Wesley Chapel, Fla. Ariana Leonard’s high school students shuffled in their seats, eagerly awaiting a cue from their Spanish teacher that the assignment would begin.
“Take out your cell phones,” she said in Spanish.
The teens pulled out an array of colorful flip phones, iPhones and SideKicks. They divided into groups and Leonard began sending them text messages in Spanish: Find something green. Go to the cafeteria. Take a picture with the school secretary.
Leonard’s class at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, a middle-class Florida suburb about 30 miles north of Tampa, is one of a growing number around the country that are abandoning traditional policies of cell phone prohibition and incorporating them into class lessons. Spanish vocabulary becomes a digital scavenger hunt. Notes are copied with a cell phone camera. Text messages serve as homework reminders.
“I can use my cell phone for all these things, why can’t I use it for learning purposes?” Leonard said. “Giving them something, a mobile device, that they use every day for fun, giving them another avenue to learn outside of the classroom with that.”
Much more attention has gone to the ways students might use phones to cheat or take inappropriate pictures. But as the technology becomes cheaper, more advanced and more ingrained in students’ lives, that mentality is changing.
“It really is taking advantage of the love affair that kids have with technology today,” said Dan Domevech, executive director of the nonprofit American Association of School Administrators. “The kids are much more motivated to use their cell phone in an educational manner.”
Today’s phones are the equivalent of small computers — able to check e-mail, do Internet searches and record podcasts. Meanwhile, most school districts can’t afford a computer for every student.
“Because there’s so much in the media about banning cell phones and how negative phones can be, a lot of people just haven’t considered there could be positive, educative ways to use cell phones,” said Liz Kolb, author of “From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Learning.”
Seventy-one percent of teens had a cell phone by early 2008, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That percentage remains relatively steady regardless of race, income or other demographic factors. Meanwhile, many schools are low-tech compared with homes outfitted with home networks, wireless Internet and a smartphone for every family member.