Fill 'Er Up


What to do with all those cell phones, PDAs, and iPodstucked away in students' backpacks? Forward-thinkingadministrators have found a 'smart' solution: Load them witheducational content and welcome them into instruction.

Fill 'Er Up"How many students are told at the beginning of each school year,'Leave your cell phone in your locker; turn off the phone'?" asks June St. Clair Atkinson in a recentblog entry. "While we give students paper planners at the beginning of the year, what about studentswho want to use a cell phone, a BlackBerry, or an MP3 player as a time manager, a note-takingdevice, and as a way of assessing one's own learning through text messaging?"

Atkinson, a state superintendent with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and an outspoken proponent of the use of these so-called converged devices in education, then poses the million-dollar riddle that confounds every debate over a specific technology's place in the classroom: "How can educators incorporate the use of cell phones and other handheld devices as instructional tools rather than instructional distractions?"

In North Carolina, school systems are aiming to show just how it can be done. In February, the NCDPI, which is responsible for 115 local public school districts and 100 charter schools, launched Project K-Nect, an effort to address the large math and science skills deficit in North Carolina schools by using a tool that almost every student owns-a cell phone. Teachers will distribute to students math problems that are aligned to their personal lesson plans, which correspond to North Carolina state standards. Students get a chance to solve the problems through their mobile devices. If unable to, they can turn to a repository of digital instructional materials or a peer collaboration and communication environment for support.

For the pilot program, NCDPI and its partners, educational technology consulting firm Digital Millennial Consulting and wireless service provider Qualcomm, distributed 100 smartphones to four high schools in three school districts in the state. Set to run through June of this year, the project will be followed up with research to examine whether smartphones actually can be credited with increasing student achievement in math.

Most K-12 administrators likely would have dismissed Atkinson's blog entry out of hand, having spent years trying to keep smartphones and PDAs out of their classrooms. But North Carolina is at the forefront of K-12's new openness to experimenting with bringing handhelds out of lockers and backpacks and using them to enhance traditional classroom instruction. Educators are realizing that it no longer makes sense to fight the near ubiquity of cell phones in the lives of young people. Technology research firm IDC predicts that 81 percent of Americans between the ages of 5 and 24 will own a cell phone by 2010, up from 53 percent five years earlier. And those cell phones will increasingly boast more and more features, including sophisticated computing capabilities. On top of that, the research firm In-Stat reports that smartphone sales over the next five years will outpace those of laptop computers. With numbers like those, it's only smart for K-12 administrators to sit up and take notice.

"There are two ways to think: 'How do you protect the kidsfrom the technology?' Or, 'How do you unlock the creativityof the kids by engaging them with the technology?'If you assume that students will get their hands into the cookie jar,you're thinking about it the wrong way."
-Adam Newman, Outsell

Channeling the iPod

Smartphones belong to the category of "converged" mobile devices, or handhelds that perform a variety of functions combining different technologies. As defined by IDC in its Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, a market intelligence report, converged mobile devices "are capable of synchronizing personal information and/or e-mail with server, desktop, or laptop computers.... Replacing the need to carry a mobile phone and a pen-based handheld or a mobile phone and a pager, for example, these devices may also include an expanding list of features, such as multimedia or e-mail."

Converged devices can download data to local storage and can run applications. Plus, they're compatible with operating systems such as the Palm OS, Windows Mobile 5.0, and the Symbian platform. While smartphones, PDAs, and pocket PCs had different capabilities some years ago, today these devices are so similar that those distinctions have all but vanished.

Certainly, vendors have already tuned in to the K-12 market for converged devices. A few innovative companies are releasing digital learning software tailored specifically for handhelds. Raybook, for example, takes information from well-known publishers such as Wiley and Workman (publishers of CliffsNotes and Brain Quest, respectively) and turns it into unified packages of text, images, audio, and video that a student can use on an iPod-simple to download, uncluttered in design, and easy to view on small screens. While an iPod isn't technically a converged device, it's almost there with the iPod Touch, a touchscreen version that offers WiFi and web-browsing capability.

