Sunday, February 10, 2019

Are Students Off-Task in Class on Phones? There's an App for That!

As teachers and administrators, grappling with off-task behaviors and distractions when it comes to student phones in the classroom has occurred at some point. Recently I recently learned about Pocket Points, an app that educators are using to promote better decision-making amongst students with the goal of keeping them off their phones when not being used to achieve learning outcomes associated with the class. More on this in a little bit. 

I am a huge proponent of harnessing and leveraging mobile technology in the classroom. As the principal, I decided to implement Bring Your Own Device back in 2010 as a way to not only take advantage of student-owned devices but to also improve the learning culture through more empowerment and ownership.  In Uncommon Learning, I detailed the necessary steps we took to ensure success. The key, whether 1:1 or BYOD, is to thoroughly plan and put learning at the forefront for kids, teachers, and administrators.  

However, planning can only get you so far. Building pedagogical capacity both with and without technology must be prioritized.  Mobile technology is more accessible than it has ever been. The urge to go on a personal device in schools, with and without mobile learning initiatives, has grown exponentially.  Up until recently, there have been two main deterrents:
  1. Well-designed lessons that are relevant to kids combined with sound classroom management
  2. A school culture that empowers kids to use their devices responsibly
Now the above strategies might still work well, but in my experience working in schools as a job-embedded coach, I have seen more and more students off-task. No matter how well we plan or work to develop a positive school culture, off-task behavior still occurs. Enter a third deterrent mentioned at the beginning of this post called Pocket Points. 

Pocket Points was founded in 2014 by two college students who noticed a disturbing trend among their classmates in that too many kids were spending class glued to their phones, ignoring their professors' best attempts to teach them. They had the idea to create an app that would reward students for paying attention in class. They got local businesses to agree to offer free and discounted food as rewards on Pocket Points, and it spread through the campus like wildfire. Within a few weeks, half of the student body was using the app. 

The developers spent the next few years spreading Pocket Points to every college in the country as well as high schools. Through their growth, they came to the realization that the problem was even more prevalent at the high school level than college, and these teachers felt the impact more than anyone. As a result, a Teacher Rewards program was developed. This program allows teachers to directly offer rewards to their students on Pocket Points for staying focused in class. The hope is that it will act as a support tool that teachers can use to help their students develop healthy phone habits while maintaining engagement on learning tasks in the classroom. In the near future teachers will have the ability to "whitelist" certain educational apps, meaning students could continue to earn rewards while using these as part of the learning process. This should help teachers who integrate phones as educational tools keep their students on task.

Getting started is easy. Students can download the Pocket Points app for free from the app store. They sign up, select their school, and they can begin earning rewards. Here they will find a gift page on the app full of rewards provided by companies, including Redbox, Panda Express, and Papa Johns on the national level. There's a variety of online companies that are available to all students as well. In many areas, partnerships with local restaurants and retailers provide even more rewards, all of which cost points.

Points can be earned in a variety of ways. Initially, they could only be earned when a student had his or her phone out of sight when not being used as part of the teaching and learning process. Now kids can earn points when they are not in school, though they need to set and successfully complete a time off phone goal to get the points. There is also a great feature where the app automatically tracks when a student is driving and gives points if he or she remains undistracted.

Schools and teachers can leverage this app to provide positive reinforcement while combatting the issue of off-task cell phone behaviors, which cause a distraction in the classroom. This issue has become pervasive in many cases while frustrating teachers and administrators alike. It's a battle that most are tired of fighting. 

Empowering kids to use devices as tools to support and enhance their learning is, and always will be, the goal. However, balance is critical, and technology will not improve every lesson or task. In either case, Pocket Points might be an option to help overcome battles with phones to create a school culture that sets up students for success now and in the future. 


  1. Thank you! I will try anything to get my students away from pure distraction and focused on learning something useful to them, if nothing else, for their grades.
    But there is so much else!!
    I applaud your efforts.

  2. This is excellent! I'm working with a couple of districts who are really struggling with this so Pocket Points can be a great tool for them to try. Thanks for sharing!

    Be Great,