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Digital Citizenship and Smartphones in the Classroom

Digital Citizenship and Smartphones in the Classroom

Middle school boy with cell phone in class

I received a call from Ed Jr. while on my way to work today. “Dad, my cell phone is acting up so we need to go to the phone store tonight when you get home from work.” I replied that I thought we could wait until this weekend since he really does not need his phone at school.My son exclaimed, “Dad, you can’t possibly mean that! Some of my teachers let me use it in class.”

Ed Jr.’s response made me curious; do schools really allow students to use their cell phones in class? How does this affect learning? I decided to ask some of the teachers in our region how they handle cell phones in class. One teacher told me about a study at the University of California/San Diego [1]where college students taking a test were divided into three groups:

  1. Students in the first group placed their cell phones in front of them on the desk.
  2. Students in the second group stowed their phones in pockets or handbags.
  3. Students in the third group left their phones in another room.

The study showed that the students who had their phones in view got the lowest scores, those who had their phones in another room did best, and students with phones in their pockets or handbags scored in the middle. Almost all students interviewed afterward said they had not been distracted by or had even thought about their phones while taking the tests – but that obviously was not true for two-thirds of them. A similar study found that students with phones in sight made more errors on a test.

Another teacher told me a study at the University of Arkansas [2]found that students who brought cell phones with them to classes and exams scored a full letter grade lower (whether or not they checked their phones during classes) than those who left phones back in their dorms.

As I dug further into this topic and spoke to more teachers, I found that some of them have allowed students to use cell phones in their classroom in ways that enhance learning rather than distract from it. These teachers (like the one in this article from NEA,Using Smartphones in theClassroom),helped me understand how making personal devices purposeful and meaningful in the classroom can help to engage students in learning.

My research showed that the average age for first acquiring a cell phone in the U.S. is ten, and many children come to school with little guidance on when and how to best use their devices. “Digital citizenship is knowing where your students are in their understanding of privacy, safety, etiquette, identity, empathy, and security online,” says Liz Kolb (University of Michigan) in the article,3 Tips for Managing Phone Use in Class.Her suggestions to teachers include: having an open discussion about when it is acceptable to use phones in class, giving students a heads-up on how cell phones will be used (or not used) as they walk into a classroom, and drafting a class contract for students to sign regarding cell phone use in class.

Cell phones are a powerful tool especially when used the right way, and when digital citizenship is taught early in the school year. Having a clear understanding of the expectations is important. So tonight on my way to the cell phone store with my son, I will have a serious conversation about my expectations as to when and how it is appropriate to use his cell phone at school.


[1]Marshall Memo 707October 16,2017Issue

[2]Marshall Memo 707October 16,2017Issue