Why Cell Phones Belong in the Classroom | Teachers College Columbia University

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Vasudevan and Warner: Why Cell Phones Belong in the Classroom

With New York City is lifting its ban on cell phones in public school classrooms, Lalitha Vasudevan, Associate Professor of Technology and Education, and Julie Warner (Ed.D. ’14), Assistant Professor of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, argue that digital tools have a critical role to play in engaging young people as scholars. 

Transforming the Pathways of Participation

By Lalitha Vasudevan

The debate over cell phones in schools has erroneously centered on the question of whether these devices should or should not be allowed in classrooms. That focus misses the fact that youth already are using their phones creatively in nearly every area of their lives: to inquire, create and communicate as they produce texts, form communities, cultivate relationships and make themselves known.

Opponents need to start by realizing that digital technologies have expanded our notion of literacy. But the stakes are much higher than tapping the power of a new discourse. Digital technologies provide us with the means to transform youths' opportunities for participation in their schooling. For example, youth who are reticent to speak in large group settings can contribute ideas to shared documents projected onto a large screen via texting, uploading images or sharing other relevant artifacts. Cell phones can afford young people the chance to be seen and engaged as actors with a repertoire of literate practices and a sense of agency and ownership about exploring and expressing ideas. Understood in that light – as pathways of participation rather that sources of distraction – cell phones can serve as powerful resources in reconfiguring the educational landscape, with and for students and teachers, one small moment at a time.


By Julie Warner

I’m glad that cellphones can emerge from their hiding places. Young people use their devices for more than just frivolity. In my research, I followed closely the cell phone-based practices of three high school students and witnessed the rich literacy practices they engaged in on their phones. The teens harnessed the capabilities of the phones to access information to achieve moment-to-moment goals; to compose multi-modally with photography, video and linguistic text; to compose collaboratively and inter-textually; and to learn about the world through exploring online spaces and making connections. To eschew the powerful tools that travel with youth throughout their daily lives is at best false and at worst irresponsible as we seek to prepare students to be participants in a future that is increasingly digitally-saturated.

In my own classroom, I have asked students to use their phones to access educational applications, to tweet responses to readings and as a form of classroom discussion, and even to use their cell phone cameras to visually demonstrate and document learning. Of course, to harness cell phones in the classroom for learning, teachers have to tread a fine line, capitalizing on the capabilities of these tools without making students feel that youth practices are being coopted or usurped. Teacher training must address ways of bringing mobile tools and multimodal texts into the classroom that build on the skills youth bring as frequent and dexterous digital composers rather than simply importing youth practices, fully intact, for the teacher’s own goals.

With the social turn in education, educators sought to recognize the complex social circumstances of students. Honoring students’ funds of digital knowledge is vital now.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

Published Friday, Nov. 7, 2014