Tech Leadership

Ban or Boost Student-Owned Technology?

by Doug Johnson

We’ve experienced Generation X and Generation Y. Now Generation Wi-Fi is making its presence known in many schools. Today’s students are connected with each other and the world, increasingly through personally owned communication technologies.

Cell phones that send text messages and photographs, handheld personal digital assistants that can beam files and laptop computers that connect to networks wirelessly are now found in students’ backpacks right along with calculators and three-ring notebooks.

Stories of students using these devices to cheat on tests, disrupt class or hack school networks are common, and the knee-jerk reaction by many schools is simply to ban them. Yet some schools permit cell phones, encourage the student use of personal digital assistants and are working toward creating a 1:1 laptop computer-to-student ratio.

What exactly are these devices and their capabilities, and what policies and security measures should school districts adopt to ensure they are used productively? Can or should we as educators ban, control or encourage their use?

Cell Phones

Cell phones have been with us long enough that even adults understand how to use them. The primary uses of cell phones are to make relatively inexpensive, convenient voice calls. But increasingly students are exploiting two newer functions.

Text messaging allows the user to “thumb” short written messages into their phones using the numeric keypad and send those messages to other cell phone users. Text messaging is silent, fast and inexpensive. Experienced senders can compose and transmit messages without taking their phones from their pockets. With phones set to vibrate instead of ring, detecting students using text messaging is a challenge to the classroom teacher.

A number of cell phones now come equipped with cameras that can take digital photographs and quickly send them to other phones capable of viewing images or to an e-mail address. When these show up in locker rooms, student privacy is at risk.

Schools that have banned cell phones find themselves confronted by angry parents who want their children to have access to them for security reasons. Outright bans are being replaced with restrictions on when and how cell phones can be used.

Handheld Computers

These devices, not much larger than a deck of playing cards, can pack a lot of computing power. While starting out as electronic calendars and address books, the more powerful personal digital assistants, or PDAs, now include word processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs and cameras. High-end handhelds have wireless networking along with e-mail and web browsing software. Combination PDA/cell phones allow e-mail to be accessed even when wireless access points are not present.

Even inexpensive handhelds have the ability to beam files at short range. Exchanging notes, papers and programs between devices with compatible operating systems is difficult to detect. The wide variety of games available for these devices can make them a tempting distraction during class (or staff meetings).

Again, these devices do have educational purposes and innovative projects using them to provide individual students with low-cost computing power are growing in popularity. Small detachable keyboards for word processing, calculating and graphic software and science probes all make PDAs genuine educational tools. Schools need clear guidelines in place for what is considered acceptable use of handheld computers and raise the awareness of teachers about the devices’ communication abilities.

Wireless Laptops

Although laptop computers are expensive and fragile, students are bringing them to school. Wireless network connectivity is a standard, built-in feature of the latest models and connectivity can be added to older laptops for under $100. These small, light machines that run on battery power for hours have nearly the functionality and power of desktop computers. Wireless laptops especially designed for students such as Brainium’s WiBook and AlphaSmart’s Dana sell for about $500, making them increasingly affordable for more parents.

Laptop computers add to the security and monitoring challenges created by students working in a school’s secure networked environment. Portable computers can bring in viruses to a district’s network that were downloaded from networks without firewalls, such as those found in homes and coffee shops. Their portability and small size allows them to be used in school locations that are not easily monitored such as study carrels, hallways and even bathroom stalls.

Yet one-to-one (student to computer) projects are becoming increasingly popular and given the educational value of computers it is difficult for schools to ban those owned by students, especially when there is a shortage of school-supplied computers. Schools need policies and network configurations that keep viruses away from mission-critical equipment and offer filtered Internet access. While some districts require users to log into the wireless network, our school has opted to create discrete wired and wireless virtual private networks.

The phrase Ex abusu non arguitur in usum means “the abuse of a thing is no argument against its use” and is especially apt regarding wireless communication devices, whether school or student owned. Schools need to learn to use these technologies to enhance educational experiences, not ignore or ban them. This generation will not be willing to leave their virtual lives at the school door.

Doug Johnson is director of media and technology, Mankato Public Schools, P.O. Box 8713, Mankato, MN 56002. E-mail: dougj@doug-johnson.com