January 27, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


The Hard Cell 

Schools long have banished cell phones from the classroom. But a wave of new technology
and accessibility has educators rethinking digital learning.


The aha moment literally snuck up on IdaMae Craddock. It crept in quietly as she allowed that seemingly harmless Trojan horse through the gates of her Albemarle County advanced English class.

It arrived in the form of a few dozen 4-inch-by-2-inch, black-and-silver electronic boxes. “I was blown away,” Craddock says, recalling the lesson a few months ago on Homer's famous story of Helen, Paris and the world's most famous sneak attack.

Firing up the tiny screens of their school-issued iPods, Craddock's pupils allowed themselves to be overrun, first by multiple e-book translations of the 4,000-year-old classic. They were captivated by a National Geographic video about the Trojan War and its weapons, watched on YouTube. Then via satellite maps on Google Earth, they swooped in on modern-day Turkey's west coast to where the remains of the ancient city were excavated two centuries ago.

Fingers typing instructions on the touch-screen keyboards of their devices, the kids overlaid the digital maps with a computer simulation designed by Craddock's husband, watching the simulated shift of the ancient battle lines as Greek warriors moved into the city and overwhelmed it.

The lengthy discussion among high schoolers that followed about whether Troy's wooden, statue-borne ending was history or simply one of the world's greatest examples of literary fiction was among Craddock's most vivid classroom experiences. 

“This was the moment where I realized I'd become totally dependent on these iPods,” she says. Craddock, 33, was one of Albemarle's biggest skeptics when she plunged headfirst into her county's iPod classroom program two years ago.

Now she's a believer.

“I could have done the whole lesson on my overhead projector,” she says — “but it wouldn't have been the same. The iPods have put the control in their hand and they learn how to achieve through that tool.” To put it plainly: “It's just a better pencil.”

Though most adults still struggle to comprehend the computing power packed in these relatively cheap and commonly available hand-held devices, many children and teenagers are well aware. Smart cell phones and their cousins, iPods (neutered of telephone capabilities), boast a dizzying array of functions, including cameras, video and audio recorders, powerful word-processing programs, fast Internet access and book readers. They also enjoy the ubiquity that comes with being a necessary communication device. 

Whether branded by Apple or by Motorola or disguised as a cell phone, music player or pocket video game, the smart phone or handheld computer is a device that educators increasingly see both as Trojan horse and as a beautiful Helen of Troy — a digital face that may well launch a thousand education ships.

DESPITE their utility and widespread consumer acceptance — and despite the interest of forward-thinking educators — the cell phone officially remains an enemy at the gates to nearly every school principal, teacher and superintendent in the country. Nearly every county, city and town retains policies banning handheld electronic devices and cellular technology inside the doors of the schoolhouse.

In Virginia, Albemarle County is a smart-phone island, awash in a sea of laptop initiatives. Like most districts in the state — and nationally — Richmond Public Schools and the surrounding suburban school districts unanimously prohibit cell phones and other handheld devices.

That needs to change, says Gary Sarkozi, director of technology at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Education.

“The biggest thing we have is realizing the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants,” Sarkozi says, suggesting as Craddock does that pupils' brains are wired differently than those of children even five years ago, before wireless Internet and text-messaging connectivity was so widely available.

Four of five teens carry cell phones, he says, citing a wireless industry study conducted by the Cellular Telephone Industries Association — the Wireless Association. Eighteen percent of kids responded that cell phones had positively affected their education, despite their widespread educational banishment.

“The uneducated [educators] just say ‘No, no, no, I'm not going to have it in my school — somebody might sue me,'” Sarkozi says. “But today's students are mobile. The idea of not having cell phones or not having smart phones, the policy must become less stringent.”

The Richmond School Board chairwoman, Kimberly Bridges, agrees that educators are being passed quickly on the information highway. At a conference in late January, she listened to Ian Jukes, a national expert on educating children who are digital natives and using the tools that they use rather than the tools teachers take comfort in.

“It just got me thinking about what kinds of practical policy. … we should be talking about,” Bridges says, indicating a willingness to begin reviewing Richmond's cell phone and handheld computer policies.
But it's easy to understand why educators are reluctant. They worry about lawsuits, abuse by pupils, digitally aided cheating and loss of control of classes to distracting computer games.

“Cell phone policies in schools have been a roller coaster,” says Kirk Schroder, former president of Virginia's State Board of Education, recalling the mid-1990s when cell phones first began showing up in backpacks. “They were seen as devices that were distractions to the learning environment.”

Then came Columbine. On April 20, 1999, a dozen Colorado school children, a teacher and two troubled teenaged shooters died in the worst mass shooting at an American high school. Dramatic reports of the attack came from pupils' frantic cell-phone 911 calls.

“They became critical devices,” Schroder says, citing the fleeting time between Columbine and the invention of the camera phone, its abuse by pupils sending each other nude photos, and the resulting renewed classroom pariah status phones earned.



Big benefits may come from these tiny packages — often already considered by kids an extension of their hands. Smart phones are cheap and common, leading some education experts to question common schoolhouse bans on “smart” gadgets such as cell phones and iPods that can be used as textbook readers and notebooks.

