How Do We Address the Needs of Kids Without Mobile Access?

| April 4, 2011 | 1 Comment
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Flickr:Shlala

The $64,000 question in education: Does access to mobile technology actually help close the achievement gap?

Bill Ferriter, a sixth-grade teacher in North Carolina, has been thinking about this issue, and writing about it on his blog, The Tempered Radical.

In this recent post, he addresses a question from one of his readers, who sites Ferriter’s source, about how to address the needs of the minority of kids who don‘t have mobile access?

“75% of students are good to go, but do you just leave the other 25% to “fin for themselves”, leave them out of the equation all together, or do you do something to supplement such as the school providing a temporary cell phone” the reader asks.

Here’s his response.

One of the stumbling blocks to almost every reform initiative in schools is our stubborn refusal to move forward until the conditions are perfect for change.

The result: Change never happens.

“If I can have kids work in groups of three—something that I do 9 days out of 10 anyway– I only need one student to have a cell phone with unlimited texting.”

Some of the leading thinkers on change in organizations argue that you have to take the first step somewhere. You can’t let perfection stand in the way of innovation.

For schools considering the use of cell phones, that means taking action and taking action now.

I don’t care if one out of 10 students in your school has a cell phone. That’s still one more device for learning than your teachers had before–and it is one more tool for learning that many schools don’t have to provide.

In most middle and high schools, though, the rates of cell phone penetration really are much higher.  To ignore the fact that 3 out of every 4 kids in our middle and high schools is bringing their own device to school is just plain crazy.

Think about it this way:  If you were a science teacher—which is what I teach—and I told you that I could instantly put 20 dictionaries, calculators, student responders and timers into a classroom of 30 students without costing a dime, you’d jump at it, right? If you were working in most classrooms, you would!

You see, the typical science classroom in most schools has one working computer, no calculators, no timers and about 15 antiquated dictionaries that are really hard to use. That’s a resource failure on the part of schools and it keeps teachers from being effective in their classrooms.

What’s worse–almost unforgivable in my opinion–is that it is a resource failure that can be resolved if our schools didn’t ban cell phones during the school day. Now as far as the nitty gritty details of equitable use go, the fact that the vast majority of kids with cell phones have unlimited texting plans is key.

“They can text Google for definitions and facts. They can text Poll Everywhere with responses to classroom questions so that I can gather formative assessment results. They can use timers for labs.”

What that means for me as a classroom teacher is that if I can have kids work in groups of three—something that I do 9 days out of 10 anyway–then I really only need one student to have a cell phone with unlimited texting. The odds of that are pretty high in most middle schools.

From there, groups can do anything.

They can text Google for definitions and facts. They can text Poll Everywhere with responses to classroom questions so that I can gather formative assessment results. They can use timers for labs.

And if I wanted every child to respond to individual questions, I’ll bet that the students with unlimited text plans—and their parents—would be more than happy to let student with no cell phones use theirs as long as I explained what we were doing and why it mattered. Who is going to argue about sharing a few extra texts when you have an unlimited plan?

I guess what I’m saying is that the majority of teachers will spend the majority of their careers working in classrooms that are under-supplied.

Take my school—which is in an affluent suburb—as an example: The budget for our entire science department—which serves almost 400 students and has to cover consumables for the labs that we like to teach—is $600 in a good year, less in most.

I’ve got one working computer in my room. My academic team—-which includes about 120 sixth-graders—-has close to 70 “working computers” in their lockers that we’re not allowed to use because cell phones are banned during the school day—a policy that is really common in middle and high schools everywhere.

That’s got to change—-especially if people are as hell bent as they say they are to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

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