IT Infrastructure & Management

Schools Open Doors to Students’ Mobile Devices

By Ian Quillen — October 15, 2010 10 min read
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At Oak Hills High School in suburban Cincinnati, students returned from summer break to learn they were free not only to bring their mobile devices to school, but also to use them—at their teachers’ discretion—to connect to the school’s wireless network to do their work.

At Cumberland Valley High near Harrisburg, Pa., district officials have approved a similar policy on a pilot basis after deep and repeated discussions with administrators, teachers, and parents.

And in Chicago, the Mikva Challenge’s student-leadership branch suggested in an August report that the city’s public schools allow students to use their own smartphones on campus for learning.

“The students do see [a smartphone] as a potential learning tool,” says Jessica Gingold, an education-council program coordinator for the Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit group dedicated to developing young civic leaders, activists, and policymakers by exposing them to political opportunities. “But that’s not their [primary message]. Their [message] is that we need to start changing the policy, and using the resources that are already available.”


The point, say proponents of mobile learning, is not that discussions about enabling such learning are at varying stages, but that they are happening at all. More educators are wising up, they say, to the reality that most students have phones or other mobile devices that could allow them to give real-time feedback to a lecture on a text-message back channel, take pictures during a science field trip, or answer teacher prompts with online polling.

And with the increasing capabilities and prevalence of mobile devices, the growing demand for K-12 students to be comfortable learning online, and the shrinking technology budgets of districts coping with the aftermath of the Great Recession, allowing students to use their own mobile devices is making more sense to more people.

“I think it’s a discussion that is taking place in almost every school district,” says Todd Yohey, the superintendent of Ohio’s 8,100-student Oak Hills school district, which includes Oak Hills High. “I think that for districts … with the resources to implement some programs, that it’s probably already happening.”

But superintendents and technology directors must consider what students are learning about technology use when they reshape mobile-device policies, ed-tech experts say. They must reach out to teachers and parents to explain how those policies forward students’ learning. And, most importantly, they must revise their thinking about resources to conceive of school-owned hardware and student-owned hardware as one fleet.

Weighing the Costs

Recent research shows the proportion of students owning cellphones is increasing. A January survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found about two-thirds of 8- to 18-year-olds owned cellphones, while more than three-quarters had an iPod or other MP3 media player. And an April study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that when you change the age bracket to 12- to 17-year-olds, 75 percent of students have cellphones—and often smartphones that are capable of completing many of the same online functions as laptop computers and netbooks.

Yohey says the expectation at Oak Hills has never been that every student would someday own a cellphone—only that enough would so that the district could supply devices to those who didn’t. It’s a strategy other districts making similar policy shifts are following in pursuit of a 1-to-1 computing environment in which every student has his or her own digital-learning device.

“The cost of having some cellphones you can provide, at least in school during school time, is small compared to supplying laptops or supplying broadband in people’s homes,” says Christopher Dede, a professor of educational technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For Oak Hills, Yohey said it cost the district $236,000 to wire the high school’s filtered Internet network for wireless service throughout the building. Loaner mobile devices for students cost about $500, and would not need a data plan to connect to the school’s open network. Netbooks would have a cost similar to mobile phones’, but would have to be distributed to a greater portion of the student body.


1. Know why you’re re-examining your policy. Disticts typically consider revising their cellphone policies for two different reasons: 1) to utilize smartphones and other mobile devices as tools for learning; or 2) to curb disciplinary problems and ease tensions between teachers and students about phone use. A policy designed to do one will not necessarily accomplish the other.

2. Let the community know why you’re re-examining your policy. Without information on how and why you intend to have students use their phones on campus, parents and other community members are likely to think that student cellphone use will mirror the use they observe outside school hours.

3. Involve teachers in the policymaking. Even though the profile of the average teacher is becoming younger and more technically savvy, teachers can still be the most resistant to a policy change, because other than students themselves, they will be the ones most affected on a daily basis.

4. Know how prevalent mobile-technology use is among your students. This is especially crucial if the goal is to build 1-to-1 computing classrooms. While you shouldn’t expect that all your students will own cellphones, you should know how many do, so that you can supplement student-owned devices with district-issued loaners.

5. Make preparations for professional development. Even mobile-learning experts admit that educational applications for such technologies are evolving so rapidly that just keeping track of them all, let alone learning to use them, can be difficult. Districts that encourage teachers to use mobile technologies for instruction should also be prepared to teach them how best to use those technologies.

Districts that can’t afford to wire entire schools can still pick strategic hot spots, says Robert Scidmore, the director of technology for the 10,700-student Eau Claire Area district in western Wisconsin. That’s the plan for his district, where officials are putting the finishing touches on a new cellphone policy that would allow students to use the phones at their leisure between classes, and teachers to dictate how they were used during class.

“By the end of the year, we hope to have hot spots at both district high schools,” says Scidmore. “Libraries, study halls, auditoriums, gymnasiums—we want to at least get those wired.”

And while most technology directors agree that, ideally, students without mobile devices would be provided loaners from their districts, there are still ways to explore using only student-owned devices.

For example, says Juli Di Chiro, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Ashland district in southwestern Oregon, teachers could make the very simple request of asking cellphone owners to pair up with non-owners for an assignment.

