Professor incorporates use of cell phones as classroom tool

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, July 30, 2011

If you Google "texting in class," you can dive into a debate that has vexed college professors for a decade: What to do about students who pay more attention to text messages than to the instructor?

Although there are few college-wide policies, many professors explicitly forbid texting in class. Some even list grade-reduction penalties for violators.

But last year, Teresa Shellenbarger, a nursing and allied health professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, decided to try something different.

"I just got tired of fighting them. I figured if I can't beat them, why not join them• Why not use cell phone technology in class?" she said.

"I use texting to poll the class. I post a question for them to see and they text their answers that I post on a PowerPoint for the class to see. And sometimes when we're working on a controversial topic where students don't really want to own a response, I have them phone a friend and get an anonymous opinion to post," Shellenbarger said.

"A class can be mediocre and dull, and when I tell students to get out their phones and text to a question, the energy level just goes up," she said.

Joe Grabowski, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was not surprised.

"I'm starting to hear more stories about people saying, 'All of these students have smartphones and how can we use this technology for learning?' Someone even suggested we have them film labs and then grade students on lab techniques," he said.

Although Grabowski can see the potential the technology holds, he's a little skeptical.

"Two years ago, I had several students as an advisory board for a class of about 150 students. They suggested I let students text questions they were too embarrassed to ask. We gave out the board members' cell numbers to everyone in class. You know how many questions they got?

"None," he said.

He said students have become increasingly savvy about putting their phones on vibrate.

"If they're using them in class, they're doing it unobtrusively," he said. "The problem is more with adults at meetings. They'll leave ringers on and answer a call in the middle of a meeting."

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