Through it all, Schroder says, the cellular phone has slowly amassed greater applicability to learning. Kids have been at the forefront of using them while the devices have morphed from phones to pocket computers with higher processing ability and more computer-style applications than most laptops from a decade ago.

It's time for educators to once again re-evaluate their policies on cell phones, the university's Sarkozi says.

“There needs to be an upfront policy: You abuse the privilege, you don't have the privilege,” he says. “But what we have to understand is the digital natives of today understand the importance of that mobility. They aren't looking at ways to abuse the freedom that this mobility gives them.”

Kids are kids, whether digitally native or not, and it's a pie-in-the-sky notion that pupils won't break the rules, says Luvelle Brown, Albemarle's chief information officer, and the man who first thought to give iPods to the county's pupils, including Craddock's class.

He says the key is to develop policies and punishments before leaping in, and to make educating pupils on digital ethics a part of the curriculum: “We couldn't allow 1,100 iPod Touches go home in our division without having kids understand what they could and couldn't do with them.”

That education works both ways. The iPods — basically the same as iPhones but without the telephone capabilities — are allowed out of the building. Personal cell phones and iPods are, likewise, allowed in.

“If we as educators continue to power down students when they come in the [school] door,” Brown says, “we're not going to close that global achievement gap.”

BROWN has plenty of firsthand knowledge of the risks that come with unlimited access: He was a Henrico County Schools technology specialist when then-Superintendent Mark Edwards purchased 24,000 Apple iBook laptops and sent them home with every middle- and high-school pupil in the district. 

It's a brave thing he's done in Albemarle, Brown acknowledges, giving out technology and permitting even more of it to enter the building unchecked. But Brown is thinking ahead to a time when Henrico's real Achilles heel becomes a moot issue.



To Albemarle Public Schools technology chief Luvelle Brown, the iPod Touch handhelds he introduced in classrooms two years ago aren't just music players. They're textbooks, notebooks, tape recorders, video screens, and a neatly self-contained digital classroom right in the palms of pupils' hands.

In the case of Henrico, he says, liability for illegally downloading music or games or accessing pornography was on school officials — after all, parents reckoned, the district gave kids these computers. But with cell phones already belonging to children — likely purchased by the parents — the district no longer bears legal liability for a variety of bad behaviors, only an educator's responsibility for teaching proper digital ethics and etiquette. 

The initial result of Henrico's experiment — today a profound success — was disaster compounding disaster. Henrico failed to plan beyond the day that Pandora's box was opened: The network crashed, kids downloaded porn on county-owned computers, the county lacked digital classroom material, server space filled up with downloaded music files.

“Mark and I talked a lot about that venture,” says Bill Bosher, a respected education and government policy adviser and former Virginia superintendent of schools who was superintendent in Chesterfield in 2002 when Henrico undertook its iBook initiative. Bosher audibly winces at his memories of that time.

It's easy to focus on the mistakes, Bosher says, “but to give every child that kind of access, I thought it was a very courageous initiative.”

On its greater strengths, the initiative survived. The network was fixed and discipline policies and classroom content were added. Various studies, however, have failed to show significant learning gains. There are no leapfrog jumps in test scores and the county's Standards of Learning scores look about the same as its neighbors, although there is improvement for lower-income children who'd previously had little or no computer access.

The current Henrico superintendent, Pat Russo, wouldn't think of trying to close Pandora's box.

What has happened, Russo says, is the education tools available to every pupil are homogenous district-wide. Nobody goes without a laptop because his or her family can't afford one. Eighty percent of Henrico pupils have home Internet access.

Russo remains concerned about cellular use, seeing it coming, but hesitating to say when it will arrive. Gun-shyness may be natural. Last May, a number of Moody Middle School pupils were investigated for sexting — distributing naked photos of pupils via cell-phone text messaging.

“In the future … as we see an explosion in the use of technology” using the digital devices in the classroom will be unavoidable, Russo says. “That's why I think this [school] board is so committed to this program.”

Which, to Bosher's mind, adds up to the singular certainty about technology in education: “You could beat on it, you could question it, you could second-guess it, but you weren't going to get [the genie] back in the bottle.”



Albemarle's Jacob Paulansky navigates an iPod Touch at the direction of his teacher, IdaMae Craddock, as classmate Joel Selig looks on. Smart phones and handheld computers allow pupils of varying abilities to receive instruction based on their levels of aptitude.

With smart phones, genie analogies are far less apt than Pandora — there's no magic, but these electronic boxes certainly contain all that's both good and evil.

And that's exactly why they're the perfect classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and engineering at University of Michigan.

“I'll make a prediction: In five years, every child in every grade in every school will be using a mobile computer for learning,” says Soloway, who co-founded GoKnow, a smart-phone-based virtual classroom, with University of North Texas professor Cathie Norris.

What makes the smart phone different from the laptop — or even from much-ballyhooed tablet computers like the one Apple is widely rumored to release this week — is that smart phones aren't destination devices. They're an extension of a student's arm, Soloway says — it's a part of them.

