Friday, November 5, 2010

Harnessing the Educative Potential of Cell Phones in the Social Studies Classroom

Nationally, most schools ban students from using cell phones on school grounds (Scholastic, 2010). In fact, many administrators and teachers see these digital devices as nuisances that distract students from learning. Such noted distractions include students sending text messages in class, browsing the Internet, and taking pictures/video in school. Chris Deibler, Principal at Pound Middle School near Lincoln Nebraska, recently expressed such an opinion when interviewed in the Lincoln Journal: “We never allow a student to have a phone turned on or use it in the building- ever (Anderson, 9-30-2009).” This zero tolerance policy for student cell phone use in schools is quite common (Lenhart, 2009). Even though districts, principals, and teachers have adopted strict standards against student use of cell phones more than 2/3 of teens admit using their cell phones in school when they shouldn’t (Lenhart, 2009).

Distracters in the social studies classroom have always existed. From passing notes to doing math homework in social studies, students have always tested the boundaries. Especially, since students cite the social studies as one of their least favorite subjects (Martorella, 1997). The field has been especially plagued by its large dependence upon bias textbooks and teacher lectures (Loewen, 2010; Shaughnessy & Haladyana, 1985). These instructional methods often leave students thinking at lower-levels, bored and questioning the importance of the social studies. Marc Prensky, in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001), comments that when teachers incorporate new technologies into their instruction they genuinely get students excited about learning and often tap into their culture and digital interests. In an age where technology has redefined commerce, communication, advocacy, the integration of these technologies in the social studies classroom can help students gain the skills and etiquette needed to use these technologies appropriately. Furthermore, this technology (cell phones) can serve as an important platform in getting student excited about the social studies (Greenhut & Jones, 2010).

Student Use of Cell Phones

Today’s cell phones hold unprecedented potential for both teachers and students in promoting learning. This holds special significance since according to a 2009 Pew Research Study, 71% of students aged 12-17 own a cell phone (Lenhardt, 2009). As teens get older, they are more likely to own a cell phone. For instance, 83% of teens aged 15-17 own a cell phone (Lenhardt, 2009). This number is growing rapidly, and students are more likely to own a cell phone than a laptop computer. From such basic functions as planners, clocks, and cameras to more smart functions like searching online encyclopedias and browsing the Internet, cell phones are evolving into sophisticated micro-computers. In fact, smart phones hold many of the same capabilities of computers. While smart phones are growing in popularity, this manuscript will learn towards the integration of basic cell phone functions in the classroom. These discussed applications include: Using text messaging to search and translate, sending out free notices to students and parents, making Power Point presentations interactive, and using cell phones to add commentary to a slide-show. These applications were selected for three reasons:

1. All of these applications hold great educative potential in the social studies.
2. While basic cell phone data and minutes rate apply, these applications are free to teachers and students.
3. These resources are user-friendly, and offer educators resources and strategies on the integration of these technologies into their classroom.

Student Use of Text Messaging : SMS (Short Message Service)

Teen use of text messaging has dramatically increased in the past few years. According to a new study, Teens and Mobile Phones Over the Past Five Years, from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American life Project, over 75% of teens that have a cell phone have unlimited text messaging (Lenhart, 2009). Moreover, more than half of all teens that text message send over 50 text messages a day, and one in three send more than 100 messages a day (Lenhardt, 2010). The Pew Report goes on to cite texting as “… the form of communication that has grown the most for teens during the last four years (Lenhard, 2009).” Between 2006 and 2009, the percent of teens that use texting to contact friends outside of school on a daily basis has gone from 27 to 54 percent. Face-to-face contact, instant messaging, mobile voice and social network messaging have remained flat during the same period, while use of e-mail and the landline phone have decreased (Lenhardt, 2009). The widespread availability of unlimited text messaging plans has “…transformed communication patterns of American teens, many of whom now conduct substantial portions of their daily conversations with friends via texting (Lenhardt, 2009)).


As students turn to text messaging at greater rates, Google Mobile has tapped into this technology to allow teachers and students to access a great deal of information. While Google is known as the Internet’s largest search engine provider, its platform of free mobile products holds great educative potential. Google SMS allows students to access real time information, definitions, translations, stock prices, and maps (Google SMS, 2010). Thus, Google SMS is a dictionary, newspaper, atlas, translation guide, and calculator all in one. All students have to do is text their inquiry to GOOGLE (466453) and then the provider will text message results back. Of course, handsets must be SMS capable and students should be authorized to send text messages as standard text messaging rates apply.

When teaching an economics course, students could be asked to look up the actual stock quote of Target Corporation via Google SMS. To do this, students would have to text sock tgt to GOOGLE (466453). Or, if students wanted to review a map of Cleveland, Ohio, they could text Map downtown Cleveland Ohio to GOOGLE. Besides reviewing stock prices and maps of locations around the world, GOOGLE SMS provides a host of other features social studies teachers and students can tap into to promote learning.

2. Joopz

Joopz is a service offered by MobileSphere that allows teachers the opportunity to send out mass text messages to students and parents using their PC keyboard (, 2010). No longer must teachers use the microscopic keypad on their cell phones to individually alert parents to upcoming important dates (i.e. parent teacher conferences, field trips, or test dates). Social studies teachers can also use Joopz to send out text message reminders to students about their homework assignments, due dates, and other announcements.