“Even at two-to-one, that’s a lot better than what we [actually] do right now” in the district, says Di Chiro, who, for now, is only informally considering changing the district’s cellphone policy. “Even if we have 50 percent of the kids [owning devices], … the ubiquitousness of this technology is just going to be increasing as we move forward.”

But recognizing the dramatically increased presence and potential of student-owned cellphones is only one step toward enacting less restrictive policies. Another, Scidmore says, is realizing that abuse of cellphones during class time—whether for cheating, accessing inappropriate material, or sending improper text messages—is a behavioral problem, not a technology problem.

In his Eau Claire district, the new policy awaiting passage reflects that perspective. Not only does it enable teachers to have the final say on in-class use, but it also enables them through language that is only three sentences long, implying that any other issues not covered explicitly fall under the district’s general code of conduct.

Kyle Menchhofer, the technology coordinator for the 2,200-student St. Mary’s city school system in Ohio, contends that besides allowing for academic use, a successful cellphone policy should help educate students about proper conduct with a device that is nearly universal in the work world. Currently, his district uses federal economic-stimulus funds to help provide students in grades 3-6 with district-issued smartphones and does not allow students to use their own devices. But a change to that policy, he says, is something he would support.

“What we need to do as schools is to teach our kids to be responsible users,” Menchhofer says. “There’s an appropriate time to use the device and not use the device. If I’m teaching and lecturing, you should not have that device out. If you get it out while I’m teaching or lecturing, you’re going to lose your privacy and have to go back to pencil and paper.”

The St. Mary’s district also makes sure its students use only the devices’ Internet features, by disabling phone and text-message functions—in part, Menchhofer says, to gain parents’ trust that students won’t abuse the phones.

Educating Parents

In districts that are revising their cellphone-use policies, gaining that trust appears to be a crucial step.

Lenny Schad, the chief information officer for the 59,000-student Katy Independent School District in Houston’s western suburbs, is hoping that a pilot program that will begin allowing elementary students at one school to use their own devices this winter will expand through the district the following year. He says he hopes to have public support for the project, in part, because other district parents have already experienced a continuing initiative in which 1,500 students at 10 elementary campuses are using district-issued smartphones.

“The biggest thing school districts have to do is to prepare the community for this,” Schad says. “You have to spend time working with parents, answering questions and concerns, and helping them understand why we’re doing something like this.”

In Pennsylvania’s 7,700-student Cumberland Valley district, situated a few miles west of Harrisburg, school officials say they held discussions with teachers, staff members, parents, and other community members for nearly all of the 2009-10 school year before deciding to allow students to use their own devices this fall. The discussions developed not only out of a desire to explore new learning methods, but also to address chronic cellphone-related discipline issues.

“Some of them kind of got a little heated,” says Darren DiCello, a district instructional technology specialist. “There were teachers who felt like it was almost a control issue, because they wanted to be able to tell the kids they weren’t able to have the phone. … People had their thoughts either way, but I think most of the teachers that sat on that committee wanted something to be done so there would be consistency across the building.”

The pilot program ends at the end of the first academic quarter, but if feedback is favorable, it can be extended until the standard policy is changed. Cumberland Valley district officials say reviews from faculty and staff members were mixed in the first two weeks of the academic year.

Trial and Error

Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education stresses that, while an eventual progression to open mobile-learning environments might be inevitable, that doesn’t mean it will be immediately beneficial. The learning potential of the devices, he says, won’t be realized without continuing professional development, as well as in-class trial and error.

“The enthusiasts in the technology community treat each new development as magic,” Dede says, “even though we have generation after generation after generation of proof that there is no such thing as magic.”

But he acknowledges differences between other movements and the mobile-learning movement. For one, he says, while previous education technologies have developed first in postsecondary education and trickled down into K-12, some mobile-learning applications are already popular among parents of prekindergartners.

That could mean a “bidirectional” push of mobile learning into education’s mainstream, he says, which could help parents become comfortable with mobile learning in school even if they weren’t with similar initiatives using laptops, for example.

Elliot Soloway, an electrical-engineering and computer-science professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and the founder of the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education, insists the differences go a bit further. The ability to access the Internet through a device whose cost is a fraction of that of a laptop, he says, potentially gives students rich and poor the “unprecedented” ability to answer their own questions. Moreover, he argues, trusting a student to use a cellphone properly creates more-responsible students.

But, while some districts have rehashed policies to explore that potential, most have not. As Dede puts it, there are still considerable (and understandable) reservations about putting teachers in positions where they could become entangled, for instance, in a case of in-class sexting or cheating.

And students who haven’t been exposed to the possibility of using cellphones for learning rarely push for that opportunity themselves, because restrictive school policies have made the idea seem out of the question, experts say.

The experience of the 15 high school students on Chicago’s Mikva Challenge education council supports that argument. When asked by Chicago schools chief Ron Huberman to draw up a report suggesting improvements to the 409,000-student district’s technology profile, students said they first envisioned school-issued laptops and free Wi-Fi networks. It wasn’t until meeting with a teacher who explained the possibilities of mobile learning that they included that suggestion in their report.

“She was the first teacher to actually come and tell us how she used” the phone for educational purposes, says Lisa Jean Baptiste, a junior at Harper High School. “Students wouldn’t think they can use their cellphones educationally because they haven’t been told they can use them educationally.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as Left to Their Owned Devices


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