Posted by: schooleducator | August 30, 2009

Cell Phones in Schools: Flip ‘Em Open

I remember the first year I taught high school history. I fast learned how creative high school students could be when attempting to cheat on a test. One month into my tenure, I gave my first major unit test to a group of 10th grade history students. The test consisted of some essay questions, short answer responses, and multiple choice questions. There was a fair amount of material that students had to study and learn in preparation for the test. I gave the test, the room was quiet, and the students seemed to take the test without any major complaints. Toward the end of the day, my junior year students, who did not have a test that day, came into class, and just as we were beginning, asked if I had given a test in the room that day. I answered yes and then asked how they knew that. They looked up at the ceiling and several note cards, with block print writing, plastered the ceiling. I could not believe it. My 10th graders had taken me to the cleaners.

Naturally, I was both horrified and mortified, and felt betrayed by the breach of trust. I went to the dean of students to report the infraction. He took a close look at the handwriting and could not identify the author. He suggested I put it back on the class and see if anyone would step forward. No one did. I was left feeling pretty defeated. As I reflected on what happened, I realized
that I needed to design tests differently.

Cheating is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for decades. Ted Kennedy had a proxy take a Spanish exam for him at Harvard and he was booted for the transgression. That gaffe chased him for years. The game has just changed a bit, with the advent of cell phones and texting. Tech commentator Marc Prensky loves to share the story of a talk he was having with high school students in which he suggested that schools should have open phone tests, as a measure to combat cell phone cheating. One of the students responded, “Dude, we already have open phone tests. The teachers just don’t know it.” I asked my 16-year old nephew how often high school students text in class and his response was “all the time. The teachers have no clue. The kids text right under the desk.”

A recent cartoon in The New York Times Week in Review captures the change in classrooms. The time-honored assignment for English classes is to have students write an essay or share a story about their summer vacation. In the cartoon, the teacher stands in front of the classroom, and presents the weather beaten assignment for yet another year. One bold student pipes up with, “What, didn’t you follow me on Twitter this summer?” The cartoon lands perfectly with its message that students are using different tools to learn, and classrooms need to change to catch up with the times.

For teachers, it’s a matter of a drastic overhaul in mindset. In The Art of Possibility, Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander shares a wonderful parable to illustrate how to shift one’s mindset to see opportunity, instead of a defeated outlook. Two shoe salesmen head to a part of rural Africa to explore the viability of establishing a new market for their shoes. One salesman writes back to the company, “Situation hopeless. No one wears shoes. Abandon project.” The other salesman sees the flip side and writes, “No one is wearing shoes. Opportunity abounds. Huge market awaits. Send resources immediately.” This is the situation teachers and schools face with mobile technologies. Schools can continue to fight a losing battle, and draw harsh lines and confiscate cell phones or ban them during school hours. Or, they can seize the teaching moment, and shift approaches to embrace and engage students with mobile devices. One thing is very clear. Schools cannot continue to operate as if nothing is changing with students and technology.

For one, test design has to change, as I learned, from the old school form of cheating. The incident I shared at the beginning of this article occurred ten years ago. Today, it might look very different. Students would have been texting each other answers. I’d like to think I would have patrolled the room and caught them in the act. But, I might also have ended up looking like the clueless teacher if I did not detect the cheating.

Believe it or not, teachers can actually be creative with how to use multiple choice questions as a teaching tool. I started to play around with different configurations of the questions. I would give students the question stem, and they would have to come up with the five possible answers, looking at how the Advanced Placement exam writers constructed their question and response sections. Students were forced to think like an exam writer. Or, I would give them the five answers and they would have to write the question. Another approach was to give them all of the content terms in the question in a scramble and they would have to figure out the question and the possible responses. Sometimes, I would allow them to work in groups, and other times, I had them work independently. These exercises increased and heightened their critical thinking skills, and had them think carefully about audience – the exam writers. One student commented: “I used to think the answers were so random, but now I actually can see how wrong answers are compiled and I can follow the line of thinking. It helps me with my essay writing to think about how to logically construct ideas.”

The most fun activity we used was the Who Wants to be a Millionaire model with multiple choice training. I would put questions up on the screen in the classroom. Students would take turns in the “hot” seat, trying to answer questions. They could use Call a Friend (and today, I would have them call a friend with a cell phone), if they were stuck, or they could knock the answers down to a 50/50, with just two answers left to look at. Or, and this was the class favorite, they had one minute to comb through any classroom books to help them figure out the answer. Today, I would have them post a question on Twitter, text a friend, or search the web on their phone or laptop in 60 seconds or less. We would play in teams, and they loved the opportunity to tackle what can be complex, subtle questions that require analytical thinking and deep knowledge of course content. Over the year, we would keep team scores tallied and students looked forward to playing the multiple-choice challenge.

Beyond transforming test design, teachers need to think about ways to incorporate mobile technologies into their teaching. One creative foreign language teacher sees the possibilities. She designs scavenger hunts. She writes: “Students need to call a number and get instructions on where to go. Once there, they have to complete a task or buy something and call the next number to get further instructions. Each student has slightly different instructions to complete the task – to differentiate the assignment. Ideally, this all happens in a Spanish-speaking environment such as the Mission or Redwood City.” She also has students interview Spanish-speaking people in different countries.

This summer, I discovered the joy of Geocaching, largely through the motivation of my son to figure this game out. For those unfamiliar with Geocaching, the idea is to look up cache sites on a mobile device, like an iPhone and use a GPS system to find the cache, which often consists of a plastic Tupperware box with items enclosed. There are often clues included and it is a bit of a treasure hunt to find the caches. My son had a friend over one weekend and they wanted to build and hide a cache. We had to figure out how to determine the coordinates of where to put the cache. I had no idea how to figure this out. My son and his friend immediately solved the problem and they looked at me as if I was a certifiable idiot, as they stated simultaneously, “Google Earth.” Sure enough, with the help of Google Earth on my iPhone they were able to figure out the coordinates, post the cache on the Geocaching web site, and then hide it.

How easy would it be for teachers to utilize this approach in the classroom to use mobile devices for learning. We need to ask the kids, or at least create environments where kids can lead the way with us to guide them. We don’t know the ins and outs of the technology, but we can lead kids in the right direction. For example, with my son and his friend, we had to spend some time thinking thorugh where to put the cache, and thinking about places where it might not be appropriate to hide the cache. That’s where my role as a parent/educator came in, but I was following their lead.

The cell phone industry is banking on this potential trend and they see the floodgates of an enormous new market about to open. Digital Millenial conducted a study of four schools in North Carolina, where students received cell phones with Microsoft’s Windows Moblie Software. The New York Times reported: “The students used the phones for a variety of tasks, including recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site, where classmates could watch. The study found that students with the phones performed 25 percent better on the end-of-the-year algebra exam than did students without the devices in similar classes.” This is exciting news for educators and for the cell phone industry, which stands to sell 10-15 million phones if school districts in major urban areas adopt cell phones in the classroom. It is not a panacea, but this type of project begins to herald a shift in direction for schools and more importantly, for students.

School culture is shifting and students are dictating the terms of this new culture. Schools need to meet students halfway and acknowledge the use of mobile technologies. Otherwise, students will find every which way to skirt school rules, sneak texts under a desk during a test, and continue to bypass the trust of their teachers and schools. Teachers can alter the terms of learning with creative use of mobile devices and through careful design of testing situations, especially in those classes, like AP courses, that warrant the use of multiple choice exams. The last thing we want is a room plastered with notecards on the ceiling (or a room filled with surreptitiously texting students).


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