Smartphones: Turning Off-Task Behavior into Free Learning

The following is a guest post written by Lindsey Wright from

Art teachers are always on the lookout for creative ways to reach their students. From museum field trips to outdoor hikes to search for still life subjects, art teachers have learned over the years that the more interactive the lesson, the better student engagement. However, with the invasion of smartphones, it’s become increasingly difficult to engage students. While this is generally not an issue those who teach at an online school, teachers at brick-and-mortar campuses are trying to figure out how to engage students who would rather spend their time texting and updating Facebook. The answer, if you have access to smartphones for your classroom, is surprisingly simple: there’s an app for that. Teachers can take advantage of a wide range of applications that can be used in the classroom, integrate them into lesson plans, and lasso reluctant students into engaging in rich learning experiences.

How to Introduce Smartphones to Your Lessons

The problems with smartphones in school are generally thought to outweigh the benefits, leaving many teachers leery of allowing them in class. However, it’s important to remember that while cell phones might be the bane of a teacher’s existence when student phone use in class is a distraction, the devices are only tools can just as easily be used to help rather than hinder classroom activities.

One option for incorporating smartphones into the classroom, is introducing school-purchased smartphones that can be properly monitored rather than regulating students’ use of their own smartphones. For instance, in 2007 Qualcomm issued smartphones to 3,000 students in four North Carolina school districts as part of Project K-Nect. The study, detailed in Education Week, shed light on how smartphones can be used in school. In addition to continuing training to develop smartphone-based science and math lessons, the teachers were given considerable power over students’ devices. Teachers could see what students were doing on the phone at any time, monitor instant messages, report misuse, and even shut the phone down if necessary.

However, school-issued devices aren’t the only way to use smartphones in class. With good direction and supervision, students can usually be trusted to use their own devices productively if given the opportunity.

Teaching Strategies for the Smartphone Classroom

For art teachers, there are tons of ideas worth considering, from straightforward museum tours and art history lessons to modified lesson plans developed by teachers in other fields.

Liz Kolb is the author of the book “Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education” and an associate researcher at the University of Michigan. She provides a database of ideas for teachers looking to meaningfully incorporate smartphones into lessons. While the suggestions aren’t specific to art classes, a quick perusal of her ideas and the ideas of other teachers who post to the site will yield plenty of lessons that can be adjusted for the art classroom. Among them:

• Use, which will display text messages sent to the teacher’s account, to have students write short opinions of a famous work of art. The teacher can display these for students to discuss.

• Use phones to take photos of art in the community and send them to Students can use the compiled photos to create a classroom definition of art.

• Have students utilize a teacher-established account on a site like to gather real-time feedback when asking multiple choice or true/false questions. Instead of just one student’s response, teachers get feedback from every student.

• Have students create podcasts in which they describe a painting in detail. Each student will then listen to another student’s podcast and attempt to draw the painting based upon the description.

Of course, Kolb doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to smartphone integration in the classroom, and a number of websites discuss how art teachers can integrate different apps into  lessons. Teachers can find such a list in one of this blog’s previous posts, which is a great resource for those with access to iPhones in the classroom and also provides plenty of search ideas for those without.

The study in North Carolina cited above found students taking an active role in creating new course content and assisting one another improved their test scores and understanding of course material. Granted, Project K-Nect studied how students engaged in math classes using smartphones, but you can bet that art classes will show equal enthusiasm given the opportunity to use familiar technology meaningfully. Educators need to revise their thinking about the presence of phones in the classroom and develop ways students can engage in lessons that go beyond classroom walls. Why not let art teachers, with their enthusiasm for creativity and willingness to think outside the box, lead the smartphone charge?


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