“In the past, adults brought laptops into classrooms and those were parents' computers,” he says. “Mobile computers are kids' technology.”

Soloway predicts that tablets, like laptops, will remain a supplemental class tool like laptop or desktop computers, because it's unlikely that they'll become as widely available, or as widely adopted into daily life as the pocket-sized cell phone.

“This mobile stuff is the only way we're going to eliminate the digital divide,” he says, of the economic disparity between Americans who can and cannot access such technology. “It's at a price point where everyone can afford it.”

A recent Pew survey on Americans' Internet use gave a glimpse into just how affordable: African-Americans, a demographic traditionally underserved when new technology arrives, are 70 percent more likely to access the Internet using handheld devices than those who are white.

For Albemarle's Brown, price was critical. A laptop might cost $1,000 or more, but an iPod is less than $200. Predictions are that Apple's new tablet will carry a similar price.

Smart phones also have the advantage of being a single, ubiquitous technology. Soloway and GoKnow are taking advantage, building a cross-platform classroom environment — part class, part security, part mininetwork — that's loaded onto any pupil's cell phone, or onto school-owned phones in cases where pupils might still be without the latest technology. It's being tested in Texas, Ohio and New York.

“The cost makes sense, the technology makes sense, the usability makes sense,” Soloway says. “This is the first time all of these things have come together at the same time.”



Even the future of testing gets a second look when pupils' classroom activities happen in a digital environment, where progress is monitored by a teacher on a question-by-question basis, says Gary Sarkozi, director of technology in Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Education.

REMARKABLY, even the companies making and marketing these devices have been slow to catch onto what they've unleashed in pupils' hands, preferring to sell directly to schools as with laptops.

“The jury is still out on the efficacy of mobile learning,” says Michael Quesnell of Nokia Corp., a maker of smart phones. Quesnell hesitates to call smart phones “the silver bullet” for technology in education, despite his company's participation in ongoing studies.

John Horton is manager of government and education sales for Verizon Wireless. He markets a variety of smart phones for the national cellular provider, including the powerful Motorola Droid, with its Google-powered multifunctionality and the HTC Touch Pro with its full typewriter-style keyboard and Microsoft operating system. The functionality of the latest generation of smart phones is nearly identical to laptops.
Horton has linked his company with a variety of pilot classroom smart-phone initiatives around the country, notably a partnership with Soloway's fledgling GoKnow. Horton says he's well aware of the power he's put in kids' hands.
“This is delivering true one-to-one learning,” Horton says. “It's very overwhelming to watch this happen — kids learning.”

But unlike Soloway, Horton doesn't envision a time when pupils bring their own iPods, Touch Pros or Droids to class. He believes the future is in contracts between cellular providers and school districts. The school districts, he predicts, will continue to buy the computers and supply them to children for their use.

“You give up control when you allow students to utilize their own technology,” Horton cautions.

Albemarle's Brown says his county has thrown that caution to the wind by allowing cell phones. He says that when he first approached Apple about getting iPods for his classrooms, even executives with this forerunner in educational computing were somewhat surprised at the idea.

“At the time [in 2008] no one was using iPod Touches in education,” Brown says. “Now, I would say every child in our division has touched one of these devices at some time.”

And by going digital in the classroom — iPods are still in short supply in a district with 12,000 pupils, so laptops and tablet computers remain core — the district's spending on textbooks has been altered dramatically.

The textbook replacement fund, now called a learning resource fund, went from “over a million dollars [yearly] to a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Brown says, because many books and source materials are free content online. “Our teachers aren't asking for new textbooks, they're asking for electronic devices.”



Where Henrico's iBook program in 2003 pushed laptops into the hands of a generation of pupils still unfamiliar with daily personal computer use, IdaMae Craddock, an Albemarle teacher using iPods in her classes, says kids today expect to learn in a digital environment where they control and manipulate information in ways impossible using paper textbooks and overhead projectors.

Brown is thinking even further out — to that time when pupils own their handheld devices — to a time when cellular connectivity is the norm rather than a classroom experiment and there's no longer a need for the district to pay to maintain an expensive countywide network. Henrico County's iBook initiative in its first year was initially projected to cost $18 million, but ended up costing closer to $24 million because of inadequate server and network capacity.

By comparison, a cellular network, maintained by providers rather than in-house by the district, potentially saves millions in start-up, but also in expensive upgrades that come as each new technological innovation requires retrofitting the school's network.

Even assuming districts are still supplying some of the devices to pupils, comparing the cost of a handheld to a laptop is a no-brainer. Cellular phones or handheld computers cost hundreds less than laptops. Service agreements typically come with the device rather than as add-on insurance.

The time for Albemarle to consider allowing cell phones back in the classroom is long since passed. Now it's about encouraging more pupils to get them.

“I will tell you now, much of that conversation is happening now,” says Brown, who is in negotiation with radio-frequency companies with the goal of providing community-wide Internet access.

“School divisions like us are going to be forced to have that conversation,” he says, calling traditional broadband and T-1 and T-3 wired networks something that “may soon me obsolete as we move toward data plans with companies.”

Of the future, Brown says, “It's here.”



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