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Using Smartphones in K12 Classrooms Today

Experts answer questions about mobile learning.

District Administration aired a Web seminar in April, “Using Smartphones in K12 Classrooms Today: From Why to How,” that gathered experts in mobile learning. They discussed their own programs in the Katy (Texas) Independent School District, the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Central School District, and St. Marys City (Ohio) Schools.

After discussing these programs, which are explained in our Mobile Learning Pioneers special section in this issue and which are linked below, they answered various questions from the participants in the Web seminar.

Elliot Soloway, panel moderator, professor, University of Michigan

Cathie Norris, professor, University of North Texas

Lenny Schad, chief information officer, Katy ISD

Thomas J. Phillips, superintendent, Watkins Glen CSD

Kyle Menchhofer, technology coordinator, St. Marys City Schools

What are the specs of the devices? Is Flash being used?

Lenny Schad: The current device does not have Flash, but the ones next year will. That was one of the things that we found once we started looking at other Internet sites; the ability to have Flash was something we really wanted. But again, we targeted this as a pilot, as a learning experience, so the ones we have now don’t have it, but next year they will.

What kind of devices, specs, makes and models are needed?

Schad: They’re Windows Mobile HTC 6500 Smartphones. Those are the specs. Right now we’re evaluating some Droid devices. We’re hoping there will be a good combination of those in an affordable price range, so we’re actually looking at Droid for next year.

Editor’s note: All these districts use HTC smartphones, running Windows Mobile 6.0 and GoKnow’s Mobile Learning Environment program.

Could you give some specific examples of how these devices are used for schoolwork?

Cathie Norris: Off the top of my head, there are tons of complete projects. A specific example is with ESL students. Teachers were finding that ESL students are perfect little parrots. They’d give the students the words for their social studies in Spanish and then in English and then give an English definition. When they tested them, they would test by asking the English definition.

They found that the students could parrot the definitions back but had no understanding of what the words meant. So instead of asking them to repeat the definition, they’d ask the students to create an animation, to tell a story that uses all of these words.

At first, the students were panicked because they didn’t understand the words. So they started talking to each other to figure out what each child knew about each word, and finally they were able, by asking the teacher and other students questions, to come up with a story. They learned that memorizing a definition was no longer adequate to test their learning; the children were going to have to know more than that, and the children understood they would have to do more than that.

Schad: Two examples—Sketchy and Picko map on the mobile learning device [MLD], and they can actually animate the water process from rain to ground. The kids go in and can create an animation that when they go in and click it, it animates the water flow process; it’s used a lot in science class. One of the coolest things I saw was that our teachers went out and found this software that creates these bar codes, and so they would have this sheet of paper with 10 or 15 of these bar codes.

The kids use their MLDs to scan these bar codes in, it’s a Web address. And so the kids have all these resources available to them, and the teacher would tell them, “I want you to research this particular thing, and here are the Web sites you can use to pull information from.”

So the kids are using the scanning technology. They get the Web sites, they write their research paper, and then they come up with this comprehensive report that 15 of them might have been working on together. That was something that was really impressive when I sat in and watched the kids read the Web site, do their research, and then collaboratively hand in this research paper to the teacher.

Who did the professional development, how did that work, and how much time was spent to get the teachers prepared to use the MLDs in the classroom?

Thomas Phillips: We were very fortunate to have the help of both Verizon and GoKnow. We provided summer training time for teachers as well as when they received the actual device themselves. We had some training time during the school year during October and November to prepare teachers with the device. The summer was basically spent getting teachers to identify curriculum and lesson plans that they would be using and then putting these materials in an electronic form so that we could load them onto the phones once the devices were activated.

I have to say “kudos” to Verizon because they spent hours and hours and days preparing the phones and working with teachers. They conducted a two-day seminar for the kids as we rolled them out. It was support beyond belief. It really was a very successful professional development program.

We have a question about security. Are kids going to inappropriate sites?

Kyle Menchhofer: We had the opportunity to do a virtual private networking and set it back through our firewall, through our filter—that was one option. The other option was to use Verizon’s filter and our thoughts and the Board of Education’s thoughts were: one of the reasons why we’re not using wireless was that our technology staff was so small that our network administrator would have to monitor our network traffic.

In cost savings for us, we thought that by using the Verizon network and their content filter—they’re monitoring the filter, what you can view—we thought that the cost that we’re paying for the broadband charges also includes the content filter, so we’re using Verizon’s content filter and we’re happy with that.

