Innovation, Change—and Gadgets!

CLASSROOM 21 | by Greg Limperis

The time has come for change in our schools. How can it not? What will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and allows for innovation within our school system? Lord knows we have enough gadgets already to support such change. The atmosphere in education is ripe for a revolution. Never before in the life of the educational system has there been such a Perfect Storm for change. All we need is a few studies to prove that innovation and change can actually save money and improve student engagement therefore leading to better test scores. As soon as that happens, the change will be swift and broad reaching.

Believe me—this will be easier than most people think. With districts such as those in California going paperless, universities doing studies of the use of iPads in their colleges, and the sudden proliferation of smartphones in the hands of cell phone users everywhere—it’s only a matter of time.

Now, let’s add the fact that the current atmosphere in education is calling for change in the way that we as teachers teach, and in the results that we as teachers get from our teaching. Anywhere you go in education these days, talk is of students falling increasingly further behind, that they are more disengaged than ever, and that data is the key tool to monitor student progress to get us back on track.

Lastly, there’s the current economic outlook. With so many school districts currently strained to their limits, the next few years promise to be difficult. Out of necessity, educational systems everywhere will be looking for ways to squeeze every penny from wherever they can. Looming mass layoffs in education, cutbacks in supplies, buildings in need of major repairs would all beg the question: where are we going to find the money to bring about change?

Consider this possibility. How many students do you know who already have their own phone? Of those, how many phones are smartphones? Let’s harness this opportunity. Problem is, how do we center education around unreliable, non district-owned technology?

Here’s my proposition: Someone is currently paying for use of these student smartphones, correct? Sure, not much, but what’s an extra ten or fifteen dollars per month for me to add an extra phone to my plan-so that my child can have one? And what if that money was paid directly to the schools?

The schools would supply the phones instead. How about if school districts promised to purchase so many phones and to use so many plans? What provider would step up? How about making the smarphone a tablet smartphone?

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t there already a boatload of problems around the idea of giving every student their own smartphone? Possibly. I’m sure much of these problems could be easily resolved with a little bit of ingenuity and manufacturer support.

Now, if we did this, and we could do away with most computers currently in schools—although you’d still need a few for certain projects, although not that many-then we could severely limit the type of required networks for our schools.

Paper, ink and material costs would drop dramatically. Savings in textbooks alone in the transition to e-books and web-based texts would be tremendous. And oh, the apps we would have—useful, extremely inexpensive and very attractive to the students. They’d be asking to buy them for a couple of bucks or less.

According to one recent study by a private liberal arts college in Ohio (Evaluating the iPad for Education), students using the iPad tablet were actually more engaged and less distracted:

“Pupils were less apt to be using e-mail, instant messaging, or social networking sites while sitting in class with a tablet computer. … Tablets don’t have the same form factor, so you can’t hide behind them.”

In another recent article, “Will Smart Phone Eliminate the Digital Divide?”, Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan, offers many reasons why the cell phone will out-service a laptop for students:

“The small size matches the small size of the kids: Kids are small; their technology complements their size. Hulking, 7-pound laptops are seen as old technology, not interesting, by the mobile generation: They want to use their technology literally on the go. Can’t do that with a laptop.

“Laptops are way too expensive to maintain: Drop a laptop, kiss it goodbye; drop a smart phone, and there is a very good chance it will be fine.

“You can do everything on a smart phone that you can do on a laptop, except maybe for high school geometry and except for a few scientific visualizations. But for 90 percent of what a student has to do, the smart phone can do it.”

Ultimately, these tablets will not even need a phone plan if they can be outfitted with Skype or Google’s Gtalk. Outfitted with a webcam and soon to be on a 4G network everywhere, these small devices will allow student to call and talk to their parents in order to let them know they have arrived somewhere safely.

Ultimately, isn’t it our responsibility to teach these students how to be responsible citizens? This means we may need to teach them to be responsible digital citizens, too. Yes, we’ll be giving them a tremendous amount of power in their hands daily-but can’t this be a good thing? Isn’t this engagement? Isn’t this savings for education?

I’m sure there’s a lot to figure out yet. Change won’t happen overnight, but shouldn’t we be having a serious conversation about ways this should be happening now?

Before each school year gets underway, my children’s teacher gives me a list of all the materials I must supply them with to get them started. I’d much rather simply hand over the money, get a smart tablet into their hands-and then let the learning really begin. How about you?


Greg Limperis is a Middle School Technology Facilitator in Lawrence, Mass., who founded the very popular Technology Integration in Education professional learning network, reaching thousands of educators worldwide. He has shared with others what he knows and they have joined him in sharing their insights as well. Join them in bringing about change using your 21st century skills.


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