Free Cell Phones for College Students

One university is providing smartphones to its incoming freshman class.

The U.N. telecom agency says there were about 6 billion cell phone subscriptions by the end of 2011.

The U.N. telecom agency says there were about 6 billion cell phone subscriptions by the end of 2011.

By + More

The sight of cell phones during a lecture has typically been a source of frustration for many college professors attempting to teach students who may have more interest in their mobile devices than the lesson plans. But one university is hoping a new effort to leverage smartphones will better engage students inside and outside of the classroom.

Seton Hall University in New Jersey has launched its new initiative during summer orientation by providing smartphones and pre-paid cell phone plans to its incoming freshman class. Equipped with an app for freshmen to connect with other incoming students and academic advisers, university officials hope this mobile device, a Nokia Lumia 900, will keep students engaged with the school, even when they're not on campus.

[Discover five apps that help students manage college life.]

"We need to be able to reach [students] and connect to them," says Michael Taylor, an associate professor and the school's academic director of the Center for Mobile Research and Innovation. "We want to [provide] a device that's always on, always connected, and tends to always be with the student no matter where they are."

The growth in smartphone usage has skyrocketed on college campuses, including at Ball State University, which found in a February survey that smartphone ownership among its students on campus increased from 27 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2012.

The nationwide trend has inspired Seton Hall to "go where the audience is," says Dennis Garbini, the school's vice president for administration, who predicts that roughly 80 percent of the incoming class has previously used a smartphone.

"What we want to do is engage them through the devices that they're familiar with, [and] meet them head on and try to keep up with them," he says.

While university officials are optimistic about the potential benefits of providing mobile devices to students, there are faculty members outside of Seton Hall who are against the integration of smartphones in their courses. John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Massachusetts, says it does not bother him when a student takes a peek at his or her mobile device during class, but he fears that openly allowing the use of smartphones in the classroom would harm a student's academic performance.

"When a student sends a dozen [text] messages during a classroom session, that is a student who is virtually absent from class," Baick notes. "Actually, it might be worse since the student … believes that he is still engaged in the class, and that the use of the smartphone is fully integrated into his participation."

[See why smartphone use in college concerns some professors.]

Seton Hall professor Taylor acknowledges that smartphones are "disruptive devices" that can be used productively or as a means of distraction. Part of this initiative, he notes, is to train students to use the mobile devices in a professional way.

"There are always obstacles with new technology adoption, and that's not a bad thing," Taylor says. "We're training students to become productive citizens of a complex and dynamically changing world, and technology is one of the large drivers of that disruptive change."

Seton Hall has been running a pilot program for smartphones in the classroom since 2009, Taylor says, and he has encouraged his students to use the devices outside of the classroom, creating audio and video stories and using the smartphones for surveys and data collection.

"It really is a powerful tool to allow students to engage in the real world and bring it back to the classroom where it then has more relevance," he says. "Using that mix of real world and classroom learning, it engages students at a deeper level."

[Learn how high school teachers are using cell phones in the classroom.]

Incoming freshman Kevin Barden says he and other members of the class of 2016 are excited for the opportunity to use smartphones in the classroom, although he acknowledges that he's unsure of how the university's faculty will utilize the devices.