Various cell phones displayed at a shop.
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If you’re even remotely considering using iPads at your school, you should be following Fraser Speirs.  But he recently put up a post that has me raising my eyebrows just a bit.  I’d love to comment on his site, but comments are turned off right now.

In his  Run What Ya Brung post, he rails against the idea that, “In the future, we will teach using the mobile phones the kids bring to school with them.” The post itself is well worth the read, and he makes some excellent points.  As a former Tech Director, I’ll be the first to admit that the idea sounds sexier in theory than it would be to implement.  However, I do think there are some merits to the idea that get glossed over the way it is described.

I agree with him that there are ‘digital divide’ issues, related to both hardware and services/plans.  And there are also hurdles to overcome with respects to network infrastructure and teacher training.  However,  I think my main issue is that the post seems to be based around the assumption that the school would require every student to have and use a cell in the classroom.  There’s a lot of space in between the ‘cell phones are forbidden’ phase and the ‘cell phones are required for all students’ phase.  If the students have an iPhone, or Android phone, or tablet available to them, are we really going to say that students are unable to make use of them because the teacher doesn’t know what to do with them?  Or because the network admin hasn’t figured out how to keep the network secure?  Or because some kids in the classroom may not have them?

Let’s start with equity.  If we refuse to allow students to use their own technology because of equity, then all we’re doing is restricting them to the lowest common denominator.  Should we hold back students that are ready to move forward because one student in the room doesn’t understand the topic yet?  Of course not.  I’m not saying we want to leave any kids behind.  We can and should find ways to make sure everyone can be involved in very experience in the classroom.  But to refuse to allow a student to use technology they already own just because another student doesn’t have it is ridiculous.  It’s an issue, yes.  And that is definitely going to play a factor in how lessons are structured.  But there’s a big gap between letting students use what they have, and teaching lessons that require everyone to have a device like that.

Regarding network security, there’s ways to restrict access and traffic in any number of ways.  A simple radius server can restrict access to a WiFi network to just approved devices.  So perhaps the easiest solution is to have sensitive data available only through approved devices on a separate network.  Want to enter in  your report cards?  Do it from an approved computer.  Want to upload a photo or create a blog post?  Use the public network.  That’s just one potential solution, with dozens of other variations possible.  As a former Tech Dir, I realized that I often did more harm than good in the name of uptime and security.  Can you pat yourself on the back that all the computers are up and running, if teachers are unable to use them effectively due to overbearing security measures?  It’s a real problem.  Security is an issue, but at the same time, it has to be done in a way that supports teachers and students, not preventing them from moving forward.

As the hardware and services themselves, once again I think the issue is expectations.  Can we assume that every cell phone has the internet?  Of course not.  But should we restrict the ones that do have that ability from using it because others don’t?  That would be like saying some people can’t use graphing calculators because others don’t graph.  Or students can’t use a three button mouse if the other mice have two buttons.   Once again, it’s one thing to require it, but quite another to allow them to use it if they have it available.

When all is said and done, here’s what I keep coming back to.   My son is almost 4.  He has his own blog where he saves things he wants to remember.  When he finds something he likes, or has something he wants to preserve, he has us take a picture of it and upload it.  We’re seriously considering getting him an iPod Touch.  Then he’ll be able to take pictures himself whenever he wants.  It won’t take much to teach him to upload them as well.  And that’s how he will document his life and learning.  When he gets into schools, are we really going to take that away from him?  Of course there will be issues and he’ll have to learn what is appropriate and what isn’t.  When it’s ok to use, when to switch it off.  But that’s no different than the rest of growing up.

There will be a day when 99% of our students have a smartphone type device in their pockets.  As educators, I think we would be foolish not to be leveraging them.  That day is not today, but it’s coming.  So when do we make the switch?  When 30% of them have such a device?  50%?  80%?  In my mind, the sooner the better.  Because all we’re doing is letting students make use of the technology they know better than any other.  And helping them learn how to use it safely and appropriately.  No, I don’t see us getting rid of computers or laptops at school.  But I do think we’ll be a whole lot less dependent on them.