Making cell phones useful for school

Much of the tech to support school-ready cell phones already exists. Now we need the devices.

While students are increasingly using laptops in their classrooms, the smaller handheld computing devices that students already own (cell phones) are banned from campus. What’s the difference?

Fundamentally, the use of Internet-enabled technology in classrooms has two challenges. The first is student safety and privacy — preventing information that is obscene or harmful to children from being accessed by the devices. The second is classroom management — focusing student attention on the task at hand rather than the myriad distractions of the web.

With laptops, these challenges are addressed by classroom management software that provides Internet filtering and control of the student computer screens. Teachers have the ability to put all the laptops on the same page, project a single student’s screen on the whiteboard to show their work, or to shut down student screens altogether. Internet filters allow schools or districts to create “white lists” of websites that students are allowed to access and to block the rest.

Of course, none of these services are foolproof — the Internet has numerous sites dedicated to helping people hack around these restrictions, primarily in support of human rights in countries where Internet access is censored. Go into any middle school classroom and you will find any number of students who can readily get out onto the Internet beyond the filters. You may even find teachers who rely on these kids to sneak past the filtering walls if they do not have the time to make an IT request to have a site unblocked for the day’s lesson.

The philosophy around Internet filtering and classroom management varies from school to school and district to district. In some settings, the Internet is considered too dangerous to leave in the hands of students and the school chooses a limited set of sites that students may access while teachers tightly control the use of computers in the classroom. Other schools feel the same burden of responsibility to help students develop the skills to successfully navigate the Internet that they do to help students develop interpersonal skills in the classroom and on the playground. Their philosophy is to have adults model those skills, teach them explicitly, then to monitor students as they try them out, make mistakes, and learn — ready to step in when they are needed.

Just as students gain more freedom as they become more mature in the physical world — such as choosing coursework, leaving campus for lunch, or taking on internships — they gain more freedom on the Internet as that becomes developmentally appropriate. These students are expected to be as prepared for navigating the virtual world as young adults graduating high school as they are the physical world.

The first approach relies more heavily on controlling the student Internet experience. The second relies more on appropriately monitoring student Internet use. Laptop technology supports both approaches. But cellphone technology often does not. If that one thing were to change, educators would have the tools at hand to use always-on, always-connected devices for anytime / any place learning. If this change doesn’t come about, the potential of wireless education technology will sadly remain limited.

I had a really good conversation with Ben Weintraub, COO and co-founder of Kajeet, on this exact topic. Kajeet is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that focuses on cell phones for children. An MVNO is essentially a reseller of cellular minutes and megabytes that also has the ability to sell added services on top of connectivity.

Not surprisingly, parents have many of the same concerns as schools when it comes to their kids’ Internet use. In response to these parent needs, Kajeet provides services that let parents control when their kids can use the cell phone, who they can text or talk to, and what phone features (such as the camera) they are allowed to use. Recently Kajeet has been talking with Netsweeper, a company that provides a cloud-based approach to Internet filtering. With all these pieces in place, there is only one technology obstacle blocking cell phone use in schools: in order for Internet filtering to work both when the phone is using cellular services and when it is using Wi-Fi, the phone needs to be “locked down” to ensure that all Internet access is authorized by the Netsweeper (or similar) service, regardless of the access network.

Unfortunately, MVNOs, carriers, and software providers who are interested in solving this problem don’t have access to the layers of the cell phone software stack where this kind of secure lock-down can occur — they lie below the level of the High Level Operating System. It’s up to the manufacturers of phones or their chip suppliers to respond to the need for cell phones that are kid-safe and school-ready. As the costs of smartphones are coming down drastically, these devices are finding their way into the hands of younger and younger users. As an industry, we have a responsibility to make it possible for parents and educators to have Internet safety tools on computers and phones alike.

For the wireless edtech ecosystem, this really does appear to be case where “for want of a nail, a kingdom is lost.” For want of one enabler, the potential of wireless edtech may either be drastically inhibited or lost altogether.


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  • I guess the author hasn’t heard that kids are 500% more susceptible to brain cancer from cell phone use.

    Writing in today’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers led by the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, psychiatrist Nora D.Volkow, found that just 50 minutes of cell phone radiation significantly affected brain function and metabolism of glucose—the brain’s main fuel—in those parts of the brain that received the most cell phone radiation.

    Morgan explained that glucose in the brain indicates excitability. “The areas of the brain that had increased glucose in the JAMA study are involved in thinking, sensing and decision making, including repression of antisocial behavior.”

    Sharing Morgan’s concerns, EHT scientific advisor Richard A. Stein, M.D., Ph.D., said, “By using radio-labeled PET scans to examine glucose and energy metabolism in the brain of healthy adult volunteers, the NIDA team got as close as one can get to visualize brain metabolism and brain activity in real time, in response to non-ionizing radiation. Their results validate and reinforce previous reports that used other experimental approaches, and have found that microwave radiation altered cellular signaling pathways and brain activity.

