Do Cell Phones Belong in School?

Do Cell Phones Belong in School?

By Professor James Carlovsky

Described as portable computers and the Swiss army knife of technologies, mobile phones have been historically banned in K-12 schools due to the perceptions that they are disruptive (O’Bannon & Thomas, 2015). However, times are changing.

A recent study by Bradford Networks (2013) found that 89% of colleges and universities and 44% of K-12 school districts in the United States and United Kingdom allow students to bring their own devices to use on school networks.

So what are the benefits and barriers to using mobile phones in the classroom? What should your school do about mobile phones? 


One of the greatest pedagogical benefits of a mobile phone is their ability to involve students of a variety of ages in meaningful learning opportunities from anywhere (Ally, 2009). 

Mobile phones give a student access to the Internet that allows for a variety of online research. Student access to the Internet was identified as the number one benefit of using mobile phones in the classroom (O’Bannon & Thomas, 2014; O’Bannon & Thomas, 2015).

Mobile phones have the ability to communicate in a variety of modalities. For example, texting gives a student the ability to collaborate among classmates and other teachers. Recording audio and video on a mobile phone gives the student a way to create meaning within a lesson in a new and exciting way. Lessons can be personalized, student-centered, differentiated, and delivered to a student’s fingertips.

In addition, mobile phones can bring students additional tools like a digital camera, calculator, and thousands of mobile apps. Mobile phones expand the walls of a classroom to anywhere that the Internet can go.


Many teachers find mobile phones disruptive and a distraction. Even students who self-assess their use of mobile phones in the classroom see them as a distraction from learning (McCoy, 2013).

Educators worry about the influence of textese—abbreviations and slang within text messaging—on a student’s written language skills or even that student’s general literacy.

Educators have other concerns that include cheating, sexting, and bullying each other in a variety of easy ways at any hour of the day. At times, it is clear that phones are being used in the classroom to send messages to cheat (Bohlander & Tindell, 2012).

There are also additional challenges to educators, like a fear of the unknown; a fear of change; a lack of training, modeling, or personal use; or even a negative school environment.

Parents have concerns about their children spending so much time with cell phones instead of active play (Gilroy, 2003).

The Internet on a mobile phone is not filtered by schools and causes concerns for many parents and school boards.

Age matters

O’Bannon and Thomas (2014) found that there was a direct relationship between teachers over the age of 50 and use of mobile phones in the classroom. Although the percentage continually rises, teachers over the age of 50 are significantly less likely to own a smartphone. The same teachers were less likely to support the use of a mobile phone in a classroom. They also perceive a mobile phone as less useful for school-related work and as a larger barrier that is problematic in a school setting.

While this study cannot be generalized for every school setting, it can shed some light on faculties or school boards divided over a clear mobile phone policy.

What to do?

So what should a school do? Websites like have been set up to allow students to voice their opinions on this topic. PBS has argued the pro and con of this debate. Edutopia has also taken the positive and negative stances.

So which rules are reasonable for your school? In general, students do not feel that teachers are aware of their texting behavior (Bohlander & Tindell, 2012). A majority of schools have policies in place, and parents are generally supportive of a clear policy. However, a policy on cell phone use made only a few years ago may be outdated by today’s technology (Coffey & Obringer, 2007).

The days where cell phones can be confiscated at the door are probably gone, as parents expect communication avenues with their children at various points throughout the day and students expect the connectivity their devices provide.

One final piece for a school faculty or board to debate is the educational purpose of a mobile phone. Interactive polling like Kahoot! or Poll Everywhere gives teachers real-time data about a variety of students’ abilities. Flipped classroom models, whether home-grown or delivered by websites like Khan Academy, give teachers the ability to guide students in ways that best meet their learning styles. The Teaching Channel has videos that help train a teacher in mobile phone use within the classroom.

Mobile phones in students’ hands challenge teachers to rethink assessments that rely on factual recall and move assessments to unique demonstrations of knowledge. However, a teacher needs to have the final say as to when a mobile phone can rightfully be turned off or put away.

James Carlovsky (MLC ’02) teaches math and technology courses at Martin Luther College, New Ulm MN.