad app for series circuits which was moderately successful. But that’s one class/lesson, and frankly the app doesn’t work very well.  When polled, students say they prefer the hands on activities to simulations, yet they have great difficulty engaging with the labs.

There are many decent uses for phones in a classroom. This year I’ve had students use phones for polling, to retrieve posted solutions to worksheets, to access simulations for optics and electricity, and for research projects. Still, that probably accounts for less than 5% of our class activities. Some other teachers will get more mileage from mobile devices, like perhaps my coworker Craig Brumwell. Maybe their courses and Web technologies allow for this. However, I’m reasonably technologically astute, I have a Masters degree in educational technology and I have a PLN that likes to push the boundary on useful technology. I just don’t see a lot more happening with mobile devices in science than what I’m doing (there are of course tidbits of apps here and there, I haven’t provided an exhaustive list of what we do with phones. There are calculators, accelerometers, and many other small uses).

So where does that leave me and my science students? How can I have them put away their phones without having to constantly battle them?