Sold by Durham, NC-based Modality, Raybook's programs originated in brain-mapping software that company founder Mark Williams, a neuroscientist at Duke University, had created for computers and modified for iPod use. According to Robert Pleasants, the company's director of education, Williams' "A-ha!" moment came when a student told him she had learned five new brain terms while waiting in line for a latte. From then on, it was just a matter of deciding "what other applications made sense for these devices," says Pleasants. "They have market share and cachet. They are used as music devices, and not everyone has tapped into their educational power. A lot of schools buy iPods, but haven't figured out how to use them yet."

By taking advantage of the device's inherent simplicity, Raybook is making a bid to corner the handheld market. "There's more learning capacity with the iPhone, but we want to stay with iPod content rather than make it web-based," says Pleasants. "You can download it and then it's always available. At this point in technology, it's more valuable to have the content always at your fingertips. The pedagogic value can get lost in the shadow of what's cool or neat."

With that in mind, Raybook keeps the content similar to what's found on flash cards, while using the technology to get students' attention-or "leveraging the cool factor of the iPod," as Pleasants puts it. "We're taking the learning content they need and putting it on a device they love."

That equation adds up for students at North Carolina's Durham Academy, a private K-12 institution of 1,134 students. Karl Schaefer, chair of the middle school computer department and digital learning coordinator, champions the use of both iPods and Raybook's Math Facts software. The school has purchased site licenses for the third and fourth grades. At $6 per student, the cost of licensing is high, but bound to drop, says Schaefer. And he's a true believer in the benefits: "Just a month into this project, I'm convinced that this is the way to go, especially for the lower and middle schools. I look at the technology that kids bring to school and try to harness that. You can either ban iPods or fill them with content. We're not a laptop school, so converged devices are critical to us. What do they have in their bookbags that we're not letting them use?"

According to Schaefer, Durham Academy teachers have observed that students who use iPods for instruction perform better on quizzes. Students also make resourceful use of the devices, he says. "One eighth-grade student memorized the Declaration of Independence by recording it on [Apple's] GarageBand at home, sending it to iTunes, then sending it to her iPod. I thought that was phenomenal."

So phenomenal, in fact, that Schaefer plans to buy a learning lab with 20 iPods in 2009, at a cost of $13,000. "The reason I wanted to invest is that I wanted to research the idea thoroughly," he says. "Many publishers don't understand how to repackage their content. This is so new that for many schools it's going to be cost-prohibitive unless they have a formalized program."

Converging on the Market

LUDDITES MAY LOATHE THE THINGS, but converged devices aren'tgoing away any time soon. According to the technology researchfirm IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile PhoneTracker, vendors shipped 80.5 million converged devices in 2006(see chart), a 42 percent jump from the previous year.Preliminary figures for 2007 reveal an estimated 125 million unitsshipped worldwide, with 21 million of those in the US.

Fill 'Er Up"Mobile phones reached an incredible shipment level in 2007,"says Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC's MobileDevices and Technology Trends group. "The number of subscribers inthe US is reaching a saturation point, but growth continues. Youngerand younger kids are getting mobile phones, and many people aretransitioning to a converged mobile device."

Nokia comes in as the undisputed industry leader, with a nearly50 percent share of the market; the remainder is divided up amongResearch in Motion, Panasonic, Motorola, NEC, and other brands.

Shipments in millions.
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, February 2007

Learning on the Go

A key contention of educators is that, with today's students constantly on the move, device portability needs to be exploited to maximum advantage. "We're talking about dynamic learning spaces, anytime, anywhere, and in a variety of ways," says Bob Longo, executive vice president of Studywiz Spark, a learning management system customized for the iPhone, iPod, and iPod Touch. The web-based, platform-independent system, marketed by Australia's Etech Group, offers resources that allow parents, teachers, and students to collaborate on and personalize projects. Using any device from any location, students can take advantage of capabilities such as RSS feeds, iPod synchronization, podcasts, e-lockers, e-bulletins, multimedia galleries, messaging, chat, discussion, online polls, testing, and reporting. The Dynamic LearnSpace, as Studywiz Spark calls it, has been in use at schools overseas for several years and entered the US market last November.

"Studywiz Spark provides an environment where you have organizational and control and management capabilities at all levels," says Longo. "For example, with a tool like chat, all the members of the educational community can chat with each other but not with anybody else outside the school, so there is no distraction. And classroom management tools are available to the teacher, who can go into the calendar and see anything the student has been working on."

