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February 24 2011

Making cell phones useful for school

While students are increasingly using laptops in their classrooms, the smaller handheld computing devices that students already own (cell phones) are banned from campus. What's the difference?

Fundamentally, the use of Internet-enabled technology in classrooms has two challenges. The first is student safety and privacy — preventing information that is obscene or harmful to children from being accessed by the devices. The second is classroom management — focusing student attention on the task at hand rather than the myriad distractions of the web.

With laptops, these challenges are addressed by classroom management software that provides Internet filtering and control of the student computer screens. Teachers have the ability to put all the laptops on the same page, project a single student's screen on the whiteboard to show their work, or to shut down student screens altogether. Internet filters allow schools or districts to create "white lists" of websites that students are allowed to access and to block the rest.

Of course, none of these services are foolproof — the Internet has numerous sites dedicated to helping people hack around these restrictions, primarily in support of human rights in countries where Internet access is censored. Go into any middle school classroom and you will find any number of students who can readily get out onto the Internet beyond the filters. You may even find teachers who rely on these kids to sneak past the filtering walls if they do not have the time to make an IT request to have a site unblocked for the day's lesson.

The philosophy around Internet filtering and classroom management varies from school to school and district to district. In some settings, the Internet is considered too dangerous to leave in the hands of students and the school chooses a limited set of sites that students may access while teachers tightly control the use of computers in the classroom. Other schools feel the same burden of responsibility to help students develop the skills to successfully navigate the Internet that they do to help students develop interpersonal skills in the classroom and on the playground. Their philosophy is to have adults model those skills, teach them explicitly, then to monitor students as they try them out, make mistakes, and learn — ready to step in when they are needed.

Just as students gain more freedom as they become more mature in the physical world — such as choosing coursework, leaving campus for lunch, or taking on internships — they gain more freedom on the Internet as that becomes developmentally appropriate. These students are expected to be as prepared for navigating the virtual world as young adults graduating high school as they are the physical world.

The first approach relies more heavily on controlling the student Internet experience. The second relies more on appropriately monitoring student Internet use. Laptop technology supports both approaches. But cellphone technology often does not. If that one thing were to change, educators would have the tools at hand to use always-on, always-connected devices for anytime / any place learning. If this change doesn't come about, the potential of wireless education technology will sadly remain limited.

I had a really good conversation with Ben Weintraub, COO and co-founder of Kajeet, on this exact topic. Kajeet is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that focuses on cell phones for children. An MVNO is essentially a reseller of cellular minutes and megabytes that also has the ability to sell added services on top of connectivity.

Not surprisingly, parents have many of the same concerns as schools when it comes to their kids' Internet use. In response to these parent needs, Kajeet provides services that let parents control when their kids can use the cell phone, who they can text or talk to, and what phone features (such as the camera) they are allowed to use. Recently Kajeet has been talking with Netsweeper, a company that provides a cloud-based approach to Internet filtering. With all these pieces in place, there is only one technology obstacle blocking cell phone use in schools: in order for Internet filtering to work both when the phone is using cellular services and when it is using Wi-Fi, the phone needs to be "locked down" to ensure that all Internet access is authorized by the Netsweeper (or similar) service, regardless of the access network.

Unfortunately, MVNOs, carriers, and software providers who are interested in solving this problem don't have access to the layers of the cell phone software stack where this kind of secure lock-down can occur — they lie below the level of the High Level Operating System. It's up to the manufacturers of phones or their chip suppliers to respond to the need for cell phones that are kid-safe and school-ready. As the costs of smartphones are coming down drastically, these devices are finding their way into the hands of younger and younger users. As an industry, we have a responsibility to make it possible for parents and educators to have Internet safety tools on computers and phones alike.

For the wireless edtech ecosystem, this really does appear to be case where "for want of a nail, a kingdom is lost." For want of one enabler, the potential of wireless edtech may either be drastically inhibited or lost altogether.



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