Celling a Great Idea

Event horizon:  Smartphones will be in all classrooms.
When that event horizon comes to pass, the switch to smartphone access in class will be so utterly quick and complete that the time before smartphones will seem like a distant memory, a work of fiction, something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel.  Anthropologists will call it the “Before Smartphones Era” or possibly the “BS Period.”
Why will the event happen so quickly? Quite simply because of the ubiquity of cell phones. The penetration of cell phones and smartphones (soon there will only be smartphones) in society is much deeper that most people can imagine. Would you believe that more communities on this planet have access to cell phones than they do to electricity?
That’s worth repeating: Cell phones have deeper penetration on this planet than ELECTRICITY! (See the Next Billion blog here and the Italian study here.) People in developing nations trek to village electricity hubs to recharge their phones. The United States has 322.8 million cell phone subscribers. That’s 102.4 percent  of our population.
Even though we have more cell phone plans than people, we obviously have students who do not have cell phones. For those students, we will need to fill the gap with inexpensive smartphones for students to borrow or lease. As long as the school has WiFi, no actual cell phone subscription is needed. That could be a cost picked up by the parent or student if they decide they want it on their loner phone.
Currently about 75 percent of high school students in the U.S. have cell phones. When schools actually have the expectations for smartphone use, the number of students with their own phones will increase.
These smartphones, as we know, are not just phones. If fact, the phone functionality is often used less than other functions on the device. These little gadgets are some of the most powerful, cost-saving computers on the planet. The April issue of Discover magazine released this study:
Services once reserved for the wealthy are available to the masses essentially for free. Adjusted for inflation, nearly $1 million worth of features now come with any smartphone.

  • Video player (Toshiba V08000 1981): $3,103
  • Encyclopedia (Compton’s CD Encyclopedia 1989) $1,370
  • Video camera (RCA CC010 1981) $2,617
  • GPS ( TI NAVSTAR 1982)  $279,366
  • Video Conferencing (Compression Labs VC 1982)  $586,904
  • Digital voice recorder (SONY PCM 1978)  $8,687
  • 5 megapixel camera (Canon RC-701 1986) $6,201

TOTAL VALUE:  $900,000
Truly astounding and a testament to Moore’s Law. Discover’s data does not include the literally thousands of free or cheap educational apps that students can find in the Droid and iTunes app stores. The homework apps alone are worth having. How can we let these incredibly powerful tools that many students have with them go unused?
This smartphone revolution is underway, but it’s run into educators who still “criminalize” the use of cell phones in school. I know principals who stand at the front door of the school and collect cell phones when they see them in the hands of students. Do the principals really think they’re banning their use, though?
A Benenson Strategy Group poll found the following:

  • 69% of high schools ban cell phones
  • 63% of students in those schools that ban cell phones . . . use cell phones anyway, and
  • 47% can text with their eyes closed.

It’s time to decriminalize cell phones in the classroom. We need to teach students the responsible use of cell phones in school and prepare them for life beyond our K-12 confines. There are certainly real dangers that need to be addressed and prevented, like bullying, cheating, and sending inappropriate images. But the current criminalized state fosters that behavior. Principals think that educating students on proper cell phone usage is unnecessary because any cell phone use at school is wrong. Some schools do not even want students to use their cell phones to call 911. They want the emergency call to come from a teacher or administrator. Seriously.  Seriously?
If you treat smartphones as an “underground” device, students will use them that way.
We need to bring smartphones above ground into the mainstream, provide training, and establish guidelines with penalties for improper use. If you’re a public school teacher, you know that most students would rather have their cell phones than eat. Not that that is healthy, but that is the way it is.
Schools and districts need to get out in front of this because the cart is about to run over the horse. Students from Los Angeles recently received money from a Kickstarter grant that enabled them to attend the Digital Media and Learning conference in San Francisco. (That alone is awesome.) What was their purpose for attending the conference? They went there to demand the right to use technology in school.
Tina Barsighian from Mind/Shift writes:

Holding up cell phones, tablets, and video cameras, students spelled out to listeners in the packed conference room a message loud and clear: We demand access to the same technology that privileged students have in order to survive in the working world, to compete in any meaningful way, and to amplify our voices.

One student said that “we’re crucified by a process that’s making us a permanent underclass. . . . Budget cuts can no longer be a reason why me and my peers are tech-illiterate. We’ve had this problem since before the economic crisis.”
Students are not willing to be trapped in the BS Period any longer. They recognize the fact that lack of technology is a decision problem and not a budget problem. Schools can at least start with a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative. Corporate America is already doing this. Companies like Citrix have found it to be very successful. The company’s BYOD program has resulted “in significant savings, improved flexibility and greater employee satisfaction” – results that would be good for schools, as well!
BYOD is inexpensive and will change the us-vs.-them climate at a school almost immediately.  Schools won’t be that place where students have to “power down” upon arrival.  Additionally, in this period of rapid change, schools will never keep up with the latest technology.  Think about this:

  • It took 22 years to sell 55 million Macs.
  • It took 5 years to sell 55 million iPods.
  • It took 2 years to sell 55 million iPads.

If students brought their own electricity to school, wouldn’t we let them use it? Wouldn’t we think it’s a blessing? Or are we so bureaucratic, that we would only let them use government electricity?
We let students bring their own lunches to school.  We also let them buy lunches from the school.  For some students, we even pay for their lunches. Why can’t we use this approach with technology?
Here are a few exemplars:
Wiregrass Ranch High School in Tampa Bay, Florida, has gone full tilt with their BYOD program. See this report on WRHS. What do you think the culture is like on that campus? It looks like a place that students want to be and where teachers want to work.
See what they are doing at Passages Middle School in Virginia. Features like Poll Everywhere and InstaPoll are perfect for today’s American-Idol texting-to-vote students.
Whether we “cell” this idea or not, the event horizon is coming. School leaders can either usher in the future and be facilitators in the process, or they can reinforce the fortress walls and remain sealed off from the rest of society . . . at least until their own students find a Kickstarter grant to jump start their own technology revolution.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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