Smart Phones in the Classroom Help At-Risk Students

Published July 23, 2010

Most school districts have a cut-and-dried approach to students with cell phones in school: They ban them. But a pilot program in North Carolina is taking the opposite approach.

Since 2008, Project K-Nect has given free smart phones to 100 at-risk 9th grade students in Durham and Winston-Salem/Forsyth counties. The goal is to boost these students’ performance in math and science. And so far, test scores of students in participating classes have steadily improved.

“The students continued to perform about 30 percent better than those not in the program, based on the end of course exam,” says Kristin Parsley-Atkins, director of Wireless Reach at Qualcomm, which is backing the project. “In some cases they’ve performed 50 percent better.”

Data from the first two phases of Project K-Nect’s “Preliminary Research Findings” corroborate the improved performance: “Four out of the four cohort Project K-Nect Algebra I classes outperformed the other Algebra classes on the NC End of Course Exam for Algebra I.” The results were the same with respect to the classes’ final grades.

‘The Ultimate Learning Device’

Technology consultant Shawn Gross founded Project K-Nect in 2006 after conducting a survey of students focusing on education and technology.

“We were surprised when we asked students what their ultimate learning device would be, and 80 to 85 percent responded they wanted to use a smart phone,” Gross recalled.

“When asked why, most students said their schools made false assumptions about them having Internet access at home,” he explained.

Gross passed the survey results on to a friend, who incorporated some of his questions into the National Speak Up Survey, a poll of 500,000 students. “Lo and behold, the results came up with similar findings,” Gross said. “That was all the justification we needed to draw up a proposal that led to Project K-Nect.”

Enter Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s role in education technology began in 2000, when then-CEO Irvin Jacobs met with President Bill Clinton in North Carolina.

“They hashed out how to bridge the digital divide between different socioeconomic classes, and Jacobs pledged $1 million toward the effort,” said Parsley-Atkins. “We found a great, sustainable plan from Shawn and it took a year to get it set up and implemented for the 2008-2009 school year with about 100 students participating.”

Qualcomm let Project K-Nect develop organically. “In a lot of our pilot programs, we bring together all the partners and have clearly designed goals,” says Parsley-Atkins. “In this program we gave the students the technology and just watched to see what they would do with it.”

“They’ve taken it way beyond what we’d imagined,” she said.

Multimedia Curriculum

The instructional approach Gross put together supplements the “textbook and lecture style from the 20th century classroom” with multimedia and social networking. Students have quickly adapted to their smart phones, he says, creating innovations that teachers have incorporated into their lesson plans.

“Then they saw that students were developing learning communities where they were using their phone at 7:00 or 8:00 o’clock at night, creating videos about how they’re solving problems, working together and really using critical thinking skills,” said Gross. Teachers realized the value of what they were seeing and brought it into the classroom.

Blogging for Grades

Gross describes what a Project K-Nect classroom looks like. Students begin with a series of warm-up exercises before using their phones in a variety of creative ways with curriculum developed by Drexel University’s Math Forum.

“They’re presented with the warm-ups through an LCD projector, and students use their devices like a clicker where they vote on each warm-up,” Gross said. The teacher has a computer and can see how each student responded, giving her a baseline understanding of how students are performing. The rest of the class can see the aggregate response on the projector screen.

The teacher organizes students into teams and assigns a set of problems. Students collaborate on answers, showing their work on a whiteboard while video-recording their work. The videos are uploaded to a closed network of blogs.

“What’s really nice about this approach is that if they run out of time they can continue to work collaboratively through instant messaging and blogging after school hours,” says Gross.

Video Homework

Homework is equally unconventional. “They’re instructed to look at the videos of how the other students went about solving similarly structured problems and comment on them or produce videos of their own way of solving them,” Gross explained.

The benefit of this approach, according to Gross, is it extends the amount of time students focus on mathematics.

“We went from students who averaged 10 minutes a day on math assignments to anywhere from 35 to 60 minutes when given a task associated with Project K-Nect for algebra,” he said. ?
Pentagon Funded Expansion

The program’s early success prompted the Department of Defense to provide a $2.5 million grant to expand Project K-Nect to schools in Onslow County, which has a large population of military families.

“We went from our small pilot of 100 to 150 students to about 2,000 kids who are in the program,” says Parsley-Atkins.

Gross says he wants to broaden Project K-Nect’s scope by partnering with other states and expanding subject areas to include biology, social studies, and language arts.

“We now have enough reliable data to show the program can be implemented in a school system with an at-risk population struggling with mathematics,” said Gross. “We know this is something that can positively impact their achievement.”

Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.