Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Cellphone Debate

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

We’ve all been there, right? The lesson is going well. The students are engaged. I am sharing pearls of ESL wisdom in an accessible and entertaining fashion. I am scanning the back of the room, when all of a sudden I see a student with his/her head bowed. Sadly, that student is not being momentarily overcome by the sheer brilliance of my teaching methodology. More likely, that student is on his/her cellphone.


According to an NPR report on innovation in education, How to get Students to Stop Using their Cellphones in Class, college-aged students in the US use their cellphones an average of 8 to 10 hours every day and check them an average of every 15 to 20 minutes. If that first statistic doesn’t blow your mind (seriously, 8 to 10 hours every day?!?), the fact that in a 2 hour class, our students, on average, are checking their phones 6 to 8 times just might.

Two Sides of the Cellphone War

Okay, for the record, I know I am old and I have an old person’s relationship with my cellphone. I have an old Blackberry (I wanted buttons) that doesn’t have a lot of apps and has a cracked, taped-up screen. I don’t check it very often. I’m only on one social media site and I don’t tweet, post on Instagram or “follow” anyone. To be honest, I am only vaguely aware those things exist.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate that my students have a different relationship with their phones. I understand that they are much more used to being connected online than I am. It’s a lifeline for students who are living in foreign countries, far from their families. I also acknowledge that my students’ dependence on their phones is physical. In the same NPR report, Larry Rosen, a researcher from California State University, Dominguez Hills, explained that young people who are heavy cellphone users display physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, when they are deprived of their phones.

Having said that, I also cannot ignore the almost visceral reaction I have when I see students’ fingers flying over their cellphone screens when I am busy trying to facilitate their learning. Talk about an increased heart rate! The frustration for me, and I suspect you, too, if you are still reading this, is that while they are busy on Snapchat, they are completely tuning out the lesson. Another researcher cited in the NPR report, Doug Duncan from the University of Colorado Boulder, found that more than 75% of the undergrads at UC Boulder texted while they were in class, and that this texting was responsible for lower grades by half a letter grade. In other words, in addition to being rude, texting in class leads to lower grades. Shocking? Not so much.

Strategies for Attack

So, what’s a teacher to do? It would seem we have 2 options: beat’em or join’em. The NPR report offered some suggestions. Doug Duncan gives students 1 participation point toward their grade for each class that they take out their cell phones, turning if off and leaving it on the teacher’s desk. Alternatively, I suppose, teachers could subtract a point from a student’s grade every time he/she pulled out a cellphone. I’ve also seen teachers who have a very strict no cellphone policy: As students enter the class, they have to put their phone in a basket.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with these options, however. For one thing, I hate to waste energy as the cellphone police when there are so many other things I want to focus on in the class. Also, my students are adults. If they want to pay money and spend time in my class but don’t want to actually listen to me, well, I guess that’s their prerogative.

But, most importantly, I acknowledge that cellphones have a lot to offer an ESL class. Gone are the days of flipping through a dictionary! Students have the world at their fingertips. Also, there are some really fun things students and teachers can do with cellphones, including using Kahoot  to create interactive games, Padlet to create spaces for sharing, and Class Dojo to give feedback and keep track of students’ classroom contributions. (I say this like I know about all of these, but to be honest, I saw them demonstrated at a professional development session and don’t have firsthand experience with them. Remember my taped-up Blackberry? But, they looked REALLY cool.) There is an internet full of great language learning apps for students to fool around with and for teachers to use in class. I bet you know of tons. Care to share?

I guess I just need to embrace this brave new world. After all, cellphones aren’t going away, at least not until they are replaced by other ways of distracting students from the lesson at hand.


Comment from Barry O’Leary
May 17, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Hey Tamara,

Useful post. I used to have quite a few problems with this, but now I don’t get so hung up on it, especially in my FCE class as they are usually using wordreference or a thesaurus in class. I know sometimes they use What’s App, and I catch those ones out from time to time and just embarrass them. For lower levels I don’t let them use phones in class at all though and sometimes make them out them in a box at the front of my class.

Thanks for sharing.


Comment from Tamara Jones
May 18, 2016 at 5:54 am

Kind-hearted public humiliation is a great weapon in the fight against irritating cell phone use! I’d be interested to know why you allow your FCE class to use their cell phones to look up words but not your lower level students. That’s an interesting differentiation. Thanks for sharing your strategies.

Comment from Robert
November 14, 2016 at 8:02 am

I am giving TOEFL preparation classes to Spanish students here in Madrid and I don’t have those kinds of issues at all.
My students are to concentrate on classroom work to be checking their phones. Even though it was included as one of the topics of in-class discipline issues as a part of my TEFL course I think it more depends on the age of your students.
My students actually want to learn, which makes my job tons easier.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 14, 2016 at 9:44 am

I agree that the BEST way to avoid students’ tuning out and checking their phones is to provide a challenging and relevant lesson. Students who are focusing on learning don’t even think about turning to their phones all the time.

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