When you sign up with Joopz, you provide your mobile telephone number along with your name, e-mail address, and a password. Once verified through an e-mail, Joopz provides users with a variety of different resources that have important instructional implications:

A. Teachers can send out mass group text messages to students and parents. Furthermore, the website easily allows teachers to manage which participants receive text messages. The teacher can also browse the history of all text messages distributed.

B. Teachers can construct SMS messages in advance, and then schedule these messages to be sent out on a future date/time.

The free basic account allows teachers to send 10 outgoing messages to each group per month. For those users that receive the SMS messages, only standard text messaging rates apply. The Joopz service will appeal to teachers wishing to correspond with parents and students through bulk text message, while not having to type individual SMS messages using the tiny cell phone keys.

3. Yodio

Using the Internet and a cell phone, students can add their voice and audio to a slide show. After creating and uploading a slideshow to Yodio, students call in from their cell phone to add music or a narrated track (, 2010). First, users are asked to complete a simple registration process whereby they construct an account that includes the cell phone number they will record from. This number is private, and will never be shared or published. Yodio will use this phone number to recognize the user when they call in to add narration or audio to a slideshow. After users have created a profile and activated their account, they are free to upload slideshows and pictures. Then, users call 1-877-MY-YODIO (699-6346) and follow the prompts to make their recording. After recording their narration, users return to their account at to pair their recording with the slideshow/photo. When students are done, they can share their narrated slide show by publishing it to the web, embedding it in a blog, or by e-mailing it to others.

In American History classes, students could be asked to create slideshows on an important topic in U.S. History. For instance, students may be asked to create a slideshow on the Civil Rights Movement. After researching key figures, events, and issues, students could compile important pictures and images into a slideshow. Then, using their cell phones, students could narrate their slideshow and discuss important themes, concepts, and historical figures. After adding audio to their presentation, students could publish their narrated slideshow to the web or house it on their teacher’s or school’s website.


Social studies teachers are amongst the worst abusers of Power Point presentations and slideshow software to deliver instruction (VanFossen, 1999; Whitworth & Berson ,2003). Social studies teachers often use slide shows that promote lower-level thinking, rote-memorization, with an over-abundance of text (Gabriel, 2008). While there are many ways social studies teachers can enhance the quality of their slideshow presentations, there’s one cell phone SMS based technology that makes PowerPoint slide shows interactive and engaging for students. is a device that allows teachers to embed interactive polls and quizzes into their PowerPoint presentations (, 2010). Students can respond to questions and vote for a particular selection in the social studies through sending text messages. This technology actually lets students use their cell phones to text their votes and opinions into a PowerPoint presentation. The free plan requires that visitors sign-up for an account (they ask for the usual information: name, e-mail address). The free plan is also limited in that only 30 votes can be recorded per poll (so the teacher has a class of fewer than 30 students each student can vote once per question).

After signing up for an account, the teacher has a choice of what type of poll they want to create and embed into a PowerPoint presentation. They can include a fixed response poll whereby students select from possible choices (much like when the audience is asked to text their responses to American Idol). Another type of poll offered is for opened response answers. After the teacher poses a question to students (such as ‘What are your feelings on global warming?’), students can use their cell phones to text their response into the presentation. As student respond, their answers automatically appear in real time into the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher needs a stable Internet connection and computer to display these results to their students. Also, students should be aware that standard text-messaging rates apply.


Today’s cell phones hold unprecedented potential for both teachers and students in promoting learning in the social studies (Friedman, 2010; Greenhut & Jones, 2010). This hold special significance since according to a 2009 Pew Research Study, 71% of students aged 12-17 own a cell phone (Lenhart, 2010). This number is growing rapidly, and students are increasingly gaining access to more sophisticated cell phones. From such basic functions as planners, clocks, and cameras to more smart functions like searching online encyclopedias and browsing the Internet, cell phones are evolving everyday. This article described ways in which social studies teachers can harness the potential of cell phones in the classroom. The discussed applications included: Using SMS (text-messaging) to search and translate, sending out free reminders to students and parents, making Power Point presentations interactive, and using cell phones to add commentary to slideshows.

As students’ access to cell phones increase (Lehnart, 2010), and as new applications and software becomes available, cell phones will continue to grow in their functionality and capability. While it is true that cell phones can be distractions, much like watches and comic books of previous generations, the real test comes in social studies teachers harnessing the massive potential of cell phones in the social studies classroom. Instead of banning all cell phone use, teachers and administrators should encourage proper cell phone etiquette and their appropriate usage as learning tools. Like any classroom technologies, students should learn that having the ability to use this tool is a privilege that can be taken away if used inappropriately. Simply disallowing and prohibiting the use of cell phones by students, especially, as they grow in educational capabilities, marginalizes their ability to serve as 21st century tools that allow students to access information, communicate, and present new information.

Global and Social Studies Education

The website/blog allows educators in the social studies to reflect upon key issues in the social studies. It also allows teachers the opportunity to access resources that help infuse instructional media and technology, and global perspectives in their teaching.