Mobile devices are now found in the hands of most children, and school leaders are using that to their advantage by incorporating devices that students already own into classroom lessons and projects.
Concerns remain about students who are unable to purchase or borrow a device for use in the classroom, but districts might find creative ways—such as asking local businesses or community organizations for help—to provide devices in such instances, advocates of the trend say.
With access issues in mind, allowing students to bring their own devices from home can offer educational benefits, as well as some surprisingly positive results when it comes to creative thinking and classroom behavior.
While there has not been a large amount of research on mobile learning devices in the classroom, research on one-to-one computing  is a type of presage to some of the current research on mobile technology, said Richard Hezel of Hezel Associates , during an International Association for K-12 Online Learning  (iNACOL) webinar that focused on mobile learning.
Studies of Maine’s one-to-one laptop program, for instance, revealed that laptops were used for math and science, organizing and sharing information, and playing educational games.
“In Maine, findings indicate that teacher knowledge and practices and use of technology increased,” Hezel said. Math and reading scores increased, and all involved learned lessons about technology, learning, and assessment.
“The studies give a sense of what happened when students had a device that they controlled in the classroom and could carry around with them. … We’re beginning to get some understanding of how students use technology,” Hezel said.
It is especially important to understand how students use mobile devices for learning, and how educators can encourage that use, so that technology is not incorporated without a positive impact.
“One thing that we’re always going to come back to is that technology is just a tool—it may help to amplify learning, but it’s not the panacea, and we’re always making statements about the appropriateness of technology,” Hezel said.
Research-based benefits of one-to-one mobile learning initiatives might include:
- Improvements in attendance and discipline
- Broader array of learning resources and experiences
- Increased frequency and quality of supportive individual and group interactions
- Improvements in student and parent attitudes toward the school
- Increases in student achievement
U.S. Department of Education (ED) data from May 2010 indicate that about half of all public schools in the U.S. are giving handheld devices to administrators, teachers, or students.
But most of those handheld devices go to administrators, Hezel said. “A few teachers get mobile phones, and very few schools actually give those mobile devices to the students,” he added.
Still, a growing percentage of students with cell phones or smart phones makes it possible for teachers to incorporate mobile devices in their classrooms without targeted device donations or distributions. April 2010 data from the Pew Research Center indicated that 75 percent of students ages 12-17 own a cell phone or a smart phone.
“How do mobile devices change the scene for all of us?” asked Rick Angelone, a board member with the Catholic Schools K12 Virtual . “We’re looking to the students to drive that process, because they have the tools, and it will cost districts less if parents are buying the hardware.”
Angelone said some challenges that surround incorporating mobile devices into classrooms include the speed with which technology changes and ways in which educators might differentiate between what is good for teaching and learning and what is simply technology for technology’s sake.
And while some are concerned about how much time students spend on task with internet-enabled devices that offer potential distractions, Angelone said it is not a huge issue.
“The novelty wears off and they move from using Facebook” to using the device for academic purposes, he said. “Smartphones really are becoming the resource tool and the communication tool of the future,” and networks such as Facebook have grown because more students have access to social learning, collaboration, and immediate gratification.
Virtual learning and the availability of digital content have changed to offer more methods of student engagement, increased customization of learning objects, open resources, and personalized education, Angelone said.
Forsyth County Schools  in Georgia embarked on a “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) initiative that includes seven schools and 40 teachers. Teachers received face-to-face and web-based professional development that included modeled examples of what BYOT activities might look like in a classroom.
Managing a classroom when students bring different devices can be a challenge, said Jill Hobson, the district’s instructional technology director. The district’s IT team boosted its wireless access points to support the pilot, and it maintains a separate wireless network for students to avoid placing students on the same network as administrators accessing sensitive student information, such as that contained in a student information system.
No one was required to adopt BYOT for their schools, said instructional technology specialist Tim Clark, but as word spread “it took off in a viral fashion among our school leadership and among our community.”
Clark said anecdotal evidence indicates that theft and discipline issues regarding technology have gone down. Devices include iPads, netbooks, laptops, and gaming devices.
“BYOT isn’t about the devices themselves—kids bring in a variety of technology—it’s about creating constructive change in teaching practices,” Clark said. “Just like kids bring pencils to school … they bring their technology to help them whenever it’s appropriate.”
“Students become information producers rather than information consumers,” Hobson said. “They’re engaged in higher-order thinking.”
Instead of wondering what students can do with their devices, Hobson said district educators ask students to create or brainstorm ways they might use their devices for learning purposes.
IT operations aren’t burdened with a BYOT initiative because students handle maintenance and updates for their own devices, Clark said.
The district started a small iPod Touch initiative with 10 devices in three classrooms. “Although they’re great, and the kids love them, it’s very difficult for us to manage synching and all the technical aspects,” he said. “It’s easier when kids bring their own devices.”
Virtual Virginia , the Virginia Department of Education’s official online course provider, is running an iPad pilot  through its “Beyond Textbooks” initiative. Students use a custom app to learn about the historic Jamestown settlement and supplement that digital content with face-to-face instruction.
Virtual Virginia also operates a pilot in which an Advanced Placement (AP) biology textbook is delivered entirely through student-owned iPads.
Tara Farr, an AP biology and environmental science instructor with Virtual Virginia, said one-fourth to one-third of her AP biology students enrolled in the iPad program, which is in a pilot phase this year. Students who registered for a full year of AP biology chose whether they wanted to use a textbook, or whether they wanted to buy the app for their iPads.
Farr said the app offers portability in addition to note-taking and social sharing features, and that students “don’t want to carry those backpacks with 50 