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District Officials Describe Challenges in Using Mobile Tech in Schools

San Antonio

District officials who have overseen projects to bring mobile devices into classrooms offered practical advice to ISTE attendees on Tuesday, saying the popular tech tools can engage students and benefit them academically—if school leaders are careful in carrying out their plans.

At a panel discussion, attendees heard about the experiences of the Onslow County school system in North Carolina, which is on its fifth year of Project K-Nect, an initiative that allows students to use mobile devices in math instruction. The program was started to help increase student achievement in algebra, said Ross G. Friebel, who oversees the project. The school district has used many different devices for the project, starting with smartphones, then switching to netbooks, and finally transitioning to tablets most recently.

Devices have been distributed to ninth graders in the district, and students are using them to complete practice problems in class, create videos about how to approach problems, and video chat with teachers from home when they are working on homework. Having that 24-7 support helps academically struggling students get their questions answered and allows teachers to provide more personalized feedback to each student, said Friebel.

The 400,000-student Chicago school system rolled out a small pilot program with five 5th-grade classes this year, assigning each student in the pilot a tablet computer to use both in school and at home. The project marked the first time that the school district allowed students to take school-owned devices home with them, said Meridith Bruozas, who oversaw the pilot.

Before students could take the devices home, they had to complete several units of Common Sense Media's digital citizenship training to prepare them to use the devices for learning. The district tracked how the devices were being used—including what searches took place on the devices, and how often. While the project was deemed a success at the end of its first year, it also raised many unanticipated questions about school policies and professional development around using mobile devices in classrooms.

For example, Bruozas said, if a student takes a device home to an unfiltered network and downloads inappropriate material, what role does the school play in addressing that violation?

Overall, students reported that the most beneficial aspects of having the devices was being able to check their grades and being able to communicate easier with teachers, said Bruozas.

Lastly, Shari Metcalf, the project director of the ecoMOBILE initiative, shared research gathered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education about the project, which aims to use mobile devices to augment reality in science classes.

Students in a pilot project run by the university used smartphones to learn more about a pond near their school. When students held the devices near the pond, they pulled up key facts about the environment, including what kinds of chemical reactions were occurring. For instance, certain targets triggered 3D animations of molecules in the air. And the devices also guided students to the pond and then instructed them to use probes in order to take measurements from the water.

Students also used the devices to take pictures and take notes about what they were learning, in order to take it back to the classroom, said Metcalf.

"The teachers think it's been really powerful, and the students are highly engaged," she said. "They love being out in the world."

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