There are bumps in the road, just like we have with the content filter within our district, but we don’t want the additional traffic on our network. We feel that with what Verizon has to offer, the security of our students is in good hands. At St. Marys we tend to have a lot of blackouts and brownouts. Well, to my knowledge, Verizon Wireless has never had a power outage in our area, so if the lights go out, our students can use the MLDs, and we can continue to work despite the power outages and so on. We use the Verizon Wireless filter, and we’re very happy with what they’ve provided so far.

Schad: When students connect to the Verizon network, it actually routes them through the Katy system. We’re very comfortable because they’re going through the same security system that our kids use when they’re on the computers. When they’re at a campus, however, we do allow them to connect a mobile learning device to our Wi-Fi.

One of the things we spent time talking to the parents about is that these devices have the capability to connect to the Verizon network as well as any public Wi-Fi network out there. So we talked to the parents and asked, “How many of you have a public network at home or allow your kids to go to Starbucks or whatever, any place that has a public Wi-Fi?” The filtering is up to whatever filter that public network has, so we had to educate our parents that whenever their children are on any public Wi-Fi, the filtering is not going to be what it is when they’re connected to the Verizon Wireless network. And we had a good discussion with our parents, again, saying they have to monitor the network with their kids just like when they’re at home using the computers.

We’ve had no instances this year where we’ve had a parent say, “My kid is going to inappropriate sites; we want you to get rid of the device.” We’ve had no instances at all.

Phillips: One of the big mistakes we made was that we really tightened Internet accessibility to our kids when we piloted the project, and we have paid dearly for it, in all sincerity. The whole purpose was access and leveling the playing field for all kids, and by tightening access to the Internet we actually defeated that purpose.

So just recently we released the filter, and we’re going through the Verizon filter after testing it out and ensuring parents and sending letters home to parents. At this point we’ve had no problems.

How can students use technology to do things that can’t be done already through using paper, pencil and other technologies? This question goes at the heart of what’s different about mobile learning.

Norris: I think that the biggest asset is the size of the mobile technology, that it fits in students’ pockets, that they can pull it out while they’re sitting in the dentist’s office waiting to have their braces adjusted, that they can pull it out and do their work, that teachers can say, “On your way home from school, I want you to look around at the world around you and find examples of supplementary and complementary angles and photograph them so you can bring them in tomorrow and we can talk about them.”

And every child has a device, so wherever they happen to be they can always access it to try to connect, to take photos, to connect those school lessons to the real world. I think that’s really an important aspect. The portability is also an important thing because it sits in their pocket. They have it with them; it’s not like lugging a device with them.

Phillips: To dovetail with what Cathie is saying, the fact that these kids can take home a Spanish lesson and literally videotape Mom and Dad and use the Spanish words, videotape the dog, kitchen appliances, and then send them back to the teachers for evaluation—that’s a lot more effective than sitting down and writing out or translating a word or finding a definition for a word.

Menchhofer: I think that what we’re talking about is a classroom without walls. Students take their devices on field trips and take pictures, and on their way back to the bus they’re able to use Sketchy, which is a program they can use to import the pictures and jot notes down. You can’t do that with a laptop. Learning occurs outside the classroom as well, so if you’re doing a science lesson and you want to go outside and take pictures, you’re not constrained to the confines of the building. I think that’s very important so that kids apply what they’re learning in class and then take it outside and apply it using video or whatever means that is and bring that back to the classroom and share with the rest of the classroom.

Schad: This was the whole concept that got me talking to Elliot, and he touched on it briefly. I sat and watched kids with laptops and cell phones, and the majority of their time is spent on cell phones, so what really got me thinking about this was how we can utilize this tool that is such a part of these kids’ lives into the way they get educated. And the phone, if you can tie in the Web 2.0 tools and the ability for students to start incorporating this device into their homework, in how they’re animating things, this is the engagement piece, this is the Holy Grail that everybody is going after. This is the device that does that. The ability for these kids to animate and write and do research all on one single device—that’s what excites them, what gets them going above and beyond what they normally do. And that’s what we hear coming back from all these teachers: the type of homework, the degree, the comprehensiveness, just that extra effort that they’re seeing from the kids using these devices—these are things that 20-year veteran teachers have never seen before.

So this is the device that touches the heart of the kids in a way that gets them excited about doing their homework and gets them to go above and beyond what they would normally do with pen and pencil and even a laptop.

To hear the full Web seminar that aired on April 29, go to

In the print edition of DA,

<a href='/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2419'> Read why every student in every grade will be using a mobile learning device. </a>

<a href='/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2420'> Read more about St. Marys City Schools.</a>

<a href='/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2421'> Learn how Watkins Glen Central School District is faring.</a>

<a href='/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2422'> More on Katy Independent School District.</a>

<a href='/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2423'> Learn what another district, North Rockland Central School District in Garnerville, N.Y., is doing.</a>