Many parents who once chided their kids to turn off their cell phones during family meals and other once-sacrosanct occasions have officially conceded defeat. More than that, they’ve become converts to the idea that constant access to mobile technology isn’t always a bad thing, and can often be turned to their advantage.
And so it’s starting to go, slowly and haltingly, in the world of education.
Across the country, school districts are increasingly experimenting with programs that strive to incorporate mobile devices into projects and assignments both inside and outside the classroom.
For instance, for years teachers have fought the cell phone battle, threatening to confiscate the ubiquitous gadgets if kids were caught using them in class. Lately, not only do many educators seem less concerned by the presence of cell phones, a few pioneering teachers are encouraging students to bring their phones to class to use during specific lessons.
These pilot projects — variously referred to as BYOT (bring your own technology) or BYOD (bring your own devices) — are viewed as ways to engage students by using tools they’re already comfortable with, while adding a new degree of interactivity. Meanwhile, intriguing new apps are being developed for a range of educational uses.
There are potential pitfalls, to be sure, including how to deal with instances of inappropriate use of technology at school, liability issues and the obvious concerns about unequal access.
Nonetheless, this is the way education is headed — indeed, it must strike down the path of greater technology inclusiveness, or else remain stuck in an increasingly irrelevant past.
Not surprisingly, some private schools have been quicker to adapt. Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, for example, began studying mobile technology five years ago, and last fall rolled out its iPad program. There are now 2,100 of the devices on campus — one for every student and teacher — that are leased from Apple and funded through a technology fee paid by families.
The results have been encouraging.
“So far we have seen amazing things happening in our classrooms,” said Mater Dei spokeswoman Tia Meza. “We are making a pedagogical shift in how we teach, and our students are making a shift in both how they learn, but, more importantly, in how they demonstrate knowledge. We are definitely able to prepare our students better for the world they are heading into.”
Despite austere budgets, some public schools are also beginning to get on board.
At Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, for example, all 63 students in sixth grade this year will be equipped with iPads to use for schoolwork.
The idea was the brainchild of Nik Froehlich, a father of four and head of the nonprofit Harbor View Dads fundraising group, which is backing the project.
Froehlich, a software developer, was convinced that tablet computers were the way to go.
“I know this is the thing to come,” he said. “I knew it was inevitable. I didn’t want Harbor View to be left behind.”
Froehlich and others spent considerable time studying similar projects in other districts, and initially considered an Apple product geared toward education, essentially a mobile cart with 20 iPads attached.
But after further research, they found that these mobile labs weren’t nearly as effective as programs in which all students have their own devices to use in class and take home at the end of the day.
They decided to limit the first-year trial to the sixth grade and asked parents who could afford it to provide their children with their own iPads. The Harbor View Dads bought 20 of the devices that they plan to loan out as needed, and they stand ready to buy more if necessary. They also paid for professional development by an Apple representative to help the teachers prepare.
Froehlich acknowledged that the relative affluence of Harbor View’s population offers an inherent advantage; about one-quarter of the students already had their own iPads before the project even started.
But he believes the program can be replicated elsewhere, in part by retooling technology budgets. Two iPads can be bought for the price of one desktop computer, and can offer greater efficiencies over older technology, he said.
What’s more, many educators are increasingly optimistic about employing technology to help address some of the most intractable problems in today’s overcrowded classrooms.
For example, iPads can give teachers instantaneous feedback on schoolwork. These so-called live diagnostic applications allow students who have mastered certain material to move ahead, while teachers can intervene quickly to help those who are struggling.
“We’re taking it really, really slow,” said Christine Darnall, Harbor View’s technology teacher. “We’re still dealing with the logistics of the program,” and it could be a few months before students begin using the iPads. Still, she said, “Everyone I’ve talked to is very excited. We’re pretty certain that we’re going to be successful.”
Will mobile technology remedy all of education’s maladies? Of course not. But projects like Harbor View’s are worthy experiments with tons of promise and significant potential payoffs.
Funding problems notwithstanding, the cost of ignoring technological advancements could prove astronomical. Think about that the next time your kids try to hide their texting under the dinner table.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.