Tech Leadership

What’s That in Your Students’ Pockets?

by Jim Hirsch

Remember the days when it was a struggle to get students to bring their own communications technology to each class throughout the school day? Of course the technology of those days consisted of paper and a pen or No. 2 pencil! How prepared are you for today’s scenario where students bring a wide array of personal communications technology devices into schools and classrooms?

Many national organizations, such as the National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm that focuses on crisis preparedness, oppose allowing students to carry cell phones and pagers inside school buildings. The potential abuses and disruptions outweigh the advantages according to their studies.

Hybrids Emerge
While most school systems have adopted low-tolerance policies regarding cell phones, only limited discussion has taken place concerning other network-capable personal devices such as personal digital assistants and game systems.

As cell phones now transform into smartphones that provide web-browsing capabilities and other software application uses, these devices also come under the umbrella of other personal technologies that offer students an unprecedented amount of mobility and flexibility in accessing information and collaborating with their peers.

These new student personal communication devices have a number of common characteristics — they are multifunctional in nature; they are small and highly portable; they have multiple means of input; they connect securely to existing wireless networks; they enable collaboration to occur easily; and they are relatively affordable. The devices range from smartphones to game systems to specialized Wi-Fi products, such as the Sony Mylo and Nokia N800.

Educational Merit?
Take the Sony Playstation Portable as an example. With more than 18 million units sold worldwide, this is a device that is in many students’ pockets. Connecting to a wireless network is a simple process and, once connected, the Sony device can access streaming video, podcasts and information contained on most typical websites, including subscription-based services such as netTrekker. While a student would not write a research paper using a Playstation Portable, he or she could conduct the research needed to write the paper.

ConnectED Services Limited is a business in the United Kingdom that looks at a solutions-based approach to technology in education. ConnectED has been working with teachers, students, schools and local education agencies validating the use and pedagogy for these portable game devices in education. Early research results have been promising.

The number of iPods or similar mp3 music players in the pockets of our students continues to grow seemingly each day. Besides listening to their own music, these devices have been shown to be effective in a number of ways by leveraging the audio capability. Podcasts created by teachers on specific topics can be easily shared on these devices with the students listening to them wherever they happen to be. Not unexpectedly, early findings, especially with English language learners, have been promising in helping to shorten their language acquisition time.

Students enjoy the mobility and flexibility of these devices and will likely keep a school “playlist” along with their favorite music files if given the opportunity.

Smartphones or even hybrid devices, such as the Sony Mylo, which combine a Wi-Fi phone with a keyboard for messaging and a web browser for the Internet, are the favorite multifunctional tool of many students because they fit in a pocket easily and provide different input options depending on the needs of the student at any given moment. These also can run within a secure school wireless network to provide connectivity to learning resources.

One Solution
The challenges in the use of student-owned devices at school are many, yet the potential benefits of allowing that use are beginning to be recognized, which makes the decision even more difficult.

Some schools are solving the dilemma by having two wireless networks running simultaneously. One is a secure network that only allows authenticated client computers to access printing and secure files. The other network runs on a different virtual private network and provides open but filtered connectivity to the Internet for those student devices capable of using wireless resources.

Let’s bring those student devices out of their pockets and into new learning opportunities.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent of technology and academic services in the Plano Independent School District, 2700 W. 15th St., Plano, TX 75075. E-mail: jhirsch@pisd.edu