School Districts Begin to Welcome Smart Phones

SHAILA on December 11, 2012

Heather Chaplin, writing about how more school districts are welcoming smart phones in the class in her article in MindShift’s Mobile Learning Series, says that the internet used to be much feared not so long ago by educators. The big fear was that a student would download inappropriate content and circulate it among friends, and that would spell major trouble for the school.  

Keeping Students off the Internet

Educational institutions tried to play safe by relying on a simple policy of keeping students off the internet and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) helped ensured this. Schools created an Accepted Use Policy (AUP) and blocked harmful sites while accepting federal funding for discounted internet access.  

“It’s a historical hiccup in the history of learning; here we had the most sophisticated advances in the history of learning banned from schools out of fear,” says Rich Halverson, a learning scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the lead researcher on Kid Grid, a mobile app that helps teachers study and analyze student data.

That was more than a decade back. The current situation speaks of a change that is quickly gathering speed over the last three years. Schools are bringing back to classrooms the mobile gadgets that can provide access to the internet. A great indicator of this changing trend is the slew of AUPs which emphasize the acceptance of responsibility for distributing smart phones to students.

“This isn’t happening in the majority of schools, but its not the rarity anymore, either,” says Jim Bosco, Principal investigator at the Consortium of School Networking’s Participatory Learning in Schools initiative.  Jim says, though he lacks empirical data, almost half the school districts are ready to accept change. COSN is working with school leaders from 13 districts in creating models for district-level digital media use policy in K-12 education.

“Making Progress: Rethinking State and School District Policies Concerning Mobile Technologies and Social Media” is a paper released by COSN in which emphasizes the need for permitting mobile devices into classrooms. The advantages of the internet far outweigh its disadvantages. The paper argues that this is a digital world and children will function here as adults. In such circumstances it makes no sense in keeping children away from the internet. In any case they have access to it at home.

Jim endorses this by saying, “You can build as big a moat as you want, but it’s not going to work if for no other reason than they go home at night. A lot of people say, well, what they do when they get home is not my problem. But I think that seems borderline unethical.”

COSN's paper further reads, “One of the most powerful reasons to permit the use of social media and mobile devices in the classroom is to provide an opportunity for students to learn about their use in a supervised environment that emphasizes the development of attitudes and skills that will help keep them safe outside of school.”

Permit Mobile Devices but with Internet Filters

CIPA needs internet filters but they are not best enforced by AUPs. Jim Klein, director of Information Services and Technology at the Saugus Union School District in Southern California says, “When I talk to colleagues in Finland, and I ask them, “How do you filter?” They say our kids’ filters are in their heads. You do this by giving them a safe environment to educate themselves instead of sticking your head in the sand and pretending these technologies don’t exist.”

This does not mean that students in Klein's district can access internet without any checks. Filters here do not block pre-identified URLs, rather they enforce content based filtering like the one provided by Mobicip which creates a safe internet on mobile learning devices by dynamically classifying content in terms of appropriateness. Kids enjoy the inherent advantages here, for example, in that they have access to YouTube while inappropriate content or hate based videos blocked.

Prior to building filters, Klein held extensive discussions with teachers. The purpose of his filters was to prevent kids from accidentally accessing harmful content and it was not designed for thwarting attempts of those who try to work their way round it. The teacher in a class is responsible for what happens in the room, but individual students are responsible for their own behaviour.

School Districts are trying to figure out ways of making the internet safe. Katy Independent School District in Texas recently changed its AUP to focus on “responsible use,” says Darlene Rankin, director of Instructional Technology. “Digital responsibility is big.” Rankin said. “We’re teaching students how to operate in this new world. We wanted to change the wording in our guidelines because we don’t want students to accept them; we want students to be responsible for them.”

Accountability of Schools

Accountability of schools over proper internet usage by its students is creating an atmosphere of fear and stifling innovation. Halverson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, “Research-driven intervention like changing the curriculum or bringing in new textbooks leaves no room for error, which is never going to be the case with digital technology. Of course there’s uncertainty and variation in what they’ve been doing – just look at the state of algebra in inner-city schools. But you can certify a textbook. Everyone wants a magic bullet that will solve all problems, but it doesn’t exist. We need to lay off schools and let them innovate.”

Katy Independent School District (ISD)

Katy ISD is innovating by giving out Android smart phones in ever increasing numbers. Three years back it gave 150 phones and this year 3,200 students across 18 schools have an Android smart phone. Students take assignments, quizzes and carry out research on their phone. The school provides its students certain apps of which even teachers take advantage of. Katy ISD makes use of the social networking platform provided by Edmodo for online work; parents can log in this site and view their child's grades.

The Inner Grove Heights Community Schools in Minnesota

Just two years ago this school did not have a wireless connection. The administrators made a decision to make the entire school wireless. “Teachers were using digital tools, and we were getting more and more requests to open online sites and make it possible for teachers to, for example, use video from the web in the classroom,” says Lynn Tenney, Director of Technology for the district.

Now Inner Grove uses hybrid classes. A year after implementing this, the 12th grade English failure rate dropped from 63% to 13%. Deirdre Wells, Superintendent of the School District, says the reasons behind this success could not placed only on the technological changes, but increase in freedom and flexibility worked well.

The Social Element

Jim of COSN says the benefit of internet lies in providing education to the haves and have-nots. Speaking from his childhood experience, he remembers having an access to Carnegie public library branch which was immensely beneficial. Library of yesteryears can be compared to the internet of today. His cousins who lived just 60 miles away could not enjoy similar benefits due to mere accidental change in residential location. “What you have access to has traditionally been determined by money and location,” Bosco said. “But the internet has the potential to change that.”