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Educators eye cellphones as teaching tools

In his 11th-grade U.S. history class, Amityville Memorial

In his 11th-grade U.S. history class, Amityville Memorial High School teacher Jonathan Klomp tells his class to use their cellphones to rate the president's speech about Osama bin Laden's death after watching it on the Smart Board. (May 3, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

Amityville social studies teacher Jonathan Klomp wanted to take a quick poll of his 11th-grade students about a presidential speech they had just watched in the classroom. He went high-tech, asking them to use personal cellphones to text a response.

Within moments, the results appeared on a screen at the front of the room.

"I want to harness the power of having a personal computer at one's disposal," said Klomp, director of social studies for the Amityville district.

The use of cellphones and smartphones -- still banned in many classrooms -- is making inroads in public education on Long Island and nationwide. Experts say that these hand-held devices, which have become ubiquitous communication essentials among teenagers, soon may be considered a staple learning tool, particularly for high schoolers.

"It's definitely a national movement," said Liz Kolb, a University of Michigan research associate and coordinator of the technology program for teachers at the university's School of Education. "I am seeing teachers in California using it and I am seeing teachers in rural Maine using it."

 

How a trend is evolving

Kolb's book, "Cellphones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators," was published last month by the International Society for Technology in Education. It includes case studies of kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers who integrated students' cellphones into classroom learning and lesson plans.

Kolb said she had researched such use in classrooms in 2004 and "could not find one, not a single one" at the time. "Back in 2004, people thought it was crazy," she said. "And now, I have to say I have seen a big change in the last couple of years."

The advanced capabilities of smartphones, which offer Internet access and more data storage, are one reason teachers cite for increasing acceptance of electronic devices for classroom use.

Some educators aren't on board, though, saying cellphones can be a huge distraction in the classroom. Many Long Island districts don't allow the devices in class, and they still are banned in New York City public schools.

At Plainview-Old Bethpage district's John. F. Kennedy High School, cellphone use is prohibited in the classroom and in hallways, Assistant Principal Sharon Lasher said. Their use is allowed in some noninstructional zones.

 

'Distraction and disruption'

"We have found that it is a tremendous distraction and disruption," she said of classroom use. "If a student has a cellphone out, they could be texting information to other kids who have the same teacher at a later time. . . . And if we can't determine they will use it for something appropriate, we found it best not to allow it at all."

Kolb, from her research, said she expects schools to shift toward allowing cellphones. She has noticed a surge of schools changing their policies in the past couple of years partly due to the "tidal wave of cellphones coming into the classroom . . . and teachers are starting to get on the mindset, 'Why am I fighting this?' "

The trend is toward more use. The NEA Foundation, a nonprofit public education improvement group, received 127 submissions this year for its first national "Challenge to Innovate" program about how mobile phone technologies can transform instruction. Mineola High School math teacher Bette Sloane and four other educators were recognized by the foundation.

"We definitely saw an increase in interest by public school educators with a whole list of ideas," said Betty Paugh Ortiz, the foundation's senior vice president of innovation, who expects classroom use to increase. "I think it has to. It is one of the most affordable technologies that we have, and rather available."

Sloane received the NEA Foundation's honor for her work with students who used cellphone cameras outside the classroom to find parallel and perpendicular lines in their daily lives. Students emailed photos to her, and she posted them on her website to create a digital museum.

"This is a way for students to use a feature of their phones to document math," she said.

Other local districts are following suit, or considering doing so. Great Neck modified its electronics policy in June to allow some cellphone use during instruction at the high schools. In the Eastport-South Manor school district, a technology committee soon may recommend allowing limited, teacher-directed cellphone use in high school classrooms.

"One of the challenges we face in education is kids come into classrooms, and we force them to power down because of the way we instruct and inhibit the use of technology," said John Christie, assistant principal at Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School and a member of a district technology committee that plans to recommend a pilot program. "We want to find creative ways to keep kids engaged in the way they learn."

 

Apps to map the night sky

At Great Neck South High School, physics and astronomy teacher Andrew Tuomey used smartphones in class for the first time this fall. Using apps downloaded onto their smartphones, students mapped the night sky.

"In a district like this, so many kids have them and even if a kid doesn't have it, they can look with the person next to them," Tuomey said. "The students love using their phones. . . . If the kids like to do something and you can make it educational, I am all for it."

Klomp, of Amityville, said he monitors in-class phone use. If students say they are taking notes on phones, he asks them to email him the notes at the end of class. He has confiscated phones when he has found inappropriate use.

Bryan Moore, 17, a senior and one of Klomp's students, said he had his phone taken away on one occasion for texting when he shouldn't have been. But for the most part, he said, he uses it for educational purposes.

"Usually I go and Google" for research, he said. "Textbooks don't have all the answers in them."

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