Talkin' Up a Storm


The debate over integrating cell phones into instruction rages: Do potential securityrisks and classroom disruptions negate the promise of academic gains? A NorthCarolina pilot program may soon have the answer.

Mobile TechnologyTHE IPHONE, BLACKBERRY, and Sidekick, aswell as the host of other multifunctional smart phones, maybe the darlings of Wall Street, cell phone salesmen, and GenerationsX and Y, but they have yet to endear themselves toone prominent group in society: K-12 educators. There's goodreason for that: Cell phones can be the devil's handmaidenwhen teachers are giving tests—some students are so familiarwith the keyboard, they can text-message answers tofriends by reaching into their pockets and never pulling theirphones into view. Then there are the security worries: everythingfrom sexual exploitation to cyber bullying.

Yet educators also know that motivation and achievement go hand in hand. "And motivation goes up when the curriculum uses technology," says Elliot Soloway, computer science professor at the University of Michigan and CEO of GoKnow Learning, which provides educational resources for handheld computers. "Would we see test scores go up immediately after implementing smart phones into the classroom? Probably not. But what we would see is more engaged children, fewer discipline problems, and plummeting truancy."

There's certainly nothing wrong with the messenger. Today's smart phones essentially put a computer in the hands of every user 24/7. "When you call it a phone, you've missed what it is," Soloway says. These gadgets enable students to write reports, perform data collection, collaborate in groups, web-surf for background materials, and map.

"Smart phones are better than wireless internet from an instructional point of view," says Cathleen Norris, a Regents professor at the University of North Texas' Department of Learning Technologies and GoKnow's chief education architect. "[Students] can access the internet via the telephone and get everything they need without the school going through the trouble of implementing WiFi capability."

The challenge for educators is to determine whether they're ready to come on board. Until now, they've resisted cell phones, but a pilot program in North Carolina may be decisive.

K-Necting the Dots

Manufacturers nearly settled the issue before it got brewing, with the development of the Pocket PC. Dell's $199 Axim series was a smash hit with the K-12 population, as it ran Microsoft programs just like the desktops in the classrooms. That meant no learning curve for the students and very little brain sweat for teachers who wanted to set up lesson plans for it. But Dell found there wasn't as much profit margin in the Pocket PC as there is in a laptop, Norris says, so the line was discontinued, leaving a gaping hole in the market for smart phones to step into, but that still leaves educators struggling with the problems that got phones banned in the first place.

But soon they should have the data they need to come to a conclusion on cell phones, courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's Project K-Nect, launching in Algebra I courses at four high schools in January 2008. The 250 students in these classes will use smart phones with a slide-out corded keyboard and advanced mobile broadband technology as part of their daily curriculum. Teachers will push a set of problems to their students, accompanied by a multimedia presentation that gives an overview of the strategies discussed in class. The instructional material contains fun, interactive content similar to BrainPop's animated movies. Students will be encouraged to IM to work out problems and create blogs with either text, video, or audio components.

None of this scares Shawn Gross, the project director of Project K-Nect, because he partnered up with a small development company, Ace*Comm, whose Patrol Suite allows teachers to disable key features associated with the smart phone. At any time, the instructor can block the camera function on a single handset, cut off the ability to instant-message, or restrict voice calls to only designated individuals during school hours. And no one is screaming about abridging individual rights because the student's cell phone reverts to a standard smart phone once it is taken off school property. "The students aren't going to be able to access any social networking sites, so they are essentially dependent on using the one we created for them on our system," Gross says. "The possibility of their going into the classroom and filming something to post on MySpace is slim."

"Would we see test scores go up immediately after implementingsmart phones into the classroom? Probably not. But what we wouldsee is more engaged children, fewer discipline problems, andplummeting truancy."
—Elliot Soloway, GoKnow Learning

Price Incentives

According to Norris, a similar smart phone pilot launched in UK schools in September. From what she's seen, she anticipates positive results. Soloway says schools are beginning to realize that wireless networks "are too expensive and too finicky. As we start to move into 3G and 4G bandwidths for phones, like the United Kingdom has, it makes sense for schools to let the phone guys maintain the high-speed data networks [and] to use telco's 3G service as their onramp to the internet." He says the Brits are further along in this regard, noting that "3G is widely deployed, if not standard, throughout the UK, in contrast to its spotty deployment here in the US."

Certainly cost helped sway the North Carolina DPI. "I am not trying to compare the smart phone against a laptop with respect to a 1-to-1 initiative," says Gross. "But I will tell you the districts we are working with are saying there is a lower total cost of ownership associated with this type of platform."

Soloway is more emphatic: "There is a huge difference in the TCO of a cell phone versus the cost of a laptop. The TCO for laptops is astronomical: about $6,000 over a three-year lifetime. Why? A big screen means a big battery, and a big hard drive that is spinning. Lots of moving parts means lots of maintenance. Cell phones are just about disposable items. Their cost is negligible." It's certainly a small price to pay, considering Gross anticipates that by 2010, cell phones will be able to access 30 megabits per second wirelessly. "You can't even get that in your home today," he says.

The advantages go beyond cost. Cell phones offer seamless connectivity to students when they aren't at school. "If a student leaves with a laptop computer, there shouldn't be an assumption he has internet access when he gets home," Gross adds. "We looked at the penetration rate associated with cell phones in respect to some of our underserved populations and compared that to broadband access, and found there were significant disparities between what students have available to them once they leave school."

That's not unique to his demographics. Soloway loves to tell how he walked into a New York City school facility where 100 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. When he arrived to have breakfast with the kids, 100 percent of them also had cell phones in their pockets.

Soloway believes the solution lies with "grassroots" technology: When parents send their kids to school with cell phones, they will force the school system to move forward. "When schools have to buy technology for the kids, there is never enough money," he says. "But school officials respond to parents. It's going to take them coming in to the schools and saying, ‘Stop this madness! I want my kid to have a phone!'"

Gross knows Project K-Nect is a guinea pig. "We look at this project as one that challenges many false assumptions that have been made with respect to smart phones," he says. "They can be used for educational purposes, and we're trying to demonstrate this is the preferred device from a digital native's perspective. We are able to set significant controls so that policymakers—particularly board members—aren't going to be afraid of using these types of devices."

If K-Nect fails, Norris says educators will simply need to try another way. Either they come to terms with the phone part of the smart phone, or they risk forfeiting the use of any handheld gadget. Vendors aren't interested in developing a PDA that doesn't include calling features.

"Eventually, handheld mobiles and smart phones will converge," she says. "There are not going to be handheld computers without cellular capabilities. The key from the school's perspective is to activate only the data capabilities, not the voice function of the device. But if schools want truly mobile computers, then they have to adopt converged devices."

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Indiana.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.