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Most students receive a firm reprimand from teachers when even a glimpse of a cell phone is spotted from across the classroom.
But that’s all changing at Lincoln Middle School where a group of three sixth-grade teachers are demonstrating how smartphones are changing the education dynamic in their classrooms.
To call the devices used at Lincoln “cell phones” is really a stretch since they cannot make outgoing calls or take incoming calls. Texting is also blocked, and like most public school computers, Internet access is filtered.
“I like to call them mobile learning devices,” said Jenny Guziel, the sixth-grade teacher who volunteered her class as the guinea pig group for the cell phone initiative.
However, cell phones are exactly what they are. Through Sprint, the district received several smartphones, which have computer-like capabilities built into them. The HTC Touch Pro, HTC Touch Pro 2 and Palm models are being used as a trial basis at the district through the rest of the school year.
As children in Guziel’s sixth-hour science class trickle into the room Thursday, eager volunteers quickly swarm her desk asking to help pass out the phones. Each student has a phone number and is responsible for his or her own phone.
The lesson is to make a line graph, analyze the results and email it to the teacher. This may sound simple, but getting more than 20 students on the same page – so to speak – is difficult.
First students have to “sync” their cell phones, which updates them with the latest information and assignments sent from the teacher. When students “sync” their phone at the end of class all the work they did that day is sent to the teacher.
For last Thursday’s assignment, students visited a Web site to assist them in creating the graph. Using 10 scores they received while playing their favorite down-time game “Bubble Breaker” the students were to graph the data to see if the game is a game of skill or a game of chance.
By the end of class a handful of students had started uploading their information onto the Web site. Many children had difficulty connecting to the Internet and navigating the Web once they got there. But Guziel said the project would continue the next day and children with Internet access could work on it from home if they wanted.
This is only the sixth assignment utilizing cell phones Guziel has given the students. They have also used the phones to take photos and video in science labs and have completed projects such as word studies on excel spreadsheets.
“We had a rock lab where they had to identify different types of rocks or minerals and we don’t have examples of all of the different kinds for all of the kids, so they could get onto the Internet and see an image,” Guziel said as an example of a science project.
With the Internet, as well as camera and video capabilities there is plenty for students to get distracted by when using the cell phones. But Guziel said that is easily monitored at the end of the day when the students “sync” their phones. She can see exactly what each child did on their cell phone during the class, which discourages students from getting off-track.
“If they’ve been taking pictures they shouldn’t have taken we see that, or if they have been somewhere they shouldn’t have been we see that,” she said. “So everything they do gets sent to the teacher computer.”
There is definitely a learning curve working with the phones, which have only been in the classroom for less than a month. The students and teachers have to become a little more comfortable with the phones before additional subjects can be applied, but the response from instructors and students has been positive.
“The kids quickly get ahead of us and it doesn’t take long for them to operate [the phones] quicker than us,” Guziel said.
One “phone expert” teachers often turn to is student EJ Medvecz. Instructor Deanna Pena said Medvecz seems to have the “magic touch” when it comes to operating the phone. But to Medvecz, it’s no big deal.
“When we started using the phones, I just paid attention to the phone and what it said,” he explained. “Then I kept on finding out how to do stuff.”
Student Brianna Ynclan said, “you have to pay attention because the phone is expensive,” making it easier for her to focus on an assignment. Ynclan also said she likes completing a writing assignments on the phone because what she types is easier for her to read as opposed to her handwriting, and she said she is able to complete assignments faster.
“I think it’s kind of easy,” Ynclan said.
Since the phone is currently only being used for science class Guziel said she is not worried about options such as auto-complete text, which guesses a student’s word before all the characters are entered. She said a science class doesn’t grade based on spelling, and she considers options like auto-complete beneficial for students.
“The more times they see the correct spelling of a word the more likely they are to spell it correctly,” she said of her students.
Pena said like most of the new hands-on technology in the building, such as interactive white boards and digital visual presenters, students are anxious to use the phones as opposed to the traditional classroom atmosphere.
“If we were giving them a science book right now they wouldn’t be as excited,” she said over the chatter of the sixth-graders.
Not only does the instructional dynamic change when the cell phones enter the class, but the social dynamic changes as well – a transformation instructors didn’t anticipate.
Guziel said children who don’t always succeed in a traditional classroom setting find they are valuable asset to their classmates when they can show others how to navigate the phones.
“They’re learning to communicate with all the kids in the room whether they are their best friend or not,” Guziel said. “Everybody was willing to ask for help and they were all willing to give help, that’s a big difference that you see compared to the paper/pencil classroom.
“I like how they are learning to work with each other as a group,” she said. “That’s a life skill that’s hard to teach, that’s important.”
When she started teaching, the technology that assisted her throughout the day was a projector and a sheet hanging from the wall. Nearly two decades later, Guziel is happy to jump at whatever technology she can get her hands on. When the district offers pilot programs such as the Sprint phones she is first to raise her hand.
She said she would love to see more phones being utilized in classrooms and thinks it would be a good investment for the district.
“There’s just so much the students can do [on the phones],” she said. “I don’t think we’ve realized the full potential. They are really carrying a little computer with them and they can go online and the room doesn’t have to be wired for Internet."
Rick Schaffner, Lincoln’s curriculum director, said the district would analyze the success of the phone demo at the end of the year utilizing data collected from a survey given before the program started and post-survey after the program is complete. He said Inkster Schools tried the cell phones for a summer school program and saw an impressive spike in engagement and school performance.
"What they found at the end of their summer school the kids were actually choosing to do their homework over the fun [activities] because the phones were so engaging," he said.
Schaffner said Sprint has offered Lincoln approximately 200 free phones for next year if the district can pay the cost of software licenses.
“If sprint is willing to give us the phones, what I have to come up with is $5,000 for the data services,” he said.
The software, developed by University of Michigan Professor Elliot Soloway, includes programs that let students map concepts, animate their drawings, surf relevant parts of the Internet and integrate their lessons and assignments. It also includes mini versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.
Schaffner said he would look to competitive grants and area foundation donations to pay for the data services if the program proves successful.
“I’m excited to see it take-off, and the hope is that it will spread,” he said.