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's work ensures CCC faculty and staff have opportunities to engage and develop through networked learning and the use of emerging technologies. Learn more about Michelle at brocansky.com.

8 Comments

  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:
      https://www.conferzoom.org/ConferZoom/SignUp

  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.

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