Mobile Technology for the Classroom

Move over, desktop and laptop computers. There’s a new K-12 education tool in town that, while it won’t replace you entirely, will ensure you see some downtime. This tool fits in the palm of students’ hands, so it’s highly mobile. It easily slips into students’ blue jeans pockets, so it isn’t obvious pickings for would-be thieves. The classroom uses for this bad boy are just beginning to be explored, and it appears that, like you, the uses will be limited only by teacher imagination. Your competitor? The cell phone.

Using Cell Phones Across the Board
In the summer of 2008, Matt Cook, a fifth-grade teacher at Keller Independent School District in Texas, attended a conference and heard a presentation about integrating cell phones into the classroom. “It resonated with me because I was already using cell phones in my classroom,” he recalls, “having students take pictures that tied into our curriculum.”

Cook contacted cell phone providers to ask if they would talk with him about starting a pilot program where all his students would be given cell phones. Verizon was interested. “I wanted to create a program where a corporate provider would provide technology to every student at an inexpensive rate,” he says. “They were excited about my idea and willing to donate the data plan. HTC was willing to provide smart phones. Verizon brought in a Microsoft team, and we all met with the district’s technology people, board members and the superintendent. It took about three months of planning.

“We also met with parents and students, training them as to the program components,” Cook continues. “I had a parent representative who helped educate the parents, even if it meant meeting them at a local coffee shop. He was a great liaison to bridge the knowledge gap.”

Cook used to administer a pre-test of general technology skills to his students in two fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School. Then they used the cell phones from January through May, 2009 — cross-curricularly and in conjunction with a language arts and social studies teacher. For math, he asked students to take pictures of food labels and convert decimals to the root unit. For science, he asked students to take photographic evidence of weathering erosion. Also for science, students had to create their own planets. One group of students shared their projects by sending them across the phones to create an entire solar system.

At the end of the school year, students were given a post-test of general technology skills. “I knew we could hang our hat that we would see growth there,” Cook says, “and we did. We discovered that students could learn on a mobile device and transfer that knowledge to a PC. It greatly increased their fluency and confidence in using technology as a communication tool.” In addition to an increased comfort level using technology, he saw tremendous growth in students’ engagement, confidence and excitement.

Unfortunately, the school district chose to not renew Cook’s project the following fall. “Not everyone was on board,” he points out. “The curriculum person wasn’t quite there. In Texas, unfortunately, it comes down to that; if you can’t prove that it made your test scores go up, they aren’t interested.

“Also, we didn’t have everything figured out, which is the nature of a pilot,” Cook continues. “That is another thing about the types of personalities in administration — sometimes they aren’t real comfortable with the unknown, and this had a lot of unknowns.”

Using Personal Cell Phones
Stacia FitzSimon, director of Design and Technology Academy, a magnet program at Roosevelt High School in North East Independent School District (NEISD) in San Antonio, Texas, has taken a less-structured approach to using cell phones, and which is producing similar results. “We started unofficially using cell phones in the classroom two years ago,” she recalls. “It was new but, because we focus on technology, it seemed natural that we would be one of the first to explore those boundaries with the students. I had permission from our superintendent and the support of the school district’s executive staff.”

“The phones are not district-issued,” FitzSimon notes. “They’re personal.” Students who do not have cell phones are not required to have them: “I never expect a parent to provide a cell phone just because we’re using it in class. Any activities for which cell phones can be used can be completed using classroom computers, digital cameras and other forms of technology. However, between 80 and 90 percent of the students do have them.”

Students use their cell phones to take pictures of geometrical figures. They take pictures of unique architectural structures when they participate in a San Antonio River Walk. They use them to conduct history and math research. They create videos that are used in classroom presentations. “Here, the cell phones provide a just-in-time technology that allows students to shoot, import, transition and crop in a short amount of time to create information based on things they learn in class,” says FitzSimon. “It’s very dynamic learning.”

Cell phones are also used as a classroom response system, thanks to the Poll Everywhere Website. And some teachers use the cell phones for ice breakers at the beginning of each class. For example, a teacher may say, “Tell me everything you can about this author we’re going to study.” Students with data plans can do a Google search and provide answers. “Today, it’s not knowing the right answer,” says FitzSimon, “It’s knowing where to find the answer.”

FitzSimon is not tracking grade improvement since incorporating cell phone use, because not every student has a cell phone and because each phone has different capabilities. However, areas where she has witnessed student improvement include increased attendance, participation and enthusiasm, and less off-task behavior. “We have a phrase we use,” she notes. “It is a time and a place. We tell the students there is a time for a conversation or direct teaching, and the phones need to be put away so as to not create a distraction.

“Now, I’m not going to tell you that we don’t have students using cell phones inappropriately,” FitzSimon continues. “We do. And when that happens repeatedly, the offending student has to have a conversation with me. No one has had to come back a second time because the students understand the boundaries and that using a cell phone is a privilege.”

As a result of FitzSimon’s success, NEISD has revised its Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to encompass all electronic devices. “For many years,” says Tom Johnson, senior director of the district’s Technology Services department, “we had policies specifically prohibiting cell phones. The fact that they’re more powerful, cheaper and prevalent, makes restricting them a battle that’s hard to fight. Rather than prohibiting the use of cell phones, we’re choosing to focus on their education value.” Specifically, it is up to each building principal’s discretion, and then, by extension, each teacher’s discretion, how and when cell phones are used.

“We wanted to make the new AUP positive,” says Johnson. “We want to encourage creativity, collaboration and communication. And our old AUP did not promote those things. We think this one does.”

“We have yet to find a downside in the adoption of this technology,” says Johnson. “Still, taking it to the next level is falling on the teachers. Even with a technology department in place, we learn from the teachers ways to use the products that we haven’t thought of yet.”

The Future
Two very different examples, yet similar results. And both educators are staunch in their commitment to the cell phone as a valuable education tool.

“I believe that a lot of people think that cell phones are a distraction, that we have to do school the way we did when we were in school,” says FitzSimon. “But the reality is that, when you structure a classroom with a time and place where it is appropriate to use the phone and boundaries are explained, it is successful.”

“We have to have different technology platforms and tools,” adds Cook. “Sometimes a cell phone is the right tool. And we have to teach acceptable use of all the devices. The younger we start teaching this, the more fluent students will be and the less likely they will be to use it inappropriately.”

To that end, Cook is hoping someone picks up where his pilot program left off and works to create a national model where school districts partner with cell phone providers to economically fund the technology for every student. “As the current funding crisis gets worse,” he says, “I believe we’re going to have to look to corporate partnerships to put technology in students’ hands. It’s the way to bridge the digital divide between the haves and have nots. The bottom line is, can we advance and not hold the students back? Right now, I think we’re holding them back, and that’s a mistake.”