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Smartphones in the classroom: friend or foe?

The combination of students and mobile devices in the classroom has long been a debate topic among education professionals. The use of mobile devices during classes is often regarded as an element of distraction for students. But with today’s smartphones, can this still be the case?

In the pre-smartphone era, when traditional mobile phones – or “dumb phones”, how I like to call them – ruled the world, students simply couldn’t use their phones for learning. You couldn’t do much with them beside texting, calling and playing a few simple games. Remember Snake? I was a champion at it. Games like Pokemon Go or Angry Birds were simply not an option for my Nokia 1600 phone. I think today’s generation of students would definitely consider these phones rather boring.

Fast forward to the present day. Now every student has at least a smart-ish phone and they seem really attached to it. That spells bad news for the traditional learning environment, one would think. As a teacher, you could try to ban the use of smartphones in your classroom, but don't hope for the most popular teacher award in your school. Plus, you probably won't succeed 100%.

The good news is you don’t have to eliminate mobile devices from the class; you just have to repurpose them, and use them as a tool for learning. You have to use them for what they’re meant to be used: help people communicate easier and better.

Phones can help students engage more in classroom activities

First, there are plenty of educational apps available in the App Store or in Google Play; you just need to find the right ones for your class. Depending on the age of your students and your subject matter, you can pick and choose the apps that perfectly fit your educational needs. "There's an app for that" are not empty words, you know?

Besides making use of the apps, your students could use their phones to access your LiveBinders with podcasts, videos, and specific articles for their homework, or for extra credits. They can collaborate on a group activity on an online chat, on Twitter, or on any platform you deem is the most appropriate for what they have to do.

What's more, they can use their smartphones to create content that you'll use in your class. From shooting short videos and creating their own ebooks, to making notes on Padlet, being involved in content creation for class will help them better retain all the new information they have to learn.

And now, story time!

The first time I tried gamification with my students was during a seminar on green marketing and consumerism. I didn't have any specialized apps or school LMS to get started, but I did have a class full of students with smartphones and a carbon footprint calculator website. The topic itself was quite engaging for my students, as millennials do care about the environment and sustainability. However, I wanted to make the morale of the seminar more memorable, so I invited them to play a game.

It was really simple. I sent the link to the carbon footprint calculator to the students’ chat group, followed by a question: “Do you have a Yeti’s carbon footprint? Let’s find out!”.

After the results were in, we drew a leaderboard with the scores on a flip chart. The student with the smallest carbon footprint was awarded a “Captain Planet” badge. After the awards ceremony concluded, a group discussion began where the students with the smaller carbon footprint gave advice to their colleagues on how to change their habits and reduce their strain on the environment.

The one-and-a half-hour seminar almost flew away. What I noticed was that, during the game and discussion, my students totally forgot to use their phones for non-class related purposes.

Smartphones and the AIDA approach

In the above story, the students’ devices were used just to introduce the fun factor of the seminar, but they can be used for much more than just games. You could implement the AIDA approach in your classes by using students’ own devices.

AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action; it is usually used in advertising and sales. The AIDA approach can serve as a model for teachers who want to keep their students engaged and eager to learn.

Attention. First and foremost, teachers must grab students’ attention in one way or another. This can be easily done via personal mobile devices by creating chat groups where teachers can send notifications to students before, during and after the class.

Interest. The content you teach must be interesting, or at least presented in an interesting way. It has to create and sustain students’ interest. This obviously links with the attention part. Thanks to modern technology, it’s very easy to send your class-related content to students’ mobile devices; this will stir their interest for what will actually happen during your class.

Desire. You may be familiar with the theory that every human wants to learn new, interesting and fascinating things. If we manage to grab students’ attention and make them want to know more, their desire to participate to class will come naturally. Technology infused teaching methods combined with fun class content can make a class even more desirable.

Action. Finally, if the students really desire to learn and want to have fun while doing so, they will enroll in the class, will participate in lessons and games and they will complete assignments.

In order to succeed with this approach, students must be kept constantly focused on the learning activities and interested in getting involved. The most accessible instruments to realize these goals are the students’ own devices.

Like it or not, more and more students will bring their devices to schools and universities because this is part of living in the new millennium. So instead of telling students to turn off their phones during class, we should come up with new ideas on how to use these instruments to engage them.

The general view on the use of smartphones in the classroom is currently on a shift from being a distracting gadget to becoming a valuable learning tool.

Do you agree with this statement? Share your thoughts in the comments section!