My appologies for missing two weeks; South Africa was very intense and left me in no fit state to write this as soon as I got back. I feel it has been improved by the extra time I had, though
As a current denizen of the Scottish education system (I’m in 6th year, which I think is upper sixth to you non-Scottish types), I’ve had plenty of experience with teachers telling students to turn their phones off, to put them away, to stop texting in class. Which is fair enough; they’re a huge distraction, especially when they go off in the middle of something important. But they could also (theoretically) be a serious educational tool.
I know what you’re thinking; “It’s just some kid who wants to use his phone in class and get away with it!”, but you’re wrong. Well, mostly. I’m certainly not the first person to have this idea, though. Take a look at this Engadget article focussing on a trial by a London girls school, where students were given iPhones to help with their learning. Additionally, I can remember a proposal by the Edinburgh council a couple of years ago that was suggesting handing out pocket PCs (We’re talking Palm Centro esque devices here) to secondary pupils, along with special programs built around schoolwork. I’ll examine each project in detail later on.
While I was working on basic notes for this article, one of my teachers stopped mid way through telling a student off for using his phone in class and asked what he’d been doing; we were going over tests , and the teacher realised he’d been using his mobile’s calculator to work out the percentage he’d got. Whether or not that was actually what he was doing I have no idea, but it certainly raises an interesting point. Every mobile these days has a calculator, so why are we insisting on a separate calculator being carried? And what about dictionaries, translators, homework planners? As much as maths classes would become anarchy if everyone was using their phones unregulated, it shows that despite the huge progress towards unification of technology going on today, our schools remain behind. It’s not all bad; there is an increasing focus on technology, with smartboards and computers being used more and more and online study resources growing in popularity. However, a chance is being missed when it comes to integration of mobile devices.
Of course, it would be impossible, and deeply unethical, to attempt to use students’ phones as they are. For starters, some students won’t have them at all, and a fair number won’t have features that others do, including the ones which would be most useful in a school environment. While private schools can get away with requiring standardised hardware (something that is incredibly helpful when it comes to laptops, as spare parts and replacements can be easily stocked and obtained when every student has the exact same requirements), state schools cannot. So right from the off, we’re working under the assumption that any devices used would have to be provided or subsidised by the school, possibly under a means-testing arrangement. I’m going to come right out and say now that this is, at this point in time, a near-total waste of resources which could be better used within schools. The rest of this article is purely theory, and the analysis of various attempted projects and proposals.
Firstly, the Edinburgh Council proposal, involving giving custom-built or adapted hardware. Try as I might, I can’t actually find any evidence that this was planned or trialled. I only have a memory of reading in a newspaper about the proposal, which would have lead to a trial in one school. The devices would have been similar to to old style Palms, with QWERTY keyboards and touchscreens, and would have been loaded with software designed around schoolwork; revision guides and planners for use at home, test programs to easily set and automatically mark multiple choice tests in class, and to allow the teachers to mark more detailed tests on their computers. The pupils would have had access to free internet (I shudder to think how much that must have cost at the time), but the devices would not have been capable of making calls. This actually raises several points, good and bad. Firstly, it highlights the setting of tests, which is one of the strong points of a system such as this. It also shows the enhanced usefulness of this over a conventional homework diary, as pupils could be alerted about their timetables and due homework. It would even let teachers set homework to appear on all their students’ devices, meaning the excuses of “I forgot to take it down” and “I wasn’t told” no longer hold water. But it also shows several problems. Offering the internet to all students for free is a huge cost, and must be carefully regulated to avoid misuse. Not allowing the use of browser/communication software is draconian and would be hated, and would actually reduce the in-class usefulness of the devices. However, no blocking software is perfect; our school’s current system blocks modern studies revision sites for “political views”, and yet still lets you get on some pretty inappropriate sites. Not that I’ve tried for anything other than research, of course. You could limit to wifi in school, but then organiser, homework and revision features would be adversely affected for students without access to wifi at home. One thing is certain, thought; during tests, whether carried out on the device or not, all functions not directly related to the test would need to be locked off. Finally, there’s the issue of theft. These devices would certainly go straight onto eBay, with pupils claiming that they’d been stolen (and, of course, they might well have been, as some people would take advantage of all the vulnerable teenagers suddenly packing expensive pieces of hardware). Where do you draw the line on thefts, loses and breakages?
The second project I’m going to look at is something much more quantifiable.(Gumley House Convent School)in London is currently running a trial involving 30 pupils being given iPhones for the academic year. They are allowed to use these for anything in class, and the phone functions do work, although they are Pay as you Go and the school only pays for their internet package and educational applications. I’ve been trying to look into the progress of the project, which is difficult as the (Dedicated Website) has hardly been updated since the trial began. There is one report from a student, which can be read on the “news” section of that site, but it’s not exactly stellar; it’s quite clear that the iPhone hasn’t improved that girl’s literacy, and I’m still at a loss as to what the following means, exactly; “I have used it for youtube.com when we have to make up a tune on the piano, I have used YouTube to type in some ideas and use them.”
What we can use this trial for, however, is analysis of the iPhone as an educational tool. Gumley House are by no means the only educational establishment to attempt to use iPhones, although the others are all colleges and universities. The iPhone certainly has its advantages; it’s easy to use, heightening accessibility. There’s a variety of educational applications available for it already. It’s got pretty darn good browser, email and organisation software. But it’s also got disadvantages. It’s flashy, and recognisable, meaning it’s more likely to be stolen Lack of (sigh) multitasking can hit productivity in class. There’s some pretty unsavoury content on the app store. And, most importantly, customised apps for specific subjects, schools and teachers would all have to be run past Apple’s app store approval process. Plus, you have to deal with pupils who already own iPhones; do you give them another? Do they not get the same opportunity? And in some ways, the iPod Touch makes more sense for this purpose, but in others (such as the wifi issue I discussed above) it makes no sense at all.
For any project like this, I would advocate a custom-built handset, or at the very least customised software. Taking into account the failings and strong points of the different OS’s available, I’d recommend a highly customised version of Android, with the school functionality built into the OS. This would allow for a great deal of in-classroom integration, especially taking into account the smartboards that are becoming increasingly common. A teacher could have a system that would allow them to delegate mouse and keyboard control over the smartboard to a pupil’s handset, and it would be easy to show or give work to the entire class this way.
I guess my dream of a fully integrated classroom is nothing but a pipedream right now. It’s not economically practically, even if it would be a fantastic resource. And, as with so many great ideas (like communism, banking, monarchy and the internet) the real problem with it is people, and how they would use (and misuse, and abuse) the opportunities presented to them. Frankly, this is an area that will have to be looked into sooner or later, and really the best place to do it is in private schools, which generally have lots and lots of money to throw around. Now I just need to find one with a headteacher willing to let me use their school and pupils as guinea pigs… and that’s willing to foot the bill.