    “As glucose is the sole energy source in the brain under normal dietary conditions, and there is an absolute requirement for glucose during synaptic transmission in the nervous system, the results of the current study emerge as even more significant,” Dr. Stein said. “Of course, we do not know whether the changes in glucose metabolism represent the primary perturbation, or whether they occur secondarily, as a response to some other disturbance—such as the activation of heat shock pathways, which was reported to occur by several independent groups in response to non-ionizing radiation.But one thing is certain—the current study clearly reveals changes in a pathway that is essential for brain energy metabolism and synaptic transmission, and is intimately interconnected with other pathways that fulfill fundamental roles in biological systems. The Volkow study is an important contribution to public health.”

    Writing in the journal Nature Neuroscience last month, neurobiologists at the California Institute of Technology showed that very weak varying electric fields affect the thinking, resting or sleeping brain.

    Dr. Devra Lee Davis, president and founder of Environmental Health Trust, says that this new work, combined with studies carried out by Henry Lai, Allan Frey and others in the past three decades and documented in her new book,Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family (Dutton, 2010), reinforces the need for revamping our current approach to cell phone safety.

    “The current study shows, along with other studies, that there are additional concerns related to cell phone use, besides tumors,” adds Dr. Davis. “Tumors are just the tip of the iceberg, but their development is preceded by years of other biological perturbations that have profound medical relevance—and this study confirms that significant biological changes occur after relatively brief exposures such as those that take place daily with the world’s five billion cell phones.

    “Could the stimulating impact of cell phone radiation to boost brain energy explain some of the growing addiction many of us feel for our phones?” Davis asks. “That is one of the many research questions that should be addressed.”

    EHT is working with experts and governments in a number of U.S. cities and states, and in Finland, France, Israel and other countries around the world, to encourage a major independent research program on cell phones and simple precautionary policies in the meantime.

    While that research is being carried out, EHT encourages simple precautions to reduce microwave radiation to the brain and body, such as those recommended by EHT chair Herberman in 2008 and now endorsed by a number of governments and experts around the world. Phones should be used with headsets or speakerphones and not kept directly on the body, and children should take special care not to have direct exposures.

    Based on the growing evidence from laboratories and epidemiologic studies, two leaders of the WHO Interphone study on cell phones have recently broken ranks and are now calling for such precautions to be taken broadly. They note the growing biological evidence that microwave radiation from phones has impacts and that epidemiologic studies find increased risks of brain cancer after a decade of heavy use.

    A recent widely publicized piece in the journal BioElectromagnetics concluded that because the U.S. and U.K. do not currently have a brain tumor epidemic (from 1998–2007) and cell phones have been in use for a decade, therefore cell phones are safe and there is no need for precaution.

    Regarding this study, Allan Frey, a well-known expert in the field of bioelectromagnetics, noted the fallacy of the argument:

    “It is well established in the scientific literature that generally a cancer is not seen until 10 to 30 years after the exposure to an agent. In addition, the radio frequency-biological literature shows that cancer is not seen until at least 10 years after the exposure, which is consistent with the rest of the scientific literature.”

    In criticizing this study, Frey points out, “The authors analyzed data on brain tumors gathered before most of their study population owned a cell phone. Also, most of their population did not have a cell phone for more than five years. Thus, the authors knew or should have known, that if cell phones induced or promoted brain cancer, that their study would not have shown it. Yet they did the study and concluded in their paper that their study showed that there was no need for ‘…interventions to reduce radio frequency exposure from mobile phones’ that are used today.”

    “To conclude that cell phones are safe misreads the science and misleads the people,” Dr. Davis advised.

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  • Jeff


    Nice quotes, but not relevant. The article is discussing using smartphones in the classroom instead of laptops. That is, not talking on the cellphones, when radiation exposure is (supposedly) greatest.

  • Brandon Brashere

    I am writing a research paper, and I was wondering what is your personal opinion on, “Should Smartphones be used in schools?”

  • I think getting children to learn to use technology is a good thing.Children are inheritently very good at learning to use technology but it is,in my view,no used in education at nearly a young enough age.A smartphone is an interactive device,I’m sure schools could have programs amde to install on smartphones to help children learn various things quicker like maths.
    As for the poster who goes on about cellphone radiation,cellphones have been main stream for 15 years now,there is absolutely no proof of any rise in any brain cancer.Scientists like to make themselves feel important.Maybe they should focus more on realising science is one of the most unpopular topics in the world because of their self imposed narrowmindedness.There is intelligent life in the universe other than us,go and SCIENTIFICALLY prove me wrong(you can’t btw!)

  • Madison

    As the world progresses, technology advances. Now assuming that these things are going to continue to advance, shouldn’t students be allowed to use lap tops or cell phones as learning tools? They will need to know how to use them in university any ways. So I believe they should be used as a learning tool. One of the future biggest paying jobs will be cyber security and people will need an excellent understanding of computers, it’s better to start learning how to work them now so it is easier to get that job in the future.

  • Kirk

    I think what is needed here is to educate these students and help them understand the positive and the negative effects of these modern gadgets in their course of learning. This way, the student would know how to properly use these items in their studies.
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  • first i like that kids need to use cellphones cause its just like using the enternet so if there are no cell phones so they need to take away cellphones an there not gonna do that we do need cellphones at school :p