Cell phones in the classroom

Surprising field studies suggest cell phones could be effective learning tools

Guest blogger Marie Bjerede is Vice President of Wireless Education Technology at Qualcomm, Inc., where she focuses on addressing the technical, economic, social, and systemic challenges to enabling every student to gain the advantages afforded those who have 24/7 mobile broadband access.

In most schools, cell phones are checked at the door — or at best powered off during school hours in a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding between students and administrators. This wide-spread technology ban is a response to real concerns: if kids have unfettered instant access to the Internet at school, how do we keep them safe, how do we keep out inappropriate content, how do we prevent real-time cyberbullying, how do we even keep their attention in class when competing with messaging, gaming, and surfing?

At the same time, though, there is a growing sense among education thought leaders and policy leaders that not only are cell phones here to stay but there seems to be interesting potential to use these small, connected computers that so many students already have. I’ve been insanely fortunate over the past year to work closely with Wireless Reach (Qualcomm’s strategic social initiative) and real innovators in education who are finding that cell phones in classrooms don’t have to be a danger or a distraction but, in fact, can help kids learn in some surprising ways.

During the 2007-2008 school year, Wireless Reach began funding Project K-Nect, a pilot project in rural North Carolina where high school students received supplemental algebra problem sets on smartphones (the phones were provided by the project). The outcomes are promising — classes using the smartphones have consistently achieved significantly higher proficiency rates on their end of course exams.

Now, the population is small (on the order of 150 kids) and the make-up is essentially what researchers call a “convenience sample.” It was selected from a population of kids that: largely qualified for free and reduced lunch; didn’t have home Internet; and had low math proficiency. It was not balanced with a formally designed control group. There was self-selection on the part of the participating teachers — they are extremely motivated — but the results are consistent and startling. Overall, proficiency rates increased by 30 percent. In the best case, one class using the devices had 50 percent more kids finishing the year proficient than a class learning the same material from the same teacher during the same school year, but without the cell phones.

So what’s so different about delivering problem sets on a cell phone instead of a textbook? The first obvious answer is that the cell phone version is multi-media. The Project K-Nect problem sets begin with a Flash video visually demonstrating the problem — you could theorize that this context prepares the student to understand the subsequent text-based problem better. You could also theorize that watching a Flash animation is more engaging (or just plain fun) and so more likely to keep students’ attention.

Another difference is that digital content is personalized. In this case, that just means that different students get the same problem (how long will it take a space ship to catch up with a space probe?) but with different numbers plugged in (the velocity might be given as 40,000 mph for one student and 37,500 mph for another). The result is that students can’t simply compare answers – they need to compare solutions. “How did you get that” replaces “what did you get?”

A third difference is that, unlike the traditional practice where each student works on textbook problems in isolation, the learning environment in Project K-Nect is participative. Students are asked to record their solutions on a shared blog and are encouraged to both post and comment. Over time, a learning community has emerged that crosses classrooms and schools and adds the kind of human interaction that an isolated, individual drill (be it textbook or digital) lacks and that a single teacher is unlikely to have the bandwidth to provide to each student.

A final observation is that having a digitally mediated component to the learning environment can be surprisingly inclusive. As teachers in Project K-Nect began to experiment with using the blogs and instant messaging for discussing math in the classroom, an unexpected (to us) dynamic emerged. It turns out that many kids who don’t like speaking up in class are completely comfortable speaking up online. Students who don’t like to raise their hands use the devices to ask questions or participate in collaborative problem solving. There appears to be something democratizing about having a “back channel” as part of the learning environment.

So far all these distinctions are not unique to cell phones but common to any personal computing solution. A WiFi-equipped netbook at every desk could readily provide the same kind of differentiation from a lecture-and-textbook based traditional classroom. But taking the next step from computer labs or laptops at school to a personal, connected device changes the game. Beyond just computing in the classroom, cell phones give the students in Project K-Nect access to the Internet and their learning communities 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, whether they are at school, at home, on the bus, at after-school activities, or in the case of one chronically ill student, at the hospital.

Back when I was in school, I remember math learning went something like this:

  • Sit in a lecture and take notes furiously — verbatim, if possible
  • The night before homework is due, try to reverse engineer how to solve problems from the now cryptic notes
  • Find examples that look like the problem at hand
  • Plug in numbers from the given problem
  • Hope

Because the students in Project K-Nect have 24/7 mobile broadband, that dynamic has changed for them. When a student sits down to work on problems and gets stuck, she can post a question or just a general plea for help to the shared blog. Soon, several classmates will reply with help and encouragement. Students who might otherwise give up can get just-in-time support to help them be successful while the students who are providing the help get the reinforcement and deeper understanding that comes from teaching.

Teachers from the pilot also tell me that their instruction has changed since they started using cell phones in class. I had a chance to see one teacher give her students a simple bingo game to play on the phone that involved solving a number of algebra problems. She told me that her kids had far more patience for, and interest in, working problems as quickly and accurately as possible when it was part of a digital game rather than performing the same drill using worksheets.

I’ve seen another teacher use Poll Everywhere software with the students to check on their understanding during a lecture. The teacher posed a math problem, the students texted their replies to the Poll Everywhere site, and a pie chart showing the distribution of answers was instantly projected at the front of the class, giving the teacher a chance to clear up any misconceptions before moving on.

Much of the teaching has also shifted to problem-based learning. I was fascinated to see an example of this on one visit. The students worked in groups to develop a public service announcement describing the dangers of compound interest and credit card debt. They then made a video of their commercial using their cell phones and posted it to the shared blog. Not only did they learn by discussing and debating as a team how best to communicate compound interest, but they then had the resulting video to refer to when it came time to review for the test. In fact, they had everyone’s videos at their fingertips via their cell phone browsers. If one team’s explanation didn’t kindle the “aha” moment, another one just might. Once again, the connected learning community had a significant and unanticipated impact on these students.

As for the issues of safety and appropriate use of the Internet, each student in the pilot has signed an acceptable use policy outlining their responsibilities as cell phone users at school. Soti’s MobiControl software, which allows the teachers to interact with each student’s cell phone, also allows them to monitor use and apply standard classroom discipline techniques for inappropriate behavior in the virtual world — just as they manage behavior in physical hallways and on campus grounds. Not surprisingly, after some initial testing of the boundaries, a culture of responsible use quickly evolved among the students.

Finally, what about messaging, gaming, and surfing in class? In the Project K-Nect classrooms, students don’t use these to play virtual hooky, but they do use them regularly for learning. In the classrooms I’ve had a chance to see, the students are far too busy participating to tune out. Of all the expected and unexpected outcomes of this project, I find the way that cell phones have facilitated the social aspects of learning to be one of the most intriguing.

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