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Leadership + Mobile Technologies = Educational Benefits

Cell phones in K12 Are inevitable.


It takes leaders to make technology truly disruptive. It takes leaders to see how to take a technology and gain benefit from it. Dell saw that instead of using computers to keep track of inventory, it could use computers—and the Internet—to eliminate inventory. At that time, Dell was able to be the world’s largest manufacturer of personal computers—but only have two hours of inventory on hand. But why is it that we need to go outside of K12 to find an example of leadership taking advantage of a tech disruption opportunity?

Education needs some disruptions. Education needs some of the benefits that accrue when leaders step up and see opportunities and take risks on new ideas and new technologies. More of the same will result in more of the same. Longer school days? More of the same. Electronic whiteboards, or EWBs? More of the same. (EWBs could be used in a disruptive manner, but they tend to be used to support teacher-centric, stand-in-the-front-of-the-classroom instructional strategies.)

Opportunity Knocks

So what opportunities are potentially disruptive? Online education? As we argued in a previous column, delivering courses—even if it saves some money and addresses the needs of some learners—doesn’t raise the possibility of doubling achievement scores, since we are still pushing content at the learners, online instead of face-to-face.

But on July 14, the highest-ranking educational official in the nation, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, played a giant leadership role when he said, “Yes, K12 needs to integrate cell phones into its classrooms.” Remember: Cell phones are, first and foremost, just computers, albeit small ones, that have radios that enable those computers to make voice calls and send texts. Turn off that radio and stop 90 percent of problems that cell phones cause in school. And stop worrying that the screen and keyboard are too small. Those are adult concerns; they are not roadblocks for America’s texting-adept youth. Indeed, the mobile generation sees the fits-in-your-pocket screen and keyboard as positive features, not annoying bugs.

The increasingly painful fight with students over cell phones in school is taking a tremendous negative toll. Use the students’ energies for educational purposes instead. As the NetDay Speak Up organization has documented through its yearly nationwide survey of literally hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and parents, for America’s youth, cell phones are an essential tool outside of the classroom. Teenagers in the United Kingdom prefer to spend their money on cell phones rather than cigarettes!

Bye Bye Digital Divide

With the costs for mobile technologies continuing to plummet, American education can finally realize the dream of 1:1, with each child having his or her own (mobile) computer for use 24/7. And that computer is connected, instantly and always, to the World Wide Web. This is an unprecedented, never-before-experienced opportunity. Increase the opportunities for learning—not hours in a school—and we will see a doubling of achievement. Notice too that the digital divide just evaporated. All children—rich, poor, urban, suburban, talented and gifted, struggling—have the same access 24/7.

It is inevitable that cell phone computers will be an essential component of the K12 classroom. We need to use the tools of the 21st century to teach 21st-century skills and content. The only question is this: When will educational leaders stand up and adopt this disruptive technology? Being a leader now brings benefits to your students now. Sooner or later? Your decision.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s Tech Disruptions blog.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.