Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"Operator!...May I help you?

Response to "Mobile Learning: The Next Evolution of Education?" posted to The EdTech Blog.

"Over the past decade, mobile computing and communications devices have become essential tools in higher education and business environments. It is now routine for business travelers and educators to carry laptop computers, cell phones, and PDAs that allow them to access data and information from anywhere—whether in a conference room, classroom, or while on the move."

While this statement may be true, note that it concerns itself with "educators", not those being educated. Of course, that is not to say that many of those being educated do not also find a need to carry a laptop, a cell phone or a PDA, but the handheld computing devices are not the ubiquitous devices that the article seems to be describing....or at least not here in Texas. Major School Districts all over the state allow students to bring the devices to school, but insist that they be turned off during regular class day (apparently this means no use in between classes as well). Penalties range from loss of the device to a fine.

I did a Google search before writing this post to see what information exists on the net regarding Educational Cell Phone Use in Texas. Not too surprisingly, there was little definitive information. Instead, there were several things that struck me as I scrolled through several pages of results.

First, it was interesting to see how many places are studying the use of cell phones as educational devices. This can probably be taken a number of different ways but for me, my first thought was that we are desperately seeking tools to re-inforce our current notions of how to teach. We have tried a lot of other things, but it just seems that most of them don't have the desired impact (personal opinion:putting our money where our mouth is, is probably the most likely to impact classroom test scores - the continued funding deficit in public education only re-inforces poor education).

The next thing I noted was that most of the Texas school districts indicated, had banned the use of cell phones during regular classroom hours. In light of item one, this seems a bit strange. If the devices really have potential, why aren't we letting some schools experiment with them...woops, I forgot, we are in an educational democracy here. We can't let one school have something without giving it to all of them....and God forbid, we find someone to give every schoolchild in Texas a simple cell phone and school account (even though most phone plans will give you a free phone to use - we are probably holding out for one of those $100 laptops for each child instead). I didn't see anything about teachers or administrators being allowed to carry these illicit devices, though earlier entries in the EdTech blog comments, would lead me to belief that they are fairly ubiquitous.

Another seemingly unrelated but serious issue was the use of cell phones in cars, being disruptive to driving activities. Hmmm. So the power of the cell phone is so great that it breaks our concentration and causes us to run into other autos. Or maybe on closer look, it has more to do with the dialing and answering process. Maybe audio and voice enhancement for all cell phones and screens large enough to see the print on, would make a difference. Keep in mind that my blog entry here (at least on my blog) is read aloud by a female voice without me activating anything after the original programming. Of course all those voices might distract drivers from listening to the drive time DJs, that radio pays so highly during those periods of high drive time. We had similar problems back when I was going to school in the 60's. Back then we called such distractions "daydreaming", and though most teachers banned such activity, they were not very successful (poor pedagogy leads to poor learning). Maybe if we turn this around, it might bring about a more profitable outcome. If cell phone can command such attention, then perhaps the best place to instruct would be over the cell phone. Of course, then we would have to ban driving while learning.

Finally, my last observation had to do with the fact that there are all these devices and none are on the same wavelength. They all use exactly the same technology, but charge different prices at different times of the day for use on devices that only work in specific geographical areas. The manufacturer of almost any cell phone will tell you that by and large, any phone will do anything, any other phone will do (or at leas most can be programmed to do what the others do). The catch is, that when the benevolent cell phone provider gives you that cell phone for free, they also program the memory chip in the phone to restrict use to meet their personal policies. This enables them to make ever more money to help save a terribly failing hard land line infrastructure, that could be replaced by WiFi and cell phones. Or heck, maybe the line their pockets with the extra money.

Whatever cell phones realities there are, this conversation has just begun, and it's ramifications will be with us far into the future. Already VOIP is looming on the horizon, and we have yet to get much of a handle on device usage in the classroom with limited capability cell phones. Not only that, but cell phones have become so ubiquitous in many societies, that we can hardly put them back in the box. And increasingly, we are finding lots of good reasons to have them in our pockets.

If you are an instructor, you need to continously think about my first observation....the new cell phones are coming, and they are quite likely going to change the way we educate. They will be VOIP, multi-media, have more processing power, interact with PCs or laptops more readily and will be cheaper than ever. You can turn them off, but the kids will learn on them, whether you are involved in what they learn or not.

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