As cell phones—with ever-expanding possibilities of texting, Web browsing, and game playing—have multiplied in recent years among teenagers and even preteens, so have the concerns of teachers and administrators about the distractions these devices can cause. A survey of students and parents earlier this year by the group Common Sense Media found that almost 70 percent of schools around the country ban student cell phone use during the school day.
But some districts and administrators are realizing the untapped potential of cell phones. It’s part of an “anytime, anywhere” learning movement that leaves laptops and even smaller netbooks behind, proponents say, in favor of more mobile, affordable and reliable handheld devices—from “smartphones,” which can run operating systems such as Windows Mobile and a host of software, to iPods, known more for playing audio and video but adaptable to more interactive applications through new educational platforms (see the sidebar on mobile devices).
“Technology has finally progressed to where mobile devices are cheap enough and powerful enough to use,” observes Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan and at that school’s Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education. Soloway, who believes that cell phones are the true one-to-one computer option for schools, is also co-developer of GoKnow, a mobile learning environment that runs educational software on handheld computers.
Earlier this year, a study of 25 mobile learning initiatives worldwide by the Joan Ganz Cooney Foundation Center at the Sesame Workshop anointed them the wave of the future. “Just as Sesame Street helped transform television into a revolutionary tool for learning among young children four decades ago, advances in mobile technologies are showing enormous untapped educational potential for today’s generation,” the report’s authors wrote. And last February, the two-day, first annual Mobile Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., presented case studies, research and policy discussions about the emerging field.
From a Ban to Creative Lessons
Not everyone is convinced, though, and doubters point to the lack of enough software programs to make mobile devices a worthwhile substitute for laptops and desktops, not to mention the limitations of their small size and their reputation for causing trouble on campus. At Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas, in fact, students caught using cell phones have them confiscated, and their parents have to pay at least $15 to ransom them.
So it was all the more remarkable this past winter and spring that the fifth-graders at Trinity Meadows spent most of their days on their HTC 6800 smartphones, using GoKnow’s platform. Rather than violating district policy, though, the 55 youngsters were leading the way in a pilot program using the new generation of cell phones and their advanced technology for educational ends. The program was cobbled together by fifth-grade teacher Matt Cook, who used new devices donated by HTC, a cell phone manufacturer, as well as free connectivity from Verizon and complimentary use of GoKnow software.
“I could have students draw solar system orbits on their devices,” Cook points out, “and then animate them to show them in real orbit.” In math, Cook’s students used animations to change number values by moving around decimal points. And for joint research projects, they used their smartphones to take pictures, explore relevant Web sites, fill in spreadsheets, and compose Word documents that they shared by pointing the devices end-to-end and beaming the information to each other.
“I integrated the phones into everything we did,” says Cook. “For lessons traditionally done with a paper and pencil, we now were able to do them in color, with animation, and with more depth and complexity. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”
Based on data from the pilot and vendor support, the district’s technology director, Joe Griffin, says the district will be conducting several pilots this fall to determine the best tools and applications for content delivery, student collaboration and assessment.
Reducing the Digital Divide
The affordability and extreme portability of handheld devices have also raised hopes of reducing the digital divide. “They may make technology more accessible to more kids sooner,” says Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association in Glen Burnie, Md. “If you had to wait for other technological resources, students would be left out.”
“People are saying, ‘Here’s another opportunity to look at one-to-one computer initiatives and revisit the goals for these projects,’” adds Mike Flood, vertical manager for K12 education at Sprint. “There’s been an explosion of applications for cell phones, and a lot have made it into the learning space.”
Cell phones also perform more reliably than typical computers, their advocates say, and telecom companies such as Nextel, AT&T and Verizon have developed a reputation for robust Internet service and speedy resolution of connectivity problems, if and when they arise.
The cost of a mobile-computing program—usually $200 to $300 for a smartphone or iPod, a $30 to $40 monthly telecom fee, and an annual software subscription fee of $8 to $35 per device—have impressed district IT departments as an alternative to the nearly $1,000 cost for many laptops and the many more thousands of dollars needed to build and support a wireless network.
Mike Toschi, the director of technology services for the Southgate (Mich.) Community Schools, is sold on the savings. “We can get five iPod Touches for the cost of one MacBook,” he figures. The fifth-graders at Southgate’s Chormann Elementary School are in their second year of using the iPods to study and discuss the novel Coraline with peers in Australia, England and Singapore. Teachers in these countries use the devices to share lesson plans.
Customized Learning Platforms
The movement toward mobile learning has accelerated with the help of platforms that turn mobile devices into miniature classroom computers. “Laptops usually come with business tools installed and are not equipped with educational software,” says Soloway, who has been developing GoKnow for the past seven years. Besides creating uniform screens on a range of smartphones and mobile operating systems such as Windows Mobile, GoKnow allows users, for $35 per device annually, to easily deploy Web browsers and applications like Microsoft Word and Excel and to use built-in graphic organizing, drawing and animation tools.
For example, Soloway says, earth science teachers can create a range of activities for studying the water cycle, for which students can create a concept map, draw an animation of the water cycle process, collect daily rainfall amounts, post the results on an Excel spreadsheet set up by the teacher, and write reports in Word. “The nice thing,” adds Cook at Trinity Meadows, “is that we didn’t have to change the curriculum from what we’d done before to fit the piece of technology.”
Here are examples of other current district cell phone programs:
- After last year’s pilot program using PDAs at St. Marys City (Ohio) School District, Kyle Menchhofer, the district’s technology coordinator, implemented a cell phone program for 630 students in grades 3 through 6. He hopes to expand the mobile phone program in future years up to grade 12.
