Make ‘switch your phone on’ a requirement of your lessons

Students are more likely to carry smartphones than pens when they walk into your class, so make use of their potential. Fernando Rosell-Aguilar outlines how to involve your students’ favourite device in active learning experiences

Fernando Rosell-Aguilar 's avatar
6 Feb 2024
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A group of students using smartphones with brightly coloured shells
image credit: iStock.

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Arden University

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In the last few months, the UK’s education secretary has been pushing for a ban on smartphones in schools. This move has come after a UNESCO report published last July suggested that smartphones were linked to distraction, disruptive behaviour and cyberbullying, although it also acknowledged their potential for enhanced learning experiences. While there’s no talk of a ban at universities, it is assumed that students should not be using their phones during lectures – some lecturers make this very clear on the first day of lessons.

I find this somewhat puzzling. I often see students with laptops in class and no one seems to object to that. A laptop is considered a device for learning – when for all you know the student is on social media or watching Netflix – whereas a smartphone is seen as a device for leisure and distraction.

Recently I went into a classroom at a university and spotted a sign by the door that said: “Turn off your mobile phone.” My heart sank. First, I very much doubt that any student (or lecturer for that matter) turns off their phone as they walk into a classroom. Second, it perpetuates the idea of the phone as a device that disrupts learning in a negative way. It assumes that students should be listening to their lecturer and that use of their smartphones will distract from that, which I would argue springs from a very old-fashioned, didactic view of what should happen in the classroom, inconsistent with an active, student-centred teaching approach. I use my smartphone in class and encourage my students to do so, too.

How to integrate the smartphone into your lessons

Let’s decide that the classroom should be a place not for transmission of knowledge but where learning is facilitated in an engaging and active way. The smartphone can play a key role in supporting this in several ways:

  • Engagement: polling tools such as Mentimeter are very useful for pre- and post-main activity engagement. I use a quick anonymous poll for students to guess information about something we’re covering later. When it comes up, the students automatically engage in a process of comparing their guesses to the actual information, which makes it memorable. Post-activity, I use a quick poll to do some concept-checking or ask for feedback.
  • Research: I ask my students to look up information or real-life examples about the topic or key people using search engines on their browsers, which they then use to add to a discussion or group activity. I try to personalise this so that students have choices and different angles they can bring to the conversation. It is a great way to keep information current and up to date. It also helps them to develop critical evaluation skills.
  • Activation: this is where I ask learners to put the new knowledge into practice. Apps can help with this. For example, using museum apps, virtual tours and augmented reality to take part in virtual field trips; using virtual bulletin boards such as Padlet or Wakelet to summarise points or make contributions; or using their voice-activated personal assistants (such as Siri) to pronounce a word or interact with them in another language. Many apps will support students to create short presentations or generate content for contributions to group or individual activities. I’d advise staying away from social media because students will be guarded about keeping their personal accounts separate from learning activity, but you can use familiar concepts such as “pretend you’re going to post this on Instagram” or “create a short video of the type you might post on TikTok” to get students to summarise their understanding of a concept, identify key points or find suitable images to exemplify part of the new content.

Many teachers seem to favour using Kahoot! or similar apps to create interactive activities for their students. I find that the balance of teacher time vs learning outcomes is often heavy on teacher workload, so, unless you’re creating a resource that you can re-use several times, I’d advise against it. Instead, get students to create their own revision activities. For example, in teams of two or three, each team creates a revision guide, with questions, for a different section of the course content. By the end, there should be a full set of revision activities that they can all share in one set.

The more you can personalise your activities to fit with the students’ own personal interests and link them to the topic, the more engagement you will get. Students also like being encouraged to use their devices, as a contrast to more traditional modes of teaching.

Make it accessible

The use of the students’ own devices can help with accessibility. Users who require bigger fonts, higher contrast or other accessibility support will have those set up by default on their devices. The use of bulletin boards or open questions on polling tools can be an excellent way to encourage written contributions from students who find it difficult to contribute orally due to shyness, anxiety or lack of oral fluency in English. 

Of course, not every student will have a smartphone, and it’s important they don’t feel they are missing out. Doing the activities in pairs or small groups with one device will help guide a conversation among the students in terms of decision-making and keeping the focus on the task. Also, the cost and use of their mobile data might be a deterrent. Try to arrange access to the school wi-fi network to avoid charges to the student.

Trust your students to follow the rules

Set ground rules for the use of mobile phones in the classroom. These are best established in collaboration with the students. Asking, “In your opinion, what is an appropriate use of your phone in class?” will elicit the sort of responses that will lead to sensible rules – which you can then remind them they helped to set up if there are instances of misuse. Sound, audio, focus on task and not distractions, messaging and access to appropriate materials are some of the possible issues for discussion when setting rules.

Let your students know you trust them to use their devices for the task at hand. If I see a student messaging, I often say something like: “I assume you’re dealing with an urgent matter.” It’s only if the student seems distracted for a long time that I’ll approach them to check what they’re using their phone for. Don’t make assumptions – a student who’s looking at their screen may well be using a translator or transcription tool if they find it hard to understand you.

Lifelong learning outside the classroom

Using the smartphone in class for learning purposes will help students realise how best to use it for additional learning or revision activity outside the classroom, or even beyond their formal studies. The skills to find and critically evaluate appropriate lifelong learning resources and apps are very rarely taught in educational settings, which is why including the use of the smartphone into teaching practice must be normalised – and encouraged. 

Fernando Rosell-Aguilar is a senior lecturer in academic professional development at Arden University.

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