Cell phones have long been anathema in the classroom, banned as a potential distraction, at best, and as a possible vehicle for cheating, at worst. But lately, educators have begun changing their tune on mobile phones.
Abilene Christian University will hand out Apple's iPhone 3G smartphone to two-thirds of this year's entering class of 950 freshmen. Students will be expected to use the devices to brainstorm ideas and get virtual handouts and podcasts during class. Instructors will use them for such tasks as monitoring attendance.
"This is a new platform for learning, in the same way a laptop or a desktop was a new platform," says William Rankin, co-director of mobile learning research at the school in Abilene, Texas.
Other schools across the country, from Michigan to Maryland and Texas to North Carolina, are coming to the same conclusion — that advanced wireless devices can be used as much for learning as for entertainment.
According to a survey of 700 teens published in April by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 71 percent of respondents already own cell phones, while only 59 percent own computers. Cell-phone ownership among college kids is even higher.
The new bookbag
So-called smartphones — such as the iPhone, which in the U.S. is authorized to run on the AT&T network — offer myriad new capabilities, including Web access, e-mail, and access to educational software.
"The time is approaching when these little devices will be as much a part of education as a bookbag," wrote the authors of a report last year by the nonprofit New Media Consortium, which studies emerging technologies likely to have an impact on teaching.
A well-equipped cell phone with a foldout keyboard could even supplant a laptop in classrooms, says Bill Davidson, senior vice-president for global marketing at Qualcomm, which makes cell-phone software and chips.
"From a cost standpoint, they cost much less," he points out. Davidson represents one of the largest makers of mobile-phone equipment, so his bias is obvious. But his view is shared in academic circles.
Phones may be better at facilitating teacher-student interaction, says ACU's Rankin. Abilene Christian experimented with laptops in class, but "we weren't pleased with what it did for us," Rankin says. "The screens created a barrier between teacher and students."
Widespread adoption by universities would be a welcome boost to sales for Qualcomm, such carriers as AT&T and Verizon Wireless, and hardware makers, such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple.
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Smartphones such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry have long been popular among business users. They've gained more widespread appeal in recent years, thanks to technological advances and, to some degree, the popularity of the iPhone.
Colleges "are expecting a very high pickup of the iPhone on their campuses," says Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice-president for global marketing of the iPhone. The company and AT&T send sales reps and provide technical assistance to schools looking to use the iPhone. Some analysts believe Apple will start selling the gadget right on college campuses before long.
Industry researcher Strategy Analytics projects that total North American smartphone sales will surge to 70.3 million units in 2012, from 18.3 million last year. While education accounts for a sliver of all iPhone sales now, it could reach 20 percent to 25 percent of the total in coming years, says Trip Chowdhry, an analyst at Global Equities Research.
Some carriers are already seeing growth in sales of smartphones and wireless services to colleges and schools. Sprint Nextel has seen its educational subscriber base rise 7 percent in the past year, to 750,000 users nationwide, even as the total number of subscribers has declined.
Some of its phones, such as the Samsung Instinct, are used for campus safety, but others are for learning. Instructors want students to be able to check class schedules or take quizzes on the go.
"They want a 24-7 learning environment," says Ed Davalos, national director of educational sales at Sprint.
Software makers are eager to capitalize on demand for educational software that would make smartphones more effective in schools. Handango sells about 90 mobile educational applications, including a portable Swedish dictionary, for Samsung's Blackjack smartphone alone.
Apple's App Store, which opened July 11, offers more than 80 educational iPhone applications, such as those helping kids tell time or learn Italian. Many colleges are also building custom software and mobile-friendly Web sites. University of Maryland, for instance, is putting finishing touches on a mobile portal, where students can go to check out the dining menu or register for classes.
Phone games for classroom use
And Hewlett-Packard has recently added to its team of researchers working on Mediascape, a set of tools teachers can use to build cell-phone games for classroom use.
Interest among teachers has been "far above anything we've expected," says Phil McKinney, chief technology officer for the personal systems group at HP. "Educators just gravitated to this."
A game called "Savannah," which was developed in Britain using Mediascape, lets students play lions and gazelles whose geographic locations are tracked via cell phones. Whenever a "lion" finds a "gazelle," the virtual gazelle gets eaten. But if the lions eat all the gazelles, they end up dying of hunger. "By the end, the kids learn the balance of life," McKinney explains.
At many schools, the use of cell phones in the classroom is still in an experimental phase. Qualcomm equipped 100 students at four North Carolina schools with HTC smart phones for an entire school year.
By the end of the year, the kids were spending more than an hour a day on the phones learning math, getting help on algebra.com, and texting homework questions to friends. Qualcomm plans to release complete results of the study in October.
A big hurdle to cell-phone use is resistance by teachers. Liz Kolb, who teaches courses on new technologies for teachers at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., and at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, now requires her students to try various cell-phone exercises with their kids.
Over the past several years, the children have used mobile phones to create raps about math, answer foreign-language quizzes, and record theatrical radio programs.
Kolb says most of her teacher-students arrive at the first class "with zero interest in using cell phones for learning." But by the end, 30 percent to 40 percent are using it regularly in their classrooms, she says. Her book on cell-phone learning, "Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education," due out in October, will be published by the International Society for Technology in Education.
As far as Kolb and others are concerned, educators have more to gain from embracing cell phones than they do from keeping them out of the classroom.
"The educational segment is lagging behind the sophistication of the students," says McKinney of HP. "They need to catch up."
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