Cell Phones in the (Language) Classroom: Recasting the Debate

Key Takeaways

  • To pursue a paradigm shift in education with limited finances, schools should consider taking advantage of ubiquitous cell phone technology for pedagogical purposes that square with best practices within appropriate disciplines.
  • New Internet SMS and messaging services are proving especially useful to language teachers, turning the focus away from the particulars of language and writing and toward whole language oral output and pronunciation, even at the beginner level.
  • Cell phones give faculty access to students both in and out of the classroom, providing greater power to instruct, persuade, cajole, encourage, motivate, and engage.
  • Students who record their voices in computer language labs or using cell phones become more engaged and invested in those potentially public recordings.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I do not work for a wireless company or industry trade group trying to push cell phones into classrooms.1 I am a language teacher who happens to think — particularly with regard to language instruction — that they’re right.

Faculty and administrators at all levels pride themselves on embracing the nontraditional, citing the celebrated “paradigm shift” in education. Now — with the launch of such free telecommunications services as Google Voice and the proliferation of similar tools — is the time to revisit and recast the debate over cell phones in education and to consider their relevance as engagement and assessment tools for foreign language teachers in particular.

After all, let’s face it: many students already use cell phones inside the classroom, mostly (or perhaps almost exclusively — and surreptitiously) for non-instructional purposes. Increasingly, however, thanks to a generally favorable climate for progressive thinking in education, students are using their phones for some surprisingly interactive and engaging instructional purposes, some of which actually conform to accepted best practices within particular disciplines. Momentum gathers for a reason and can be hard to slow.

And it is no longer only what takes place inside the classroom that needs debating. Paradigm shift also means embracing the notion that learning takes place in more collaborative, interactive ways and also — at least potentially — everywhere and (nearly) all the time.

Cell phones are practically tethered to the hands of most adolescent and adult students. Given their students’ cell phone numbers, teachers have access to their students outside the classroom setting. Used properly (and, perhaps, sparingly), increased access effectively gives instructors greater power to teach, persuade, cajole, encourage, motivate, and engage. In short, at hand are all the things that ultimately help shape the learning experience and tailor the dynamics of the learning process (note that I didn’t say environment) to the needs and expectations of today’s students and their future employers.

The launch this year of Google Voice — representing as it does a free alternative or complement to costly language laboratory recording hardware and software — has profound and exciting implications for student engagement in general and the confluence of language instruction and cell phone technology in particular. The proliferation of cell phones among today’s students combined with the development of such new computer-mediated communication tools allows teachers to engage students in new ways in and out of the classroom.

What Is Google Voice?

Launched in mid-2009, Google Voice is a telecommunications service (formally known as Grand Central) for both inbound and outbound calls. It allows users to choose a U.S. phone number from among available numbers within their area codes.

My Google Voice number has served primarily as a messaging service students call (sometimes spontaneously during the instructional period, more often outside of the classroom) to record dialogues, poetry, even song, either individually or in pairs. These recordings are stored on Google servers, but can be downloaded and posted on course management pages (Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, etc.) or podcasting, blogging, or social networking sites (I post particularly good recordings on my Spanish Facebook page). While I have yet to experiment with this particular feature, Google Voice can also be used for conference calling, and dialogues with groups of students can be recorded for later informal group or formal teacher evaluation.

Cell Phones Within the Classroom

Inside the language classroom setting, best practices in foreign language instruction typically involve a good deal of student-to-student oral practice. In addition, maximizing student engagement during the class period is essential, as many students work and do not practice outside the classroom setting. Without getting into the debate over the front-end need for considerable comprehensible input, as a practical matter many students see paired work time (particularly in larger classes) as social time, which can lead to student-teacher conflict (no explanation needed).

Cell phones offer an accountability tool for teachers inside the classroom. As an example, for lower level classes I can instruct my students to form small groups and, within a given time frame, call my Google Voice number and record a narration of an illustration or picture sequence. In the higher level classes, I can ask groups to come up with a succinct recorded comparison/contrast analysis of two different perspectives (textual and/or auditory) on a given subject. Either way, embracing whole language oral output turns the focus from the particulars of language and writing to whole language and pronunciation. It also allows for efficient instructor identification of common problem points.

Students in all of my Spanish classes, from the introductory levels up, are asked to submit an array of audio recordings covering the concepts they are studying. After listening to the students’ initial submissions, I typically play some of the best recordings for full class discussion, focusing on a variety of structural and pronunciation issues. Two Google Voice recordings from one student demonstrate a marked improvement in her pronunciation (particularly the silent “h” in hijo/a) from her initial submission to the graded submission that followed the full-class analysis. In the recordings, she explains an illustration from Buen Viaje 1.2

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Audio 1. Student’s Initial Recording for Spanish 1

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Audio 2. Graded Student Recording for Spanish 1

It is generally accepted that students work harder and become more engaged and invested in activities and assignments that might be publicly posted (on the Internet or otherwise). My own experience shows that students required to record speech of any kind in a computer laboratory setting spend considerable time preparing prior to recording. The very act of recording their voices — creating a permanent record of their speech — instilled a strong desire to perform well. In short, the act of recording increased students’ investment and engagement in the learning process.

