5 examples of teachers using cellphones to improve student engagement

Cellphones, are they a bane to teachers everywhere or a powerful tool that can allow educators to captivate their students in new and creative ways? The answer is both. Even as the Pew Research Center finds that 96% of Americans ages 18 to 29 own a smartphone, many school districts and universities are banning phones from the classroom. Their concern is understandable. Many teachers believe allowing phones in class will lead to students texting during lectures, watching YouTube videos, or scrolling through their favorite social media haunts. However, some teachers take a more nuanced view, recognizing the risk of phones while also utilizing them to spark the imagination of their students and increase student engagement.

Here are five examples of teachers who have found positive ways to use cellphones in their classrooms.

1. Willyn Webb

Worrying about phones in the classroom is not a new problem. Before there were smartphones and Snapchat, there were flip phones and texting. Many teachers saw the growing number of phones in their classroom as a threat, but others saw opportunity.

In 2011, U.S. News and World Report published a story featuring Willyn Webb, a high school teacher in Colorado. Even though her district at the time banned phones in schools, Webb embraced the emerging technology. It all started when she forgot her stopwatch and used an app on a student’s phone. As the article explains, “From there, Webb kept finding new uses for basic text-enabled cell phones. She now uses phones to poll students in class and send homework reminder text messages to students and parents.”

Webb was so convinced by the potential value of cellphones in the classroom that, along with coauthor Lisa Nielsen, she wrote a book titled Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning.

2. Paul Barnwell

Paul Barnwell, an English teacher at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, has mixed feelings about phones in his classroom. As he writes in a fascinating article for The Hechinger Report, he has observed both the power of phones to engage his students and their downsides.

“Even when I know I’ve created a well-structured and well-paced lesson plan, it seems as if no topic, debate or activity will ever trump the allure of the phone,” Barnwell writes. And yet, even while outlining several concerns about phones in his article, Barnwell still incorporates smartphones into his classroom. He explains, “I’ve had students engage in peer-editing using cloud-based word processing on their phones, for example. I’ve also heard and read about other educators using phones for exciting applications: connecting students to content experts via social media, recording practice presentations and creating “how-to” videos for science experiments.”

3. Ken Halla

Not every teacher is on the fence about allowing cellphones in their classroom. An article published by the National Education Association called “Using Smartphones in the Classroom” features Ken Halla, a 22-year teaching veteran who teaches World History and AP Government.

The article details a variety of ways Halla unleashes the power of smartphones to engage his students. Just one example is his use of an app called Remind, which allows teachers to send reminders and other important messages to students on their phones. Halla explains that even parents are excited to download the app and receive messages.

“I was stunned by how many more kids started doing the homework,” Halla admits in the article. “I just thought they didn’t want to do the work, but it was more that they were unorganized and had forgotten to do it.”

4. Faculty Focus

In December of 2017, Faculty Focus, an educational ezine targeted to college faculty members, put out a call to its readers. It wanted to know their policies for cellphones in the classroom. The publication received almost 50 responses, which it then summarized in an article called “Cell Phone Policies: A Review of Where Faculty Stand.” Unsurprisingly, the policies varied, ranging from outright bans to more lenient allowances. One anonymous respondent explained how their perspective on phones had gradually evolved over time.

“I use to ban cell phones (and laptops and other technology),” the professor wrote. “…but I also realized that students were bringing these devices to class anyway and that I could harness their powerful capabilities. I use free online programs (like Poll Everywhere) to do anonymous polling, ask students to read articles I don’t want to print out, look up definitions of words they don’t know, explore in the app store for an in-class assignment, etc.”

5. Bryan J. Coleman


Writing a separate article for Faculty Focus, accounting professor Bryan Coleman describes his search for that elusive “Quiet Moment” in his classroom, “that moment where the entire room is silent and the students are all actively engaged in the material, researching and problem-solving.” Recently, Coleman has discovered a new and unlikely tool that has brought more quiet moments in his classroom. That tool is a phone.

As Coleman explains in the article, “…rather than fight a losing battle trying to prevent cell phone use in class, I have begun to turn the tables on the device, embracing its use in classroom learning… I no longer view it as a potential distraction. Instead, it has become a potent research tool that students are already adept at using.”

Coleman goes on to explain how he incorporates phones in his classroom, including introducing a topic and ordering his students to research the topic on their phones and explain its importance to him. “Some may expect this free and open use of phones in class to degrade into a rampant Facebook and social media frenzy,” Coleman writes. “That’s not what’s happened in my class. Rather, I’ve found that when students are empowered to discover the material on their own, they become very engaged, even competitive at times to see who can get the correct answer first.”

How will you use phones in your classroom?

The debate over the value of cellphones in the classroom has been raging for decades, and it won’t end anytime soon. What we do know is that students’ use of them will only increase. These five examples show that teachers all across the country and at various grade levels are discovering a variety of ways to make phones work for their curriculum and their students. Some teachers have grudgingly accepted cellphones as an inevitable reality, while others enthusiastically embrace their many capabilities.

Whatever side of the fence you stand on, it’s worth exploring the growing array of apps that can help you increase student engagement in your classroom and give your students new ways to learn and express their ideas.

From competitions to anonymous polling and student surveys, Poll Everywhere can be a great tool to increase student engagement. Learn more about how Poll Everywhere can be a positive addition to your classroom.

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