Are your students more interested in checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush than the material you’re covering? While mobile devices have long been verboten in the college classroom, if students are prioritizing time killers over learning, the problem may not really be the phone. After all, if students aren’t interested, they don’t need a phone to be distracted (yesterday’s students certainly found ways to escape, too, whether through pencil and paper, a window with a view, or communicating with classmates). Ultimately, distraction itself is nothing new, mobile devices are just the latest way students use to escape a course they don’t find interesting.

Your enemy as an instructor isn’t mobile phones: it’s distraction itself. Instead of taking an oppositional view to any and all cell phone use in the classroom, there are many ways to embrace technology that can get distracted students engaged and teach them how to transform their mobile devices into tools they can use in the classroom and later on in the workplace, an approach that can have the dual benefit of helping students learn to manage distractions while also covering the material required by your course.

The Who, What and How of Mobile Phone Usage in Education

Before we delve into how you can transform mobile phone use in your course, it’s useful to understand a bit about how students are currently using mobile devices, for better or worse, in an educational setting.  Here are some stats:

  • Whether your students are young or old, they’re probably using a cell phone. More than 83 percent of American adults own cell phones. Among college students, the number rises to 99.8 percent. It’s pretty safe to assume that your students have a cell phone, and most likely a smartphone.
  • Can mobile devices be a useful learning tool? Sure, but when they’re a distraction, they’re a big one. In one study, students who reported not using mobile phones in their courses wrote down 62 percent more information in their notes, had better recall of that information, a scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than students who were using a mobile phone.
  • Laptops are still king when it comes to mobile learning—85 percent of students rate them as technology important to their academic success. But other devices are gaining ground. Surveys found that 45 percent valued tablets, 37 percent smartphones, and 31 percent e-book readers.
  • While not all of your students will be using a mobile device for learning, the numbers who do are rapidly growing. In 2013, 67 percent of students reported using their smartphones and tablets for academic purposes, double the number from the previous year.

Bottom line? Your students have mobile phones, they’re using them for learning, but they have as much potential to have a negative effect on their grades as a positive one, making allowing cell phone use in the classroom a delicate line to walk.

In fact, many of the reasons why cellphones are banned from the classroom are the same things that make them such a powerful and potentially useful tool for learning. After all, most smartphones have Internet access, a portal to virtually any and all information they could want or need. They can also be used as recording devices (video, photo, and audio) calculators, rulers, and collaboration tools and unlike many other tech tools, nearly everyone has one. What’s more, this familiarity can help ease some of the tech knowledge gaps that exist between students of different ages or from different backgrounds.

Of course, there is a dark side lurking behind all of those potential uses: distraction. Consider this, however: it’s not a given that the distractive power of cell phones has to be a bad thing that drags students down. Done right, mobile phones can be used to help lift students up and may even give them a greater passion for your course.

Distraction As Opportunity: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Mobile phones are distracting for students (and let’s face it, non-students, too) because they’re fun. They’re always filled with new content, new challenges, and new things to engage with, whether you’re texting, browsing the web, or playing a game. Yes, these are distractions from learning, but they also provide an opportunity to catch student attention.

Judiciously allowing students to get out their mobile devices can help keep them motivated. It can give life to material or reviews the might otherwise be dry without something to spice them up. It can get students excited about working together and allow them to provide each other with instant feedback on their performance in the course. Cell phones can also be incredibly powerful tools for students with disabilities who need assistive technology and accessibility support.

But while phones allow a more dynamic, collaborative and sometimes even rich experience, teachers who’ve been successful in using them in their course stress one key commonality: students should be just as interested in the course material whether they’re using their phones or not. They shouldn’t be fixated on the use of cell phones, but the content of the course. That’s not always easy to do and may take some practice and experimentation. How do you get there?

While every course will be unique depending on the subject matter and your and your students’ comfort levels, there are some basic guidelines that can help ensure your foray into allowing mobile use in the classroom is successful.

  • Make sure it stays academic. While students are using the phones in the course, make sure they are staying on task and redirect them if necessary.
  • Use the right apps. Some apps are great for use in the classroom, while others might be such a pain that they end up taking away rather than adding to the lesson. If you’re looking for some good places to start, check out the list of smartphone teaching tools below.
  • Don’t change what you’re already doing. Look for ways you can incorporate smartphones into your existing course structure. That way, the focus is still on the content, and the phone will just be another tool to engage with it, rather than a novelty.
  • Get creative. Mobile apps allow you can take learning outside of the classroom. Why not encourage your students to whip out their phones and get engaged with learning in museums, during environmental studies, or in lab work—as privacy and policy allow.
  • Ask students about their experience. Unsure how cell phone use is impacting your students? Ask them. Getting student feedback can and should be an essential part of honing your approach to technology in the classroom. After all, if students don’t like using their phones in class or find them to be a deterrent to learning, there’s no reason to force them. Or on the flip side, if they’re excited about the potential, you may want to come up with even more ways you can apply them to your lessons.
  • Find subject specific applications. Smart phones and tablets are used heavily in clinical settings, so why not incorporate them early on in education in these subjects? There are also many subject-specific apps that provide unique opportunities for students in your field to engage with the material. For example, plant identification tools or 3-D anatomy models.

Smartphone-Based Teaching Tools

Considering expanding the tech tools you use in your classroom? These apps can be a great way to start using mobile phones in your course. Even better, most are free to use and Learning Technologies can help you learn how to set them up and start using them in your course.


For quick in-class polling, you can hardly beat the ease of Kahoot. Simply set up a game or quiz, give students the pin, and they can quickly respond to your questions on their mobile device. The catchy music doesn’t hurt either.


While more geared towards K-12, Socrative can still sometimes be a helpful tool for the higher ed classroom. Sign up for a free account to try out the quiz, quick questions or space race features and learn how the program gives feedback on student performance.


Looking to stay connected with students outside of the classroom? This popular app allows you to quickly send messages to your students on their phones without disclosing any phone numbers, keeping them up-to-date with important information or just a few nudges to remind them when assignments are due.

Poll Everywhere 

Similar to Kahoot!, Poll Everywhere allows instructors to build and share questions with a classroom and get feedback in real time. Check out their site for examples of how it’s being used in classrooms to get students engaged.

While phones and other mobile tech will always be a distraction for students, you can find ways to turn that distraction into learning. If you have any questions about getting started using mobile technology in your course or just want to brainstorm some ideas, Learning Technologies is happy to help! Make an appointment or come by during our office hours.