Whether using cell phones as recording devices (as opposed to iPods or computer microphones and complex computer software such as Audacity) might lend itself to a more informal approach to student preparation (analogous to the informality and spontaneity of e-mail over other forms of written communication) is perhaps logical but still speculative and would require considerable study.

However, on a post-recording survey of a Spanish 3 class of 21 students, I asked students to respond anonymously to the following survey question:

“I practice my Spanish pronunciation before calling Google Voice…

  1. not at all
  2. once
  3. more than once
  4. repeatedly”

A total of 89 percent of the 21 respondents answered either “b,” “c,” or “d,” with 26 percent responding “repeatedly.” Among the more entertaining and pertinent written comments offered on the anonymous survey were the following:

“AHH!! I feel smart because I actually practice a lot before I call.”

“It makes me nervous having to record, but I practice a lot to help me get over that.”

“I do not do the Google Voice because I don’t want the whole class to hear me.”

The final comment clearly referred to my tendency to play recordings for full class feedback — food for thought. Is that a motivating or inhibiting factor? It probably depends on the student.

Outside the Classroom — Access Is Everything

Nearly all of the incoming calls to my Google Voice number outside of the classroom setting are placed from cell phones. Without even asking for them, I have my students’ cell numbers, which I can use through Google Voice to supply text message feedback or to call back and model correct pronunciation or structure. I can send text comments free by SMS through the computer and Google Voice rather than through the tiny QWERTY keys on my cell phone.

My text comment might simply be “Great pronunciation!” or it might request either a second submission or scheduling of a personal meeting to correct a pronunciation problem. On the more personal side (so essential to student engagement), I might also share an inspirational saying in Spanish to a student who is struggling, A student who was frustrated at his performance in Spanish and was beginning to exhibit some anger management issues received the following Spanish translation of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote via text message through Google Voice: Por cada minuto que estás enojado, pierdes sesenta segundos de felicidad. I did not supply a translation (“For every minute that you’re angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness”), so when that student arrived in class the next day, he immediately accessed a computer to help him arrive at an accurate translation. His performance and his engagement in class that day were exceptional. The access that I had to that student combined with the ease and speed of communication presented by Google Voice solved more than a pronunciation problem; it likely helped me head off a building class management issue by engaging that student on his terms outside of the classroom setting.

The array of reply options available through Google Voice caters to what tweens, teens, and young adults do particularly well: text messaging. I can reply to a message and supply feedback through text message, call, or e-mail. I have access and thus the power to engage.

Figure 1 shows an SMS exchange with a student who had not shown up in class one day. Clearly, he was all too happy to reply to my SMS text message from his cell phone and the comfort of home.

figure 1

Figure 1. SMS Exchange with an Absent Student

The following story from Alyssa Kendall,3 another Spanish teacher who is also using Google Voice for her Spanish 1 classes, demonstrates how connecting to students through their cell phones can make a motivational difference:

“I have a student who hasn’t done any homework this quarter, and out of the blue he sent me a goofy text message to my Google Voice number — completely unrelated to Spanish — something like “I hate this rain”— and, being the nerdy teacher, I texted him immediately back in Spanish: “No me gusta la lluvia tampoco.” One day later, he walks in for the first time with his homework and makes a big production about turning it in. I can’t help but feel that the personal connection of texting helped him remember — and actually want to do — the work for my class.”

Embrace and Engage

All too often, I hear my faculty colleagues complain about how hard it can be to engage today’s students in the learning process. Students today, they bark, have been rendered irredeemably and almost uniformly ADD by the evils of technology. They are permanently attached to their cell phones and spend all their time and money sending vapid text messages.

To them I say: cell phones are good. Text messaging (unless you’re driving): also good.

Surprisingly, these “irredeemably unreachable” students have proven highly receptive to the notion that their cell phones can and should be used for educational purposes. Figure 2, for example, shows a fairly typical SMS exchange on an oral homework assignment for intermediate level students. While not all students will text back when I supply SMS feedback, those that do, like this one, tend to be looking for specifics and positive reinforcement. How is this additional engagement and interaction bad?

figure 2

Figure 2. Typical SMS Exchange on an Oral Homework Assignment

Elite schools have spent vast sums of money on expensive language laboratory hardware and software as an approach to active engagement in the language learning process. They have provided their students with the latest and greatest in computer-assisted (language) learning and computer-mediated communication tools, at considerable cost. The current financial reality is such that many, if not most, schools — public, private, secondary, and postsecondary — will find it hard to sustain such levels of spending on technology. At the same time, faculty and administrators everywhere are embracing paradigm shift.

Most secondary and postsecondary students already carry their own powerful learning tools: their cell phones. They want to use them. They like to use them, for practically any purpose. And, through these devices, teachers can reach their students and teach them — character as well as content.

  1. Matt Richtel and Brad Stone, “Industry Makes Pitch That Smartphones Belong in Classroom,” New York Times, February 15, 2009.
  2. Conrad J. Schmitt and Protase E. Woodford, Buen Viaje 1 (Glencoe McGraw-Hill School Education Group, 2005), p. 198.
  3. The Spanish teacher in question happens to be my wife, Alyssa Kendall.