Will Cell Phones Save Education

There are a couple of different opinions of cell phones in schools. Some see them as basically evil tools of cheating and distraction. Many schools ban then outright. Some allow them but only with serious restrictions. (You can read some of that here.) And then there is the opposite view - cell phones have valid and important educational uses.

Bill Gates has said a number of times that cell phones could be the low cost, low power way to get computing power into the hands of people, especially students, in the Third World. Recently I watched an interview with Professor Elliot Soloway from the University of Michigan who is actually doing some work with educational uses of cell phones.

In the interview Prof. Soloway talks with enthusiasm about the idea but doesn't provide a lot of specifics. His company web site, he founded GoKnow Learning, though does have more information. It does seem that they are further along then I would have thought.

Still, color me skeptical. Largely I worry about two things: Curriculum development and teacher training. GoKnow does provide some of both BTW. They have a consulting and training operation and I am sure they do a good job. On the other hand education as a field has a poor history of providing enough training for teachers or development of curriculum that leverages new technology.

The idea behind educational technology is all too often to throw the technology into the hands of students (maybe let teachers use it) and some sort of education miracle will happen. This seems to be the idea behind the One Laptop Per Child project by the way.

Everyone has stories of students who get a computer and do amazing things with them. I've repeated several of them myself. They can be inspiring. But the fact is that for every amazing student who hacks the iPhone so that he can change cell providers there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of kids who will never do anything like that without a lot of help from a teacher. The potential may be there but teachers are often the ones who bring it out.

Sure you might get Larry Page, co-founder of Google, in your class, as Prof. Soloway did, and people could argue that they got to where they are today without depending too much on their teachers. But are you going to bet that happening with the majority of students? I don't think so. Let me spell something out on its own.

Most students need good, well-trained, well-equipped teachers to help them learn. Only a few students are going to be wonderfully self-educated.

There I said it. Handing a student an Internet capable device and a network connection may in theory give him access to the knowledge of the whole world but it is not going to turn him into the next Bill Gates, Larry Page or Steven Spielberg. (I had to through some "art" in there and some people seem to think that a digital camera and access to posting video on YouTube will create great movies.) Most people, the overwhelming majority, need teachers as well as books, curriculum and other resources.

And by the way, we need a lot more and a lot better educational software to take advantage of any of this high technology stuff - smart phone or computer. Is there a lot more potential in computers and cell phones and who knows what other technology is coming? Absolutely! But it is no silver bullet yet.

Comments (2)

  1. MeetGeorgeJetson says:

    What if cell phones were prevelent in teacher-led classrooms but we had no hard-print libraries.  Imagine, then, that in this hypothetical world a new tool/technology (libraries) began to emerge and fall in cost.  Would we take on the mindset that we could just drop kids in the library and learning would begin to sprout all about this new tool?

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