Thursday, September 01, 2011

Mobile Devices (and cell phones) in Schools

(cross posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog)


For years educational technology advocates are preaching that our schools need to reach a “one to one” device per student ratio. After all, the first thing most employees now get in any new job is some form of computation device with internet connectivity. It can be a laptop, a netbook, a smartphone, tablet, etc. Think about it, in many places, especially in an information intensive workplace, before one gets a desk and a phone number a corporate email is assigned. The good news: in many high schools we have gotten to the 1:1 ratio, middle schools are following closely. Are schools an information and communication intensive environment? I sure hope so. The bad news: we do not really know how to take full advantage of this, so we ask our students NOT to use these devices. In many places we actually ban them. What a shame.
Let me back off a little, and get a bit technical (you may skip this paragraph…): We used to think we needed a desktop or laptop per student to realize the potential of educational technology in our schools. Two things have changed: cloud computing and smart mobile devices. Cloud computing means much of the heavy lifting that we used to have our computers deal with is now processed elsewhere, on servers connected to the internet. We no longer need a huge amount of storage on our device – we can save the files on a Microsoft, Google or Amazon server as well as smaller options (such as Dropbox orEvernote).  Now that the computing and storage demands are lowered, smaller and cheaper devices can function like some former laptops (see explanatory video below).
Moreover, computing and processing power on servers are sometimes bundled together in a very “educational friendly” manner – using Google Docs teachers can share materials with their students, use online surveys, let kids collaborate etc. with all of these features accessible from any connected device: the teacher’s home computer, the classroom desktop, the students’ home machines, and yes those small devices we all walk around with formerly called “phones.”
I think our schools need to change their mindset about mobile devices: from “technological distractions” to “educational technology opportunities.”  We need to have wifi access all over our schools. Content wise, we can start where it is simple: Many schools are looking for “student response systems.”  These enable teachers to poll their students during the lesson and get an immediate response, sometimes embedded in a chart displayed in front of the class. But if your students have a mobile device, cell phone, Smartphone, tablet, netbook, whatever it is – I would recommend you first try a free option. In the long run, I think we are going into a “bring your own device” (often referred to as BYOD) era, and there may be no need for an expensive response system. One simple way is to use Google docs.
Some schools are using free tools based on student cell phones or laptops. The New York Bronx office of educational technology ran a session at the last ISTE conference titled “7 Free Mobile Participation Tools for Classrooms”, the session was taped (you can find it here and the lecture notes are online as well). I have seen the use of text messaging tools as well as internet based tools (and combinations of both).
But it does not end with simple participation tools. We need to embrace mobile devices, and use them as much as we can. We should ask our students to use them for learning, just as we use them for work. It may be that tablets (such as the iPad)  have a greater potential to serve as digital books then larger screen smartphones which are showing up more and more, but those are minor distinctions – we have reached the point where most high school students have the hardware to make good educational technology work. Looking up information and communicating is part of it, but I hope that more robust educational products will emerge in the near future in Jewish studies, so we can really leverage educational technology in the classroom.

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