Touchscreen Textbooks

Can smartphones replace the printing press in our public schools?

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Hang around the education community long enough, and you’re sure to hear a rhetorical refrain that goes something like this: Why are we still using a 19th-century model of education predicated on getting kids ready for early 20th-century industry using technology Gutenberg invented in the 15th century?

However, there has been some recent movement within the Clark County School District toward bringing our schools into this century.

Last year, Clark County received a grant from textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to implement a multi-media, interactive version of the current Algebra I textbook. As a result, iPads were deployed to classrooms at Leavitt and Silvestri middle schools and Silverado High School.

Incoming Silverado principal Robert Mars, who was at Silvestri last year, says he “was absolutely ecstatic” with the results of the program. “It really was a tool used by all of the teachers,” he says, “not just the math department.”

Leavitt principal Keith Wipperman agrees, saying that “homework completion has increased, engagement in class has increased and the kids’ willingness to do the work has increased.”

Sure, there’s guaranteed excitement when you hand kids a $600 gizmo, but did those kids improve their Algebra scores?

Wipperman says his students’ slightly higher scores on CCSD’s standardized semester exam were not statistically significant and admits, “It’s difficult to peel out the data to determine the specific effect of technology.”

Plus, can the district afford to loan iPads to 300,000 students every year? Wipperman experienced one loss, one theft, and 25 breakages out of 150 units. Even though parents at Leavitt paid for replacement iPads, that won’t always be the case, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools.

Which is where “Bring Your Own Devices” comes in. Mars, Wipperman and Jhone Ebert, CCSD’s chief technology officer, all agree that leveraging family-owned mobile devices is the way to go. A major problem lies in the current rules.

CCSD Policy 5136, which addresses personal communication devices, states such devices can only be used before or after school or during lunch. Mars, who helped draft revisions to 5136, argues, “If the student has a smartphone and they need to look something up, why should they be prohibited from doing that?”

School Board Trustee Erin Cranor says the goal is to free the “teacher who is innovating and engaging kids in ways that have never been done before.”

What about children who don’t have a device? Ebert says that at Hancock Elementary School more than half the fifth-graders raised their hands when she asked how many had cellphones with them. All of the students raised their hands when she asked how many had Internet access at home. And 78 percent of Hancock’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“There’s this [mistaken] belief that our community has limited access,” Ebert says. “So why would we slow down? Let’s find out how we can bridge the gap to those few kids who don’t have [the technology].”

It might be rightly pointed out that these examples are anecdotal, and it is unclear how representative they are. And even in these cases, there were still some students who didn’t have access. So what about the kids whose families either can’t afford mobile devices or that don’t want their kids to have them? In the instance of families that can’t afford some form of wireless mobile device, there will almost certainly need to be some form of yet-to-be-defined assistance.

Look, we do this already, but on an even larger scale. Families are not responsible for buying textbooks, and every year we loan anywhere from four to six textbooks to each student. Each text runs roughly $60 a pop. Even if only 50 percent of students bring their own mobile devices from home and the other 50 percent are loaned a $200 Kindle Fire or similar Wi-Fi-enabled device, that still represents a huge savings.

For those who restrict mobile Internet access because they are concerned about their child encountering inappropriate content, they can be at least moderately reassured that school networks are heavily filtered, so the ability for Wi-Fi-only devices to connect to inappropriate content would be limited.

Sure, we can continue to hold back on integrating smartphones and Wi-Fi devices into our schools, but that doesn’t seem to be what most people want.

“Yes we recognize there are concerns,” Cranor says. “There are going to be difficulties; there are going to be things we have to address. And yet we are very confident that every single one of those things has a solution.”