21st Century Sales Pitch

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2009

A study released today shows that using cell phones in math class improves test results. Well, it seems to show improvement.  Skeptics will note the study was financed by cellphone-maker Qualcomm. The New York Times reports it’s an opening salvo in an effort to position cellphones as educational tools.

Some critics already are denouncing the effort as a blatantly self-serving maneuver to break into the big educational market. But proponents of selling cellphones to schools counter that they are simply making the same kind of pitch that the computer industry has been profitably making to educators since the 1980s.

9th and 10th grade math students in four North Carolina schools in low-income neighborhoods were given “smartphones” meant to help them with their algebra studies. “The students used the phones for a variety of tasks, including recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site, where classmates could watch,” the Times reports.  “The study found that students with the phones performed 25 percent better on the end-of-the-year algebra exam than did students without the devices in similar classes.”

“Texting, ringing, vibrating,” the AFT’s Janet Bass tells the Times. “Cellphones so far haven’t been an educational tool. They’ve been a distraction.” She adds that it’s “almost laughable that the cellphone industry is pushing a study showing that cellphones will make kids smarter.”

The issue of business interests in education is thorny and tough to unwind.  The board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for example, has representatives from Intel, HP, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies.  While they are wise to be concerned about the capabilities of their future employees, they may also stand to benefit from building their share of the education market.  The ability to weigh the interests of sources of information, and think critically about their value is, of course, a key 21st Century skill.


  1. My concern is that even if you get a short term bump in engagement because its cool to be able to do cute phone tricks, the novelty will wear off pretty quickly, and the bump will disappear.

    Comment by Rachel — February 17, 2009 @ 11:36 am

  2. I agree, Rachel, and classroom management would be a nightmare. I’ve taught college classes where I had to compete for attention with grad students’ laptops. Competing for my 5th graders’ attention with a cellphone is not a battle I look forward to.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 17, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  3. For the most part I’m a technology skeptic when it comes to education. The one place where, as a parent, I see real benefits, is when it allows students to do things where previously the “reach” of their interest exceeds the “grasp” of their capabilities. It was a huge relief to introduce my daughter to PowerPoint after years of frustration and tears when poster presentations didn’t come out looking as nice in real life as she’d pictured in her head. And I think it’s a real plus that word processing makes it possible to introduce 7th graders to the idea that writing may involve more than 2 drafts.

    Technology is a plus when it allows students and teachers to do something they’d really wanted to do and couldn’t. But the gee-whiz factor of being able to do something new doesn’t last unless there was a real, underlying reason to do it in the first place.

    Comment by Rachel — February 17, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  4. There are much better and more useful technologies that are available that can aid in learning. There are plenty of other devices that can capture video, audio, and transmit data that do not provide the distractions of cell phones. Implementing these in schools would likely pose more challenges to teacher classroom management than benefits from learning. Also, the issue of cell phone loss, theft, and misuse would be much more prevalent, and too much teacher time and energy would be spent dealing with these problems. I think we must be skeptical of a study published by a cell phone company.

    Can anyone suggest ways that a cell phone could practically be implemented and usefully used within a K-12 classroom setting, specifically for math?

    Comment by HTabb — February 17, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  5. I am so tired of the tyranny of technology in education. Ever since I got certified in the early 90′s, schools have been tying themselves into knots trying to get technology into every facet of education. The tail has been wagging the dog. Look at the “professional development” courses offered by your county department of education: I bet it’s all tech courses –as if using tech were the essence of a liberal arts education! (Where are the “How To Organize Your Unit on Islam” courses?) Have our kids become better at math and reading since the tsunami of technology started hitting our schools in the 90′s? No. But billions have been spent purchasing computers, software, and other gadgets (many of which start collecting dust soon after purchase because schools can rarely afford to pay for the tech support they require). And billions of hours of teacher prep time have been squandered straining to squeeze a lecture on to Power Point or get an image on a disk or working out kinks on a spreadsheet –time that would have been more fruitfully spent actually thinking about content and how to deploy the simple, miraculous, reliable, cheap and handy tools we all possess –hand, eye, voice, blackboard –to teach it. Once technology enters the conversation, it, not the subject, becomes the subject. The medium becomes the message. I don’t think American students’ achievement would decline one whit if computers and other high-tech gadgets were completely banished from schools; in fact, I’ll bet education would improve. High tech is not all bad –I was treated to two excellent student Power Point presentations on medieval Europe today, and I’m glad to have this web forum to discuss education –but it’s way oversold and too often steals attention from the core knowledge we’re trying to impart.

    Comment by Ben F — February 19, 2009 @ 12:44 am

  6. I agree with Ben F. My school seems to have lots of technology but little of it is functioning, and what does work often needs additional equipment to support it which the school is lacking. Many schools are so eager to impress with their use of technology in the classroom that they forget to look at the real and long term benefits of technology in students’ education. Until teachers know how to effectively use it in an efficient manner it is of little use to our schools and our students. Schools should take a serious look at the cost-benefit analysis before spending huge sums of their budgets on technology.

    Comment by HTabb — February 26, 2009 @ 11:35 am

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