Cell phones in the classroom; yes or no?
Novelty Breeds Genius

Ajarn Willard Van De Bogart
Language Institute
Bangkok University

Further reading: Behavioral aspects of Thai students toward cell phones - Presented at the International e-Learning Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, Jan 13-14, 2011

This question seems to be the burning issue in all schools in every country and the answers range from an outright “no” to the total embracing of this mobile hand held transforming device. As an ESL English teacher in the Language Institute at Bangkok University I can testify to the fact that every single one of my students either has a Blackberry or some other type of communication device. While I am teaching a class the students are busily looking at another teaching aid which is the luminous screen on the face of their colorful Blackberry’s. At first, I considered this to be the most intrusive addition to the classroom a teacher could cope with. I would ask the students to stop using their Blackberry cell phone, but in a class of 50 students it became impossibility. I had to accept the fact that another form of technology was infiltrating itself right in front of me, and I knew from doing research with the internet for on-line learning that the cell phone was definitely a runner up in popularity for accessing emails, photographs, vocabulary and yes even access to the internet. How could I be certain that what the student were doing with their Blackberry was in anyway related to what I was talking about? Probably nothing, but what if I could steer their attention to tasks using cell phones which could be useful in learning English?

This situation has turned out to be the most fertile environment I have ever experienced to see learning taking place at a rate of speed defying any pedagogical routine for learning. How could Bloom’s Taxonomy, that tried and trusted tome on how learning is achieved, possibly be incorporated into a classroom full of tweeting, Facebook, and Hi5 devotees? The time was ripe for an overhaul of all my teaching techniques, which had been inculcated into me by all my TESOL instructors. It was fortuitous for me when I learned that all teachers at Bangkok University were required to engage in a research project. What if I found a way to bring this intrusive technology into the classroom as a learning device? The race was on to see if I could move as fast as all those little thumbs sending messages at an alarming rate of speed to one can only wonder where.

There in front of me were those proverbial 100 monkeys tapping on the keyboard and me wondering if it would be possible to have them tap out a sonnet, essay, poem or original piece of literature. Surely there was a way to find out, so I opted to do a research project to determine if cell phones could accelerate the learning process for English as a second language.

It only took one Google search with a few key words typed into the Google search field to realize the world was alive and throbbing with the same concerns. Country after country, PhD thesis one after the other, and research reports by the thousands were being published trying to determine the effectiveness of using the cell phone for learning in the classroom. But as far as research methodology goes there are requirements and procedures to make sure that any research done on this area produces good, and verifiable results.
By the time any research is finished one may have to contend with another array of technologies such as the addition of the iPAD and whatever else will instantly grasp the attention of the thumb pounding digital learner. Students in my classroom now are combining the iPAD with the Blackberry and even small video players. Multitasking has taken on a new multi-integrated meaning.

Those of us who were born into a non-digital world, pre-1994, may find what I am talking farfetched or incomprehensible, but for kids in primary school in early 1994 with the release of Mosaic, beta version 7.0 well, those kids are now 16 years old or even 20 years old and they burn up a Sony Play Station, Apple iBOX and a Nintendo Wii over night. Cell phones are now replaced in a month to get the new applications they offer, and memory cards are used up like paper cups. This is a fast moving environment to jump into to introduce a learning strategy.

But could language be learned more quickly using a cell phone? Is there an inherent linguistic anomaly that sat underneath the buzzing Blackberry screen that has not even been seen? After centuries of scholarly research in trying to unlock the secrets of the meaning of Mayan hieroglyphs along came a young boy, David Stuart, who grew up around the Mayan ruins. David was the son of a famous National Geographic explorer and at 12 years old was able to see syllabic and alphabetic systems with the Mayan glyphs, which none of the "experts" even considered. It was within all those multi-faced glyphs that eventually led to the cracking of the Mayan code. This pattern recognition resulted in the creation of a phonetic interpretation of the glyphs enabling present day Mayans to speak the language of their ancient ancestors.

Likewise, all those patterns racing across a small cell phone screen may potentially provide insights into unlocking how a student learns a new language. All I had to figure out was other ways of facilitating language learning in a digitized context. What would be the best technique to unlock the Rosetta Stone of ESL using a cell phone? Obviously this is no small task.

The question arises on how does one tackle this formula one race track of accelerated digital tools which students embrace with aplomb? What areas of research could add any insight into this cell phone world that is causing teachers to shriek rather than realize a new age is dawning for interpreting how learning is taking place and how knowledge is being transmitted? Observations tell me that only a minimal amount of lesson instruction is necessary for a student to grasp the concept behind a particular lesson.

The multiple paragraphs teachers normally give students to read are usually composed of endless sequences of words which is, to say the least, boring for students. The information in those paragraphs needs to be reinterpreted so that the core ideas can be grasped. When Archimedes sat in his bath tub and said, “Eureka”, he subsequently understood that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of his body. This simple discovery led to the building of enormous sea going vessels, and again Sir Issac Newton supposedly, having been hit on the head with an apple, decried his theory of gravity to the world. Both are simplistic examples of how a single instance of an event can lead to the interconnectivity of thoughts leading to a wider array of knowledge integration. These examples can be multiplied a thousand fold.

Therefore, could a teacher show a student a few words and pictures with a tag line asking what it means thus enabling the student to learn a concept or grammar point in a shorter period of time? Would all those fluttering thumbs be able to come up with an answer on their cell phones if asked to answer a question? I believe the answer is yes, and I will show how a 21st century teacher is going to have to teach. Learning methodologies are on a collision course with digital technologies.

