Yes! Use Your Phone in Class: Tips for More Equitable Temporary Remote Teaching & Learning

A phone held in the hands of a person in a car.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Encouraging students to use their phones in class is typically not a popular topic in higher education articles. However, when students need to unexpectedly transition from face-to-face to online learning due to an emergency like the coronavirus, a phone may be a student’s lifeline. 

The California Community College (CCC) system serves roughly 2.1 million students. A 2019 study by the Hope Center found that half of CCC students surveyed experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days and 60% were housing insecure in the previous year. Students who are unsure about where they’ll get their next meal or where they will sleep at night are not likely to have the financial resources to purchase a laptop and they certainly are not going to have a desktop computer in tow. But according to a national survey by EDUCAUSE, 96.3% of community college students have a smartphone. And data from Pew Research shows that Americans who are younger, people of color, and low income are more likely to rely on a smartphone than broadband for online access. Smartphones are not luxury items for low-income students. They are critical tools that are used to pay bills, apply for jobs, participate in job interviews, conduct business, socialize with family and friends, shop, listen to music, watch tv and movies, and learn. 

Recommendations for Faculty

Using Canvas to design a learning environment for your students is the place to start. And this archive of Shawn Valcarcel’s provides you with some great first steps. However, a Canvas course renders differently on a smartphone than it does on a computer. So, some special considerations must be made. This list is adapted from the Canvas Mobile App Design Consideration Checklist.

  1. Encourage students to download and use the Canvas Student App and provide a link to the Canvas Student Guide for iOS and Canvas Student Guide for Android.
  2. Organize content into modules and chunk content into smaller parts on Pages within a module. View the archive of Shawn Valcarcel’s Getting Started with Canvas webinar for support with this step.
  3. Use Text headers within modules to help guide student navigation. This is helpful because in the mobile app, students navigate your course content from the modules view.
  4. Use Canvas Pages to present content, instead of linking to external URLs or files. This prevents students from needing to download large files or view non-mobile friendly content.
  5. Write instructions and prompts that are platform-neutral. For example, avoid saying, “Click the blue Submit button at the top of the page,” as the mobile app does not have a blue submit button.
  6. Download the Canvas Teacher app and use it to navigate your course. Identify things that don’t work and provide alternative instructions for students on a mobile device or redesign these elements as needed.
  7. Design assessments with the tools on a smartphone in mind. They are handheld multimedia studios after all! Provide the option to record a video or audio file, take a photo, etc.
  8. Survey the external tools supported by your college. Many — like VoiceThread and Pronto — have a mobile app that students can download and use. These tools will also and open new mobile-friendly ideas for assessments.

Want to dig deeper? Make a copy of the Canvas Mobile App Checklist.

Recommendations for Colleges

In a state as economically diverse as California, it is critical for institutions to understand their student demographics and communicate resources to support mobile access during times of disruption. Here are a few recommendations for colleges to consider:

  • Survey your students to identify their device ownership and ensure all faculty have this information. 
  • Provide students with a list of local venues and areas that provide free WiFi access to support students with limited data plans.
  • Provide students with a list of internet providers offering free service during times of instructional disruption. See this list of Reduced Cost or Free Internet Access offers from CVC-OEI.

Visit the CVC-OEI Emergency Preparedness resources for more support through this transition.

Posted in Articles, Equity, TRTL.

Michelle (@brocansky) is Faculty Mentor, Online Teaching & Learning for @ONE and CVC-OEI and author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies. Michelle began teaching in the CCC system in 1999, has been teaching online since 2003, and has been an online educational developer since 2009. She also teaches the History of Photography online for Mt. San Jacinto College. Learn more about Michelle at or connect with her on Twitter @brocansky.


  1. Hi Michelle – please tell me ‘how do we handle grading comments’ in the app?
    It is my understanding that the Canvas app doesn’t show my grading feedback . . . .

  2. I have used the phone with my students and I recently learned that there is an App, Discord, that students can download onto the phones so that we we can have face-t-face real time interaction with them.

    • Hi Eduardo. Thanks for sharing. It’s always great to learn about new tools that can be used to support learning at a distance. If you teach in the CA Community College system, you are eligible to receive a free TechConnect ConferZoom account, which is a free upgraded Zoom account. Zoom also has a free mobile app that students can download and use to join meetings with you (and it does not require them to have an account).

      CA Community College faculty and staff can sign up for their free TechConnect ConferZoom account here:

  3. I am interested in students using a phone app in place of a TI 83/84 calculator that is required for my statistics course. There are also websites with Statistics calculators. Even better, I would like to explore Canvas to see whether there are any stats apps. This is a big issue with students because the TI 83 calculator costs around $97 at Target, and the TI 84 costs around $140. So in this area, maybe students can save money because they will already be using a phone or computer during test taking.

  4. Thank you for the tips and reminders. I have the Canvas Teacher app on my phone and it does have a different display.

  5. Thanks for this information. I wasn’t aware that the Canvas app looks different in smart phones but that makes sense. I’ll be considering this moving forward and try to make adjustments for it.

  6. hi,
    the information is so beneficial. will try to incorporate all the info in to the class this coming fall.Even though we tried our best to incorporate all that in Spring 2020. But it is very helpful to. have all the information at one place. thank you

  7. Since I only have a pre-paid tracfone with no data currently (and not enough even when I do have some), I have no idea what Canvas looks like on a phone. Some images would be nice. I don’t think students would be able to take a test with a phone, so a computer would still be mandatory at some point.

  8. Thanks for the info. It is very important to remind the students, and myself, that the use of online learning tools can look different when using a phone.

  9. Hello,

    Thank you for the helpful information. Have there been any issues with using Zoom and Canvas at the same time, say during a quiz or exam for example?

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