Last April, Verizon donated 30 Samsung smartphones with which students could type papers in Microsoft Word, use Excel spreadsheets for math problems, and use GoKnow software for animation. One student, for example, created a mini-movie using slides to show a math problem and included the steps in solving the problem, Menchhofer says.
Students can also upload assignments that the teacher sends to the server, and then the teacher can grade those assignments and submit them back to the students electronically. “The students were more engaged,” Menchhofer says about the program. “There were less behavioral issues, and the parents were saying that they’d buy their kids this phone before they’d buy a PlayStation.”
- In October, 150 HTC phones were donated by Verizon to fifth-graders at Cimarron Elementary School in the Katy (Texas) Independent School District to use in various lessons. “I watch my kids and I watch how they operate and the cell phone is much more prevalent and plays a more active role in their lives than any other device out there,” says Lenny Schad, chief information officer at Katy. “That’s what the kids today really want: access to the Internet.”
And Schad is working with cell phone carriers to come up with a data plan that is affordable to “sustain the project on a bigger scale” across the district.
- In November, 80 students at Haverstraw Middle School in the North Rockland Central School District in Garnerville, N.Y., started using Palm Treos, with Sprint service, for every subject. This pilot project was the idea of Susan Tomko, the district’s director of information systems. “We’re looking at what is sustainable going toward the future,” she says. Replacing old computers or fixing them every year and then “seeing kids walking around with cell phones all the time” made it all click, she says.
“I thought, ‘What a great device,’” she says. “You see businesspeople doing all their work and using all their contacts on this phone and I thought, ‘Why can’t our students do this?’” Aside from that, cell phones instead of typical computers are handy in Haverstraw, which was built in 1920 with no more capacity to “plug in devices,” Tomko says.
Other companies, including Epsilon, Blackboard, Norway-based it’s learning, and Australia-based Etech Group have also developed mobile learning platforms. Etech’s Studywiz Spark Mobile has built on its 10-year-old laptop version used at 2,500 schools in about 30 countries with a particular focus on iPhones and iPod Touch devices.
For a $3 to $8 annual license per device from Etech, which won the Software and Information Industry’s CODie Award this year for best mobile software solution, students can download assignments and related documents, as well as teacher-created podcasts and galleries.
They can also take quizzes and tests and store their work in an “e-locker,” from which they can transfer files to other devices such as laptops or desktop computers at home. Teachers can use Studywiz’s management tools to record and monitor student progress and time spent on task.
In Illinois, meanwhile, the Spring Valley district, thanks to a grant from Fourier Systems, began the 2009-2010 school year by equipping all sixth-graders at its John F. Kennedy School, which serves students in grades 2 through 8, with Nova5000 mobile devices preloaded with science and math applications.
Sixth-grade teacher Mark Abbott has steered his classes to virtual manipulative exercises available for free on the Internet, including the math games on funbrain .com and probability exercises that involve rolling virtual dice. The school has also purchased probeware—attachable to the handheld devices—to help with various scientific measurements, from wind speed to temperature changes. “I also like the application that lets students write with a stylus in their own hand and convert it to a digital file,” Abbott adds. “That’s a unique feature beyond your typical laptop.”
Jim Hermes, Spring Valley’s superintendent, is also looking beyond the typical laptop as he contemplates the future of one-to-one computing throughout the school. “We’re just at the beginning stages, but we’re hoping to find a device that’s durable and can be used in every class,” Hermes says, adding that in the longer run, mobile devices make more financial sense than trying to equip all students with laptops. “We just purchased new MacBooks for our lab, and while you want the best for people, you have to ask, ‘What can you afford?’”
The Hurdles Ahead
Getting beyond the pilot programs in mobile learning may take some doing, including changing the dominant attitude about the place of cell phones and iPods in the classroom.
Etech CEO Geoff Elwood admits that mobile learning advocates have to overcome what he calls the “Quantas” educational approach, referring to the Australian airline. “You strap yourself in and turn off all electronic devices,” he explains. “But you could be engaging students in a much richer, more fluid environment. We have kids around the planet working together [on the Coraline project].”
Soloway immediately quells educator concerns by modifying the student phones so they are not truly phones. “The first thing we do is turn off the voice and texting capabilities,” he notes. “This isn’t a phone. It’s a computer.”
Other educational experts recommend strong and clear acceptable use policies as an alternative. Still others have lingering doubts about the limitations of smartphones and other handheld devices. Susan Einhorn, executive director of the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation in Montreal, says that screen size matters. “I find it hard to write on my cell phone, and my kids find it hard to write more than short sentences,” she points out.
Einhorn adds that she’s more concerned with the pedagogical quality of what’s currently available. “While there are some educational applications, many are not intellectually challenging or truly transformative,” she says. “I don’t consider a flashcard application transformative. We’re just at the beginning.”
Even mobile learning advocates agree that the cost of connectivity for smartphones needs to come down considerably for them to be used universally. While smartphones can connect to schools with wireless networks, students cannot use them outside of school under the current E-rate fund requirement. The current requirement states that mobile devices be eligible for funding only if they are kept in one location, says Sprint’s Flood.
And new cell phone subscriptions, which often include phones for little or no additional cost, still run more than $30 a month per device, which can add up quickly and be cost prohibitive for many districts struggling to make ends meet.
One solution, suggests Flood, would be to change the current E-rate requirement.
In the meantime, Southgate’s Toschi is thinking ahead. Toschi envisions creating a new high school course in multimedia creation that would attract students interested in graphic arts, computer programming and teaching. As part of the curriculum, the class would create new mobile learning games for the district’s elementary students. “It’s going to be gigantic, because we’ll be developing custom software by our students for our students,” Toschi says. “And we won’t have to pay for it.”
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.