Thursday, April 15, 2010

Smart Phones, Or Why Teachers Resent Education Research

It is not that teachers resent all research. But an extended advertisement posing as research? Or administrators mandating teachers implement new “researched-based” practices? Or research with questionable conclusions? Or research that ignores the day-to-day concerns of teachers? Or research on new ways to teacher-proof the curriculum?

Qualcomm funded a grant to provide smart phones to 100 ninth graders in North Carolina for algebra study. Guess what, the study found that smart phones aided algebra learning. So let's all run out and get smart phones for the kids.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Digital Millennial Consulting and Qualcomm Incorporated (Nasdaq: QCOM), a leading developer and innovator of advanced wireless technologies and data solutions, today announced the joint distribution of 100 Smartphones to four high schools in three school districts across the state of North Carolina.

The thing is these smart phones are little different from the ones in the store.

MobiControl enables teacher and administrators to restrict students from using the voice capabilities and instant messaging capabilities of the phone during primary instructional time.  Additionally, the devices route all requests for access to external Web sites via a Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) compliant content filter.  Finally, all text-based communication through the closed social networking system are monitored to ensure appropriate use.  Students also are required to attend a training session related to an acceptable use policy under which a zero tolerance policy will be applied.  


Students are only given access rights to communicate with individuals participating within Project K-Nect.  Other social networking sites are blocked and all text based communication is monitored.  

Well, that's a relief. The Qualcomm smart phones are not exactly smart phones.

Okay, what, exactly, did students do with their student-safe smart phones that helped them learn algebra? According to an EdWeek report,

Students, some initially skeptical that a phone would help them do better in math, have been quick to embrace the idea of using the mobile device to learn, says Denton, who attends Dixon High School in the 24,000-student Onslow County, N.C., schools.
“At first, I was trying to figure out how a phone was going to help me with math,” she says. “I didn’t see a connection.”

But Denton, who started in the program with Algebra 1 and has since taken geometry and is now taking Algebra 2 through Project K-Nect, says she and her classmates soon saw many advantages provided by the phone, particularly being able to get help at any hour and using instructional videos for assistance.

So the main advantage of the smart phones were their Internet capabilities.

However the learning curve seems a little steep.

Intensive training for teachers—at least nine hours—is essential, says Gross, the technology consultant. Students need about four to six hours of training, he says.

It is not really the smart phones that made the difference. It is the way these customized smart phones address the digital divide, a modern incarnation of the old SES (socio-economic status) divide.

A 2005 Pew report defines the digital divide in terms of Internet access at home, and the differences are dramatic. Individuals in higher-income households are more likely to go online (93% access) and more likely to have high-speed connections (71%) that households with incomes below $30,000, where 49% have access and just 23% have high-speed connections.
The digital divide is significant by race as well, even when income levels are comparable. Both home computer use and home Internet access was 13% to 18% greater for Whites in lower-income brackets than for Blacks in the same income brackets.
Studies identifying this digital divide brought attention to these disparities in learning opportunities facing students already at high risk for academic failure. To address these disparities, the federal e-rate program was developed to invest public funds into hardwiring public schools for computer and Internet access. The result is that computers and Internet access are available in our schools. What hasn’t changed is that the digital divide continues after school hours, when children go home.
Once students in our country’s poorest families go home, they lose an important learning advantage, slipping further behind students who can extend their learning day into their home. The problem shifts from concerns about technical access to concerns about digital participation.

Smart phones are uniquely poised to address the digital divide because the target at-risk population already possesses cell phones.

A recent report released by NOP World Technology highlights cell phone penetration rates in the United States.
- 73% of 18 year olds have cell phones, a 15% increase from 2002 to 2004.
- 75% of 15 to17 year olds have cell phones, up 33% from 2004 to 2005.
- 40% of 12 to14 year olds have cell phones, up 27% from 2002 to 2004.

The main idea is to take a technology that has already crossed the digital divide and use it to give lower SES students access to resources that higher SES students already have.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that the smart phones are only as helpful as the Internet link. Some math links are wonderful, replete with clear explanations and videos that can help older students visualize the math concepts. Some math links are poor, incoherent design, or procedure-based explanations. Perhaps before schools spend a lot of money on customized smart phones, they should check their records and see how many students have email. Presumably, if they have email, they have a way to access it. If they can access their email, they can use the Internet. Those students would not need smart phones.

In 2005, 75% of fifteen-year-olds had cellphones. How many have cellphones in 2010. Probably more than 75%. How many of those cell phones are Internet capable? Probably most of them. The Qualcomm study is but the most recent example of education research that only refreshes teacher mistrust of such research.

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