Sunday, May 29, 2011

School Leaders as Obstacles to Transforming Schools Using Mobile Devices

“The globalization of information, technological fusion, new strategic alliances, and personal computing power for the masses will transform learning and education in much the same way as it is transforming the way we work and play.”
Ted McCain and Ian Jukes, Windows on the Future
McCain and Jukes penned that statement in 2001, just before the massive influx of Web 2.0 technologies and the proliferation of smart phones and mobile computing devices. They predicted that everyone would have access to personal computing devices. While they might have called those personal computing devices PDAs (personal digital assistants), the were right on target about personal computing devices being in the hands of just about all our students. The cell phones young people carry today are in every way much more sophisticated computing devices than the PDAs that existed ten years. Yet, has access to these devices really transformed learning and education in the manner McCain and Jukes predicted? Regrettably, I think the answer is no.
We have not fully taken advantage of the transformational nature of these devices because of several obstacles that only school leaders can remove.
Below are three obstacles that have prevented the educational leaders from capitalizing on the transformational potential of these devices.
  • Holding on to outdated paradigms of technology’s place in education.  Too many school leaders, from principals to superintendents to state leaders still view technology as a whole as some kind of “add-on” that is expendable. Also, as McCain and Jukes pointed out ten years ago, “For the most part, computers are still being used to reinforce old ways of doing things---we simply have powerful devices  that allow us to work faster and more efficiently.” Since computers were placed en masse into classrooms, education leaders have developed a vision of technology that sees computing devices in the form of desktop machines, and ignores the computing power students carry in their hands. It’s time for school leaders at all levels to embrace all technologies, from desktops to cell phones,  and learn to capitalize on their full potential to transform both teaching and learning.
  • Holding on to outdated beliefs about teaching and learning. Just look at the push for merit pay and accountability movement, and it is easy to see that much of our education policy is still wrapped up in old, outdated beliefs about teaching and learning. Making scores the product you want educators to produce transforms schools into 20th century industrial institutions where the quality of learning doesn’t matter; what matters is only the result. Too many administrators, political leaders, and teachers still view learning as the product of a teacher standing in front of a class directing student learning like a musical conductor. That kind of teaching fits well for 20th century learning, but by adhering so strongly to this belief ignores the fact that students hold in their hands one of most powerful learning devices yet invented, the mobile phone. As long as school administrators believe that learning is something imparted rather than something to be engaged in, they will continue to ignore the potential of mobile devices and hang on to mobile device bans.
  • Fear of giving students access to these devices in school settings. This is perhaps the most irrational obstacle of all. Our news media does an excellent job of reporting all the bad things that can happen when young people use mobile devices. Not a day goes by that some news outlet reports on a cyberbullying incident, or a sexting incident, both somehow tied to the use of mobile devices. These reports add up, giving school leaders the impression that mobile devices are an evil that must be kept out of schools at all costs. This leads to the development of policies banning or severely limiting their use in school. In effect, school leaders toss out the most sophisticated computing device yet, that has the power to transform teaching and learning, all to make themselves feel like they are taking measures to make kids safer. The truth is, it is not making kids safer, and these bans are not really keeping the devices out of schools, nor are they preventing young people from engaging in their use while in school. It is time for school leaders to reassess these bans, and implement policies that encourage students to use the devices and to teach them how to use them effectively and responsibly.


One of the biggest obstacles to capitalizing on the potential of mobile devices is not access, for most students have a cell phone when they do not have adequate health care, or even good clothing. The biggest obstacle to fully taking advantage of the ability of mobile devices to transform learning and education are school leaders and policy-makers themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post! Students DO need to learn how to use mobile devices effectively and responsibly. I think a lot of administrators are fearful of the "bad things" that can happen as you mentioned above. However, these things are already happening in environments where cell phones are banned. It is better to show students how to use mobile devices to enhance their learning and teach them when, where and how mobile device usage is appropriate.

    Last year, my school allowed 10-12th graders to bring mobile computing devices on campus and use them in the classroom if the teacher approved. We created a separate mobile computing device policy which parents and students had to sign, and left the final decision about allowing class usage in the hands of individual teachers. We held our breath and waited for the other shoe to drop...but it never did. The policy is being expanded down to 6th grade for next year.

    I would encourage administrators who have concerns to pilot a BYOD program with a small number of students like we did.