It once used to be argued whether multi-media could be useful in a classroom, now the terminology has been advanced and it is called Blended Learning. Blended learning is exactly what it implies, which is blending or integrating various forms of digital tools into the learning process. But the teacher is also faced with how they are going to use one of the many new methodologies for learning such as Active Learning, Task Based Learning, Collaborative Learning and the list goes on. All these attempts to address what is now hailed as student based learning need to be integrated with digital tools. From what I have seen, teachers freeze in the classroom when asked to do a student based assignment. How is it possible to have a student learn independently without a teacher based learning method? How are ideas transmitted to the student? The answer lies in what is given to the students to learn, and the results are up to the teacher to assess. Ultimately, we as teachers want students to grasp ideas. It’s the ideas which are embedded in all the lessons that need to be taught, and not all the language surrounding the idea. In 10 more years it’s going to take two life times to read everything, so something drastic needs to change in how a student is judged as to whether they are learning and grasping ideas.

We need help to decipher the language codes. Maybe we could rely on brain based research to see what part of the brain is affected by a sound verses a picture or even use some of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence (MI) techniques with aerobics when teaching verbs or even cognitive learning strategies where the students’ minds are stimulated to such a point that it is possible to re-arrange the way they think. Trying to glean one iota of all these research findings and put it into the classroom lesson plan has become the challenge for educators, and meanwhile those twittering thumbs have increased in speed during the time it has taken to read this.

There is no doubt about it; the 21st century teacher is going to have to be an idea facilitator. Imagination and ideas are whets needed to be transmitted and stimulated from within. And it is now the technologies which have been able to keep pace with the lifestyles of the students. These cell phones allow students to see things when they want to see them, and talk to their friends when they want to talk to them. It has become an instant framework the students are working with.

The race track is in front of them with the animated Tron leading the way, but it is we the teachers who have to put the knowledge race car on the track so they can drive with scholarly intent and not only leave the driving to the software engineers who dictate which moves are to be made. Germane to this idea are the same concerns of Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary, who in his book, You are not a Gadget, shows how software engineers are locking-in the way a person behaves with all these digital devices. The fixed nature of the way any given routine is achieved on a digital device is pre-determined on the way the software is designed. What this means is that the race car I mentioned, is going to have to be made up of ideas which can be input on the cell phones that are already processing information at breakneck speeds with games, videos conferencing, and countless other student pre-designed applications. What I am saying is that the ideas we want to teach students have to be re-interpreted and placed on these cell phone platforms that are driving student activity.

As a teacher I am responsible for teaching critical reading and communication arts to my students. Most of the students have a minimal command of the English language so as a native speaker what do I have to do to transmit the ideas which constitute the subject I am teaching? Answer: In communicative arts I show old silent movies if I am teaching voice over techniques. All I have to do is speak into the microphone while the silent movie is playing and that’s it. The idea has been established. Students instantly see voice added to a moving picture. The teaching time is minimal, but the final product produces completed CD’s by the students.

Figurative language with all its variations is an impossible task for new learners and the reading time is consuming if not impossible to cope with in a fast paced digital age. A solution to this dilemma is to show a few key words on the display screen with a picture associated with either a metaphor or a simile and the lesson is understood. The reason is because an association can be made between a word and picture more easily than describing it in words only. The language of negotiation is also a difficult process to convey. If you show how two separate pieces of string are tied together the concept of a negotiated deal is instantly conveyed.

I call all of this fancy terminology with student activities “cognitive enhancers” or just simply brain teasers, which in this case allows the student’s mind to make associations which can have absolutely nothing to do with the lesson. The idea is embedded in the lesson and therein lies the way the brain deals with and solves problems. Brain teasers or “cognitive enhancers” stimulate thinking. This is fast track conceptualization, and if you think it is a fluffy concept, then wait until the assignments are due and judge for yourself. The student is in school to learn. The teacher is a model for the learning process.
If the student sees that the teacher is serious at what he or she is doing and points out to the student what is important, then the result is that the student’s work will reflect how those brain teasers were understood.

So now get ready for designing those words and pictures and tell the students to look them up on the cell phone and send them back to you by email and you have entered their fast track world. Too fantastic you say? Well just wait a year if you think things are fast now, because things in the digital world are not standing still. To get a behavioral profile on student interest in using a cell phone in the classroom a questionnaire has been sent to all my students.

September 18, 2010



If you want to see what the results are for your own students wanting to use a cell phone in the classroom, try it out and see for yourself if your students want to learn English using their cell phones in the classroom. Cell phone usage:
Learning with your mobile
Survey 1.
Please check which box you think applies to the way you use your cell phone and the way you want to use your cell phone in class.
Use of your cell phone.

1. Do you use your cell phone in class when the teacher is talking?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
2. Do you use you cell phone when taking tests?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
3. Do you use your cell phone to call friends in class?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
4. Do you always carry your cell phone with you?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
5. Do you think your cell phone will help you with homework?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
6. Would you like to use your cell phone in the classroom to help in your assignments?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
7. Do you think using the cell phone in class will help you learn better?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
8. Would you like to learn English with your cell phone in class?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
9. Would you like to send your teacher your homework using email?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |
10. Do you use email on your cell phone in class?| All the Time___ | A Lot___ | Sometimes___ | Never___ |

Return to: | Other writings by Willard Van De Bogart |

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