Schools increasingly turn to mobile devices in classrooms

Story Image

Some schools used to ban cell phones and iPods. Now, those same mobile devices are being integrated into the classroom.

BREMERTON, Wash. - A classroom full of fourth-graders scrambled to their seats as teacher Scott Wisenburg announced it was time for a reading lesson.

Some reached straight for iPods and others hurriedly wrote down predictions about the text they were soon to read.

Last year, he and two other teachers in fourth and first grades began using iPods, and this year the program -- called iLearn -- has expanded to 15 classrooms. "They're a great discipline tool," Wisenburg said of the devices, which he is using in his classroom at View Ridge Elementary School in Bremerton. But Wisenburg and other educators say that mobile devices like iPods and touch-screen tablets are much more than that.

While they're far from ubiquitous in classrooms, a growing number of schools are turning to them to try new ways of teaching and get kids excited about lessons.

"They're full-on computers in the hands of kids," Wisenburg said.

It might be too early to say for sure whether mobile technologies help kids learn better; tablets and iPods in the classroom are so new, there are few studies, said Dennis Small, educational technology director at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington state.

"My gut sense is that, as with so many things with technology, if it's being used to support strong instructional practices it can absolutely enhance learning," he said.

Bremerton's program was modeled after one in Escondido, Calif. Both have used iPods to help students read, and both report that students in the programs improve their skills at a faster rate than in other classrooms.

On a recent afternoon, Wisenburg's students recorded themselves reading from a worksheet about animals.

As they played back their recordings, they circled words skipped or mispronounced.

"You get to see the words you miss," explained fourth-grader Austin Curry.

On the back of the worksheet, they wrote down key facts they had learned and started browsing the Internet to find more, eagerly showing Wisenburg photos of their animals.

Though the devices were initially used for reading, kids and teachers went beyond using them as pricey voice recorders and began to find a wide variety of uses.

"It's the most transformative thing I've ever seen in a classroom," said Kathy Shirley, technology director at Escondido Union School District.

As an example, Wisenburg recalled a day when he had an extra 10 minutes in class.

He asked the kids to look up information on an upcoming field trip to the Museum of History and Industry.

"I said: 'We're going to MOHAI. What is it?' Within five minutes, they had what it was and had it mapped on Google Earth," he said. In another five, he had the class finding and adding up costs for the trip.

Critics of programs aimed at putting a mobile device into every student's hand say that in tight budget times, the money spent on technology like iPods and iPads or programs that ensure each child has a computer in school might be better spent on hiring and training good teachers.

But equipping a classroom with iPods is far cheaper than a full set of computers for a classroom.

A set of 30 iPods and a protective cart that allows a teacher to charge and update software on the devices cost about $8,500, said Steve Bartlett, technology supervisor with Bremerton School District. New computers would cost $1,000 apiece, and refurbished ones can be $350 to $500 each (about $10,500 to $15,000 for a set of 30).

And while the district plans to expand the program and find new uses for mobile technologies, they are unlikely to be used in every classroom in every grade, Bartlett said.

"I'm not going to say that iPods are the right tool for every teacher in every classroom," he said. "We struggle all the time with what are the right tools. ... It's really a matter of finding the lowest-cost technology tool that can assist the teachers to be successful with their students."