The unique aspect of the LearnSpace is that it is specifically tailored for the K-12 environment. "Technology takes some time to trickle down to K-12," says Longo. "The applications that come down from higher ed often don't adapt as well."

Southgate Community School District, comprising 11 schools in Southgate, MI, recently created a Studywiz Spark virtual learning environment (VLE) to redesign its K-12 curriculum. Teachers and students now have access to a multimediarich, technology-infused setting.

"We have six elementary buildings that house 130 instructors who are teaching the same content, and we needed a system that would allow for group collaboration and communication among our teachers and students," says Mike Toschi, Southgate's director of technology. "Studywiz Spark has shown that there is capability to effectively incorporate mobile devices within the K-12 classroom. Currently, we are experiencing this with laptops, but in no time kids will be bringing handhelds into the classroom and utilizing them for educational purposes." Toschi adds that Southgate is looking to set up a program to incorporate either the iPod Touch or iPhones to deliver the curriculum through the Studywiz Spark VLE.

Megan Rudolph, a Southgate elementary school teacher, points to the extreme flexibility of this mode of instruction. At the end of a unit, she provides "very entertaining" review games. In addition, she inserts her own content into the lesson wherever appropriate so students can work on items they studied in class. The exposure to online test taking and problem solving is critical, Rudolph says, because "assessment and work are going to move to being all digital."

But Is the Price Right?

For those K-12 educators who still balk at giving fourthgraders smartphones for doing their homework, experts offer reassurance that the idea isn't as far-fetched as it may seem.

"The presumption is that kids in K-12 will abuse the tools, as if a kid suddenly becomes responsible when he turns 18," says C. Marc Wagner, services development specialist for the Student Technology Centers at Indiana University-Bloomington. "In truth, kids in K-12 are just as likely to respond to having high expectations set for them as 18-year-old college students."

The principles of delivering mobile learning in higher ed and K-12 environments are the same, in Wagner's view. "The most obvious application for such converged devices is podcasting, especially podcasting lectures, but the opportunities are so much greater. Many colleges and universities have now established official communications with their students via e-mail. Why not K-12? And, of course, there is the security angle. Schools are now turning to text messaging for emergency notification."

Wagner says his own favorite use for converged devices is as electronic readers. "Often, schools have no idea how much money is being spent on printing. Here at Indiana University, students print 28 million pages per year....For every 500,000 pages printed by or for students each year, we could buy 10 computers. When printed materials can be delivered to converged devices for reading, it really doesn't make sense to eat into scarce IT budgets to print these materials on paper."

The flip side of such economy, however, is the steep price of the gadgets themselves, plus the high cost of connectivity, which makes Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices and Technology Trends team, skeptical of their ultimate viability in education. "Let's face it, these devices aren't cheap," he says. "Who's going to absorb the monthly cost? Who is going to get the device? What about the non-school-related applications on it? If you're a student and you do a presentation on it, are you going to transmit that PowerPoint to other students? Think about the cost of the data. It raises a lot of questions about the sustainability of converged device programs."

Although the devices' nifty look and cool features may grab the spotlight, the real debate will center on what content should be delivered through them, says Adam Newman, interim vice president and service director of Burlingame, CA-based Outsell, a market research firm serving publishers and information providers. "The biggest challenge will be for content providers to figure out what their return will be," Newman says. "They'll want to put resources behind one or two models. It's hard for large publishers to be interested in multimillion- dollar adoptions as well as innovative pilots. At what point do they sacrifice the integrity of their own instructional models?"

In addition, school administrators must learn not to fear mobile devices, but plan how to use them effectively, designing instructional models that make optimal use of the technology. Fundamentally, Newman says, "there are two ways to think: 'How do you protect the kids from the technology?' Or, 'How do you unlock the creativity of the kids by engaging them with the technology?' If you assume that students will get their hands into the cookie jar, you're thinking about it the wrong way."

While cost may present a barrier to their widespread use, Newman still has no doubt that converged devices will be the instructional medium of the future. He says that content standards and interoperability standards will render what kind of device dominates the market unimportant. "Five years ago, 1-to-1 learning meant a laptop computer. That hypothesis has proven inaccurate. It's going to be a handheld device."

For more information on converged devices, visit here. In the Browse by Topicmenu, click on Wireless Technology.

Rama Ramaswami is a freelance writer based in Wilton, CT.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.