Fill'er Up! What to Do with All Those Cell Phones, PDAs, and iPods Tucked Away in Students' Backpacks? Forward-Thinking Administrators Have Found a 'Smart' Solution: Load Them with Educational Content and Welcome Them into Instruction

By Ramaswami, Rama | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), May 2008 | Go to article overview

Fill'er Up! What to Do with All Those Cell Phones, PDAs, and iPods Tucked Away in Students' Backpacks? Forward-Thinking Administrators Have Found a 'Smart' Solution: Load Them with Educational Content and Welcome Them into Instruction


Ramaswami, Rama, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


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"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 recent blog entry. "While we give students paper planners at the beginning of the year, what about students who want to use a cell phone, a BlackBerry, or an MP3 player as a time manager, a note-taking device, 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.

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. …

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