A few years ago, Lincoln Middle School teachers Thea Long and Rachael Yaden were tasked with a unique challenge that might sound a little bit odd: figure out how to get students using their cell phones more in class.
But the goal was hardly to drive students to distraction; rather, Long and Yaden wanted to harness new technology to the old horse and buggy of education.
"(Teachers were) tired of fighting cell phones," Yaden said. "We needed to find out how to kind of turn the power to good instead of evil."
After researching and attending conferences, the two teachers approached the Lincoln County School Board with a plan to get two eighth-grade classes more involved in their schoolwork through the Internet and cell phones.
Now, after what Long and Yaden say was a wildly successful test run, the board has approved expanding the program school-wide, allowing any middle school teacher to take advantage of the tech tools Long and Yaden have been experimenting with.
Long said the student reactions to the various online learning tools she has been using stand in stark contrast to how students usually react to more traditional school assignments.
"They'll ask, 'are we using our phones today? Can we use our phones today?' And they'll say "will you post an Edmodo (online learning website) assignment?'" Long said. "They're engaged and they're motivated and they're ready to learn."
Among the various applications and websites used in Long's and Yaden's classrooms are polleverywhere.com, which creates an instant question-and-answer session where students text their answers and see them appear on the website; and Edmodo, a free online learning platform that allows teachers to make and grade assignments while students work out solutions on online discussion boards.
"The grading is easy for me because you do everything online," Long said. "I will be at home grading Edmodo (assignments) and the kids will also be posting messages and asking me questions."
Another benefit of Edmodo is that students are encouraged to collaborate in order to solve problems, while the teachers can stand back and observe.
"It's almost like I had stepped out of the equation and they were problem solving themselves," Long said. "That was huge."
Yaden said learning to learn on their own is preparing her eighth-graders for college and life beyond that.
"They're not going to have a teacher to rely on in their lives," Yaden said. "They're going to have to rely on people that they work with, that they live with, to figure things out together."
Yaden and Long said online tools like polleverywhere.com allow students who may not feel comfortable speaking up in class to text their contributions to the class and still be a part of the discussion.
During a demonstration for the Interior Journal of polleverywhere.com on the last day of school, Long and Yaden asked their students, "What is one positive impact of using cell phones and smart devices in class?"
The students' fingers got busy typing on their cell phone keyboards, and anonymous responses started showing up almost instantly on the discussion webpage for the question:
"It could make learning more fun."
"We can get our grades quicker."
"It makes learning easier for everybody."
"It's a lot more hands on and everyone has a voice."