At a Glance

What is it?
Cell phones are usually forbidden in the classroom; however, these tools can transform the cell phone into a useful learning device.

About the Author

Greg Kulowiec is is a history teacher and tech integration specialist at Plymouth South High School, MA. He is also a presenter and professional development trainer for EdTechTeacher. He blogs about tech integration at The History 2.0 Classroom and is the co-founder of #sschat (Social Studies Chat) on twitter.

Cell Phones as Classroom Tools

Cell phones are in our schools and classrooms. According to data recently gathered by the Pew Research Center, 88% of teen cell phone users text message. While schools have taken various approaches towards student cell phones, from banning and storing in lockers, to lunchtime use, there are free online resources available that can transform cell phones into handheld classroom response systems. Unlike traditional Classroom Response Systems or “clickers” that can take a chunk out of a school budget, cell phones can become response systems at no cost to a school district. When harnessed in this manner, cell phones become a means to check for understanding, enhance discussion, promote debate, clarify understanding, and express perspective.

Getting Started

There are two outstanding online resources that can turn student cell phones and smartphones into classroom response systems, Poll Everywhere and Socrative. With an LCD projector, classroom computer, and student cell phones, teachers can take advantage of either one of these online platforms to begin collecting feedback from students through cell phone responses.

There are two outstanding online resources that can turn student cell phones and smartphones into classroom response systems: Poll Everywhere and Socrative.

Poll Everywhere is a dynamic online polling platform that allows students to vote on custom teacher-generated polls through text messaging (SMS), smartphone, or computer by visiting this website. With a free educator account with Poll Everywhere, polls can receive up to 40 votes, enough to accommodate most classrooms. There are two types of poll questions that can be deployed in the classroom: multiple choice or open text. Teachers can easily generate polls to be deployed individually or as a series of questions. All polls can also receive submissions through a combination of devices. Students can text message, vote online with a smartphone, handheld device, tablet, laptop, or computer. Socrative offers a unique take on transforming smartphones into classroom response systems. From the Socrative teacher interface, multiple choice, true/false, open response, and “exit ticket” polls can be quickly deployed with one click. Teachers can also create multi-question quizzes that are stored in their account and can be deployed to a class at any point. The Socrative system provides a control dashboard for teachers at this portal. Here, teachers can customize their virtual room number, and when students visit the Socrative log-in page and enter the number, any question or quiz the teacher selects will automatically be pushed out onto student smartphones, handheld devices, tablets, laptops, or computers.

Potential Concerns and Strategies

Using cell phones in the classroom can be an unnerving prospect. Traditionally schools attempt to limit if not completely block student cell phone use. However, when cell phone use is applied with a specific learning goal and purpose in mind, student engagement is increased and students often demonstrate a very clear understanding of why and how their devices will be appropriately used.

“Screens Down” is a simple strategy that can be implemented in between voting on polls.

Yet, simple management of student cell phones can make integration much easier. “Screens Down” is a simple strategy that can be implemented in between voting on polls. Instead of having students put their cell phones away during class, keep them out in plain sight yet simply ask students to place them in the corner of their desk with the keyboard and screen down. While managing cell phone use in the classroom is one potential concern, many schools simply do not allow cell phone use during the school day. However, administrators and building principals are often open to exploring and discussing cell phone policies when benefits are clearly demonstrated. One helpful strategy is to engage in a dialogue with administrators and demonstrate cell phone integration platforms with them. While asking for permission for cell phone use is practical, asking for forgiveness is often the route that educators have to go in order to create change in schools. Pilot cell phone polling in your classroom, and invite administrators to see cell phone use being implemented effectively. While administrators and school districts may have completely legitimate concerns about cell phones in schools, they may also have a limited understanding of how cell phones can be implemented to increase engagement, discussion, and participation.


Without a thoughtful approach, neither cell phones nor polling platforms will fundamentally change a classroom (or convince an administrator of their value). However, with proper planning and by keeping the learning goals and objectives in mind, Poll Everywhere and Socrative can be used as a formative assessment strategy that enhances and amplifies classroom discussion, participation, and understanding. Here are two helpful strategies that use student cell phones and the voting platforms as a means to enhance discussion and check for understanding. Strategy #1: Scales of Agreement Students are often reluctant to share their opinions and perspectives in classroom discussion. By having students vote on a poll with their cell phones, as the results roll in they receive visual confirmation that their opinions are shared by others in the class. The “Scales of Agreement” strategy works well in the classroom as a method to open up a classroom debate or to close a lesson. Instead of having students respond to a question that has a correct answer, create the following question:

Question: How would you describe your perspective on this concept/topic/issue? A: Completely Agree B: Somewhat Agree C: Somewhat Disagree D: Completely Disagree

To truly enhance student participation and discussion, consider using a specific follow-up strategy once the students have finished voting.

  • Hide the poll results and have students predict the outcome of the poll and defend their choice.
  • Reveal the poll results and have students from each option explain their position.
  • Based on the discussion, clear the poll results and vote again to see if student opinion has shifted.
  • Follow up the voting and discussion with an in-class writing assignment that reflects on the topic, varied class perspectives. and the student’s evolving perspective on the concept.

Strategy #2: Scales of Understanding This questioning strategy is similar to the method described above. However, this time change the language in the question to probe not for student agreement, but understanding.

Question: How well do you understand the concept/topic/issue? A: Completely Understand B: Somewhat Understand C: Do Not Clearly Understand D: Completely Do Not Understand

This strategy is helpful when determining if it is time to move on to the next stage of a lesson or unit. When the results come in for the poll, both the student and teacher will instantly know if the class has a grasp on the concept. Consider following up this type of poll question with a student-directed review of the concept. Ask a student who voted for option A to reteach the concept to the entire class or to a small group that voted for option C or D. As with any effort to integrate technology in the classroom, the learning objective has to be the driving force that dictates the type, frequency, and method by which technology is integrated. It is critical to consider if cell phone voting through Poll Everywhere or Socrative fits with the outlined objectives of the lesson. Classroom response systems and cell phones being used as classroom “clickers” are not meant to replace face-to-face debate and interaction. Instead, if used thoughtfully, they can create a classroom environment where students are more comfortable sharing their perspective or understanding because of the visual confirmation that is created when the poll results are revealed.