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Heading To Class? Don't Forget Your Cell Phone

Miles Bryan
Northwest News Network

Mobile devices are traditionally considered a nuisance in schools. But a Portland startup is developing a way to turn students’ cell phones into classroom tools.

Some teachers and students across the Northwest are using the service. And now it has the blessing of the Oregon Department of Education.

It’s seventh period at Portland’s Madison High School, and teacher Kim Kanof is starting her social studies class.

Today’s topic is the big fall essay. The students have pencils and paper ready, but they’re not being used.

Instead almost every student is on a cell phone, texting.

"What I want you to do now is look to your warm up, looking to your working thesis statement, and I want you to text that in," Kanof tells her class. "I want you to text in your working thesis statement...”

As soon as the students send their texts the words appear on a projection screen at the front of the room, forming what Mrs. Kanof calls a “portable thesis wall.”

“I use it that way a lot, for gathering thesis statements or evidence," she says. "So I’ll have them text in really great quotes from a reading, or citations."

Many high schools across the country ban cell phones. But for others that is changing.

Mrs. Kanof is using Celly, a Portland-based social company service that says it’s service is especially useful in classrooms.

“People often say ‘hit me up on my celly.’ So its sort of a colloquialism or just an alias for ‘cell phone,’” explains Russell Okamoto, Celly’s cofounder and CEO.

Celly also refers to “cells,” what the company calls the groups of people that use the service.

A ‘cell’ is simple. It’s really just a group text, with a moderator like Mrs. Kanof managing it all online.

Students send in questions and respond to quizzes. But their information is private, and chatting is restricted to within the group.

Okamoto says that’s to avoid issues that have made other social networks a problem for schools. Privacy, cyber bullying, and too much personal information.

“What we learned was that the threat of oversharing, for example on Facebook, for a teacher to be able to share their profile or friend students would mean that they were sharing a lot of their lives, that’s maybe out of classroom,” says Okamoto.

Now Celly is partnering with the Oregon Department of Education to make its service available to classrooms all across the state. Steve Nelson, the Oregon Department of Education’s chief IT strategist, says that texting is already an essential part of many students lives.

“If you can bring that into instruction, in a balanced way, you have captured their imagination. You can increase their engagement," he says. "You have improved the educational process.”

Nelson says that his agency’s work with Celly is starting small. One of the big challenges yet to work out is how to keep students from straying off into Facebook and Twitter.

Katie Davis is a scholar of youth and digital media at the University of Washington. She says that young people are surprisingly ambivalent about their love affair with mobile devices.

"They can’t imagine carrying on their friendships without these UMM technologies," Davis says. "But, on the other hand, they do feel that technology can be a real distraction, if they are with someone in person, and that other person, or even themselves, are looking at their cell phone, replying to something else that someone else has said.”

Victoriya Guzenkl, a senior at Madison high school, says that no matter what school policy is, “Lets be honest, kids always use phones. I am always on my phone, under the books. Pretend I am reading a book, but I am on my phone, Instagram and tweeting. Might as well put it to good use.”

UW’s Katie Davis said that a service like Celly might be able to provide a set of “digital training wheels” to help students like Guzenkl learn how to use social network sites responsibly.

But, she adds, no technology can substitute for a good teacher.

On the Web:

Celly - official site