- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A North Carolina-based project that uses cell phones with Internet, word processing and video to make algebra fun for ninth-graders illustrates the promise and challenge of technology in the classroom: Students seem to respond to it, but it’s costly.

Project K-Nect, implemented in January and funded by private organizations, is motivating students to explore algebra, said program director Shawn Gross.

One hundred students in four high schools received “smart phones” that allow teachers to transmit animated algebra problems that resemble video games and let students chat about assignments by creating video blogs or text blogs. Four phones were given to teachers and 10 phones to administrators and program leaders as well.

Program leaders, who still haven’t secured funding for next year, this month petitioned North Carolina state leaders to pitch in. Otherwise, the effort may have to fold.

Mr. Gross said they need $1 million to continue the program and to expand it into 10th-grade geometry in the same four schools.

“It is a serious issue,” Mr. Gross said. “We have funding that will run through the end of the school year, but then we’re going to have to shut down.”

Qualcomm Inc. provided $1 million for the project this year, and the remaining $750,000 came from other businesses and universities, Mr. Gross said. But before they donate more, private groups want to make sure that the school system and state education leaders also will set aside money to fund the effort.

Initial research shows that students use the phones for at least one hour every day to do algebra, feel more apt to explore the subject and are pleased with the simulations and animations on the device, Mr. Gross said.

Vanessa Jeter, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the project is “an exciting opportunity” to explore a new learning tool, but state officials haven’t made any decisions and are waiting for an official project evaluation this summer.

“Early indications are mostly anecdotal but very positive,” she said. “We look forward to the full evaluation to be completed.”

The project targets two schools in Onslow County, one school in the Winston-Salem area and one in Durham County, Mr. Gross said. The first two schools are rural, the latter two are urban, and all have sizable percentages of low-income families, he said.

Technology in the classroom is a hot topic. A big challenge is that it’s costly for schools to buy equipment and make other adjustments, including training teachers to ensure that it’s used effectively, said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

He said states are in a financial pinch, so “I’d be very surprised to see much in the way of increased investment in technology over the next few years.”

Students have enjoyed the smart phones so far. Algernon Bullock, a 14-year-old algebra student in Southern School of Engineering, said using the smart phone to chat with other students and solve algebra problems has helped him understand polynomials.

“It’s like a fun way to learn,” he said.

Affinity for math “runs in the family” of classmate Damon Jones-Way, 15, but Damon said he likes the immediate access to after-hours homework help that the smart phone provides.

“If we can’t figure out what we have to do, we can talk to our teachers or our friends,” he said.

Both Algernon and Damon came up with creative ways to use the phone for homework assignments — Algernon used it to post a video blog that showed him solving an equation and Damon used it to post an audio blog of a rap song he wrote to help him memorize the laws of exponents.

Project K-Nect leaders showed these examples to the North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction this week.

A 2007 technology survey of more than 300,000 students found that more than 50 percent would like to see more educational gaming used in school and want to use smart phones or other hand-held mobile devices to work on school projects and communicate with classmates.

The survey, which included 25,000 teachers and was released April 8, found that educators also are interested in the technology but worry about how to ensure all students have the same equipment.

The “Speak Up” survey — given each year by Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit that supports innovative math, science and technology efforts in education — found that more than 64 percent of K-12 students play online or electronic games outside of school and 67 percent of high schoolers have a personal Web site that they use to e-mail friends.

Currently, students in grades 6 through 12 use technology for the following schoolwork — writing assignments, 74 percent; online research, 72 percent; checking assignments or grades online, 58 percent; creating slideshows or videos, 57 percent; e-mailing or instant messaging students about assignments, 44 percent.

Mr. Gross said new approaches are needed to hook today’s students, who are accustomed to texting, chatting online, finding answers to questions immediately and watching video games.

Many schools ban cell phones, which also can be used to aid learning, he said.

“When they leave the class, students create blogs to talk about the math concepts they’re learning,” he explained. “We wanted to take advantage of social networking technologies … in a closed, protected environment.”

Suzette Kliewer, a math teacher who’s participating in Project K-Nect at Onslow County’s Southwest High School in Jacksonville, said her students are more motivated and love the multimedia algebra problems that she sends to their phones.

“They totally relate to that,” she said.

Students frequently text each other or her after hours withhomework questions and she’s happy to answer. “The amount of discussion that goes on in the evening is tremendous,” she said.

The four participating schools recently held an algebra competition, she added, and Southwest tied with Carver High School, which is in the Winston-Salem area, for the win.

The cell phones used in project K-Nect are referred to as “smart phones” because they’re essentially pocket-sized computers — capable of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, video and Internet. They’re generic models provided by a major cell phone provider, Mr. Gross said.

All video, text blogs and other communication on the phones takes place in a closed circuit, he said, and students aren’t allowed to chat on popular sites like MySpace and Facebook. He said there have been a few incidents of students trying to skirt the firewall to access these popular sites, but this has been rare and leaders haven’t encountered any other serious violations.

Smart-phone use can be tracked any time by teachers, without the students’ knowledge, and the phones come with automatic devices to block inappropriate Web sites, he said. Students are given voice minutes for in-state calls only.

But educators at each school can decide how much control to exert over the phones. For instance, he said, school leaders can disable the phones’ cameras, voice capabilities, Bluetooth, video capability and more. School officials also can completely disable the phones remotely.

The Nation’s Report Card, a national assessment given to a sampling of students nationwide, found that in 2007, 73 percent of North Carolina eighth-graders reached the basic level in math, 34 percent reached proficient and 8 percent reached advanced.

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