By Andrew Deck
Schools across the country have been integrating mobile devices into their curriculum in an attempt to modify their analog lesson plans for classrooms full of digital natives.
In the high school classrooms of Henrico County Public Schools, just outside of Richmond, Virginia, students have their own laptops. And in kindergarten and first grade, students are on tablets. These devices appeal to a generation that has grown up glued to computers, tablets and smartphones.
But merely handing out devices doesn’t guarantee a meaningful educational experience.
“Education technology is not like fire,” said Chris Dede, a professor who specializes in education and technology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “You can benefit from standing near a fire; you can’t benefit from just the presence of a mobile device.”
Mobile devices are the “delivery mechanism, not the innovation,” he added.
Henrico’s tablet and one-to-one laptop programs are part of a larger districtwide initiative that aims to provide access to mobile devices for all students. In 2013, the county renewed its laptop contract with Dell because of its service model, pricing and more universal platform. And like many other districts, Henrico continues to look for funds to expand its mobile device programs in the near future.
According to a report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 71 percent of teachers say they use laptops in their classroom to complete assignments, and 43 percent say their students use tablets for schoolwork.
Widespread adoption of mobile devices is for good reason, as the benefits of mobile devices in the classroom are numerous.
Ensuring students leave school with strong technological literacy is one of the leading reasons.
“It ensures that our students have the right tools in the toolkit to be 21st century learners,” said Brian Maddox, director of technology at the Henrico school district. “It also allows us to break the digital divide, the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Everyone in our schools has access to the same technology.”
However, given the ubiquity of mobile devices in classrooms, successful integration often requires foresight and planning on the part of district and IT administrators.
Prepping your network for mobile tech
Strong connectivity is central to the educational experience of students on mobile devices and a challenge when a significant increase in devices puts stress on a network.
“From the time our students file in every morning to when they leave, we’re filled to capacity,” said Deborah Roethke, assistant director of instructional technology at Henrico schools.
Efforts to maintain Wi-Fi connectivity are further challenged by the shift to cloud-based software.
“These days we are rarely installing,” Maddox said. “Instead, everything is going through the cloud and Web-based applications. This is very bandwidth-intensive.”
Henrico has continually expanded its network to keep up with increasing bandwidth usage.
“We try to get ahead of the issue by increasing our bandwidth pipes in our schools and at our main data center,” Maddox added. “We have to be able to continually scale our network environment.”
In addition to expanding Wi-Fi access points and bandwidth, devices equipped with dual-band network cards offer the opportunity for heightened network performance. This increased speed ensures classrooms can take full advantage of the technology at their disposal.
But the necessary preparation goes beyond ensuring full wireless bars for student users.
The value of mobility management software
With the increased use of mobile devices comes a need for strong management tools, such as Dell Enterprise Mobility Management. Management software like this is key to any comprehensive IT infrastructure.
For school administrators, mobility management software ensures that students are not accessing inappropriate material or encountering potential security risks, such as malware.
“There are 30,000 of them, and 20 of us so it’s a constant struggle,” said Anthony Patterson, IT project leader for client services at Henrico schools.
With mobile management software, the district can use website filtering and monitor applications being used on mobile devices, he added.
The tools also facilitate implementing security patches and upgrades.
“We can make sure devices are up to date and current with security software,” Maddox said. “And in the summertime when we are trying to reissue 30,000 devices for the new school year, that process needs to be efficient.”
In tandem, Wi-Fi connectivity and mobility management software are vital to ensuring your district network is prepared for the integration of mobile devices.
But while tech infrastructure is essential to prepping your network for mobile devices, it is not the last step. Once you’ve established the IT groundwork for education technology, you must educate your teachers on how to effectively use it.
“There is a long history in education technology of falsely thinking some piece of tech is the magic device,” Dede said. “But if you have an interesting device, you still need to make sure you’re using it in an interesting way.”