Angela is tackling a conundrum presented by the game she is playing on her smartphone. Only in this case, the game isn't for leisure even though it feels like it. It was assigned by her teacher as part of her algebra class. She flicks her finger to review the class lecture again, and now understands the problem better. A couple more attempts, and the game ends with Angela scoring at the level she was shooting for. She sends an instant message to her teacher to submit the score and receive credit for the assignment. He thanks her for being prompt, and notes that she is still outperforming the class and is only two points away from being District Algebra Champion.
The following morning, while riding the bus to school, Angela retrieves a few assessment items the District Accountability Officer has broadcast to users in her fifth-grade level. In a few minutes, she reviews the items, scores them and submits the responses in real time. Moments later, Angela receives a note indicating her responses keep her in the 99th percentile and on track to end the year, mastering half of her course objectives.
For some people, smartphones are the coolest mobile gadgets on the market; for others, they're just a fad. What most don't realize is that they have the potential to revolutionize education technology. These new devices are slowly but surely shifting the dialogue from laptop learning to mobile learning.
Learning to go
Even Apple has underplayed the potential role its iPhone can have in education. The company positions the iPod Touch as an accessory to students' Mac desktop or laptop, branding it "Learning to go," according to the Web site. But smartphones are much more than accessories: They constitute game-changing, revolutionary, mobile handheld learning platforms, backed by virtual content and applications.
In one masterstroke, smartphones provide equitable access to the Internet for all students by supporting the popular wireless broadband technologies. With Wi-Fi, EDGE and 3G support, these ultra-mobile devices provide access to users from anywhere -- school, home, library, community. Anytime learning for everyone is a reality after all.
These phones could potentially help solve the digital divide. With these devices, kids from lower-income families who are less likely to have access to computers and the Internet could finally have increased access to these tools.
The small size may concern some potential users, but look at the popularity of MP3 players -- the younger demographic is receptive to adopting small tools if the usability is seamless and clean. Smartphones have no hard disk or spinning wheels, and they're less likely to fail, compared to a laptop, under tough conditions. The glass screen and frame can be crushed or cracked when aided by a fair amount of carelessness, but there are several protectors available that can save the devices from the most bullying owner. They can even be waterproof, if required, and are very wieldy, fitting into any pocket.
However, their attractiveness mostly rests on their potential to pack meaningful, potent digital content. Electronics companies welcome third-party developers to build interactive applications on their smartphones. School-approved K-12 applications are already becoming available. For example, some companies work with publishers worldwide to transform learning content by adapting it to smartphones. These technology companies transform the content so it is comprehendible on the device. This results in applications designed for the specific phones, but that are aligned with curriculum standards and based on existing learning material.
Freedom with limits
One of the concerns for school administrators who are evaluating one-to-one learning technologies is the ability to monitor and control usage. AT&T's Smart Limits for wireless can be used to disable the phone and SMS functionality during specific hours of the day, while still permitting emergency calls.
Smartphones can be customized to allow parents to lock down the feature set so that students have access only to specific approved applications. Some companies offer age-appropriate access to the Internet along with blacklisting, white listing, reporting and monitoring capabilities, essentially making Internet access on the device compliant with the Children's Internet Protection Act across the different wireless modes of operation.
While parents set phone preferences, school administrators focus on deploying the devices. Wireless carriers deal with several thousand new customers daily, so one-to-one implementation can occur in one day. For example, upon the launch of the iPhone 3G, one million customers signed up within three days. Smartphone-based one-to-one learning can be deployed virtually overnight -- not by heroics, not by accident, but by design.
The price is right
Can schools afford this solution? With the purchase of a plan, Samsung's Instinct, the T-Mobile G1 with Google and the iPhone can cost $79 to $199. Broadband data plans range from $30 to $60 per month, and cheap voice plans start at $29.99. Ensuring that the Internet access is compliant with the Children's Internet Protection Act makes the data plan for the device E-Rate-eligible. Schools can also negotiate favorably priced voice plans that are affordable to parents. Presumably, a voice plan priced at $19.99 with an additional $4.99 for Smart Limits would bring the cost to $23.99 per month. The total cost of ownership to the school should only include the cost of the device itself, the learning management system implementation and the network infrastructure on campus.
When implemented on a schoolwide scale, the total cost of ownership to the school can be in the order of $250 per student on an annualized basis, making smartphones a competitive one-to-one learning solution.
An exciting one-to-one future
The smartphone is the mobile equivalent of the first graphical user interface-based computer that shifted the emphasis from hardware to software. While the capabilities discussed are based on what is already available in the market today, it is exciting to think of future breakthroughs. Consider Nokia's announcement about the nanotechnology-based Morph concept device and combine it with the digital software created around other smartphones. With their myriad features, functionalities and software, smartphones are paving the way for the arrival of the next generation of one-to-one learning paradigms.
*This story is from Converge magazine's Fall 2008 issue.