Infrastructure

School Leaders Rely on Smartphones

By Katie Ash — June 14, 2010 5 min read
Oakland Community Unit School District No. 5 Superintendent Michael Smith holds his BlackBerry, which he says has become crucial for his job.

Five years ago, after spending the day traveling around his district, Superintendent Michael Smith would come back to dozens of e-mails and a handful of phone messages on his desk. But today, he and most other administrators can respond to those queries anytime, anywhere because of an increasingly essential school management tool: a smartphone.

“It’s almost a job-must,” says Smith, the chief of the 325-student Oakland Community Unit School District No. 5 in Illinois. “You just won’t find an administrator that just has a regular cellphone.”

Although mobile devices allow administrators to be better informed and more easily reachable, challenges have arisen from their growing use, such as how to keep track of and manage the hundreds of mobile devices in each district and how to know when it’s time to turn the devices off.

Having a smartphone allows Smith to answer e-mails and phone calls when he’s not in the office, he says, “but the horrible, terrible downside is when you’re answering e-mails from parents and kids at 11:30 on a Sunday night. You just don’t seem to get a break from it.”

Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, agrees.

“Information overload is happening to everyone,” he says. “The expectations of everyone have changed.”

Five years ago, it was considered timely for an administrator to answer an e-mail within a day or two, Krueger says, but now a response is expected within mere hours.

Most administrators are comfortable using smartphones to communicate through e-mail and texting, says Mark J. Stock, an assistant professor of education leadership at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, “but I don’t think we’ve really tapped what the potential in the future could be for [the devices].”

For instance, Stock says, mobile devices could be used for real-time communication and transparency between parents and school districts.

“Administrators are able to put the information out exactly as they want it, which means that there’s no filtering of the message, which can be both good and bad,” he says. “Communities are used to more real-time information now. The blogs and mobile devices provide that capability.”

And because students and parents also carry mobile devices, if schools do not join in the digital dialogue, it will move forward without them, he says.

The ‘Good and Bad’

Stock remembers a bus accident in his district when he was a superintendent in Syracuse, Ind. He was immediately informed of the incident, but by the time he had arrived on the scene, some parents had already heard the news through text messaging and Facebook.

Although no students were seriously hurt, Stock posted an item on the district’s blog that told parents what had happened and which hospital the students were taken to. School secretaries were instructed to direct parents there for the latest information and updates. Stock was able to update the blog from the hospital through his mobile device.

Mobile Stats

Percent of public schools providing hand-held computing devices to administrators, teachers, or students.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Although Stock and some other superintendents use their mobile devices to promote real-time communication between the school and parents, most administrators have not yet embraced the tools for that kind of use, says Stock.

In the 128,000-student, 18,000-employee Prince George’s County school system in Maryland, most administrators have smartphones, and all teachers and administrators receive laptop computers, says W. Wesley Watts Jr., the district’s chief information officer.

“There used to be a time where if you had to do something on a computer, you had to be in a specific place,” he says. But now “you can pretty much do your work anytime, anywhere as long as you have network connectivity, whether that be on the smartphone, laptop, or netbook.”

The district at one time provided 2,000 smartphones to administrators, but budget cuts have forced it to reduce that number to around 300, Watts says. As a result, the district now allows administrators to use their own mobile devices to connect to the school network and the district’s Google Apps account, which is free for educators and provides e-mail, calendar, and a host of other capabilities to mobile devices.

“A lot of our teachers and staff use their laptops both day and night to connect to the student-information system to enter grades,” says Watts. They can also use the laptops to log in to the district’s human-resources system, he says.

But keeping all the devices up and running smoothly is difficult, he says.

“Right now, we don’t have to worry too much about viruses on a cellphone [or smartphone], but with so many mobile netbooks and laptops, that is a concern because they plug into a nonschool network and then plug back into us,” says Watts. “So one of the main challenges is trying to keep viruses off these machines and trying to keep them up to date.”

High Expectations

Accurate and consistent communication with parents is a high priority in the 35,000-student Forsyth County school system in Cumming, Ga., administrators there say.

“[Mobile devices have] certainly benefited us and helped us as a communication tool to an affluent parent community with high expectations,” says L.C. “Buster” Evans, the district’s superintendent.

Evans blogs and uses the microblogging platform Twitter to keep parents informed of what’s going on in the district.

Almost all administrators in the district carry a BlackBerry or iPhone to keep up with e-mail, says Bailey Mitchell, the district’s chief technology and information officer, as well as to access the district’s student-information system, which has been formatted for mobile devices.

The district has also integrated the school telephone system with mobile devices, so that if someone at a school building dials 911 from a school phone, administrators are immediately informed of when it was dialed and what classroom the call came from, says Mitchell.

Automated e-mails can be particularly useful for school facilities administrators to help in keeping track of conditions and operations in their buildings. For instance, when the backup generator at a school turns on, it sends an automated e-mail to Mitchell’s BlackBerry so he can investigate.

The Forsyth County district is also running pilots to see whether netbooks or iPads could be used to run teacher-evaluation software used by administrators.”It’s important to make sure your superintendent and a few key cabinet members have some of the newer devices out there, because you want them to envision with you on determining whether this will be relevant as an instructional device, and if this has a place in the classroom,” Mitchell says.

While embracing mobile devices for administrative use has certainly been a boon to the district, integrating them into the classroom is even more important, says Evans, the superintendent. “The real power,” he says, “lies in what happens when we put learning opportunities in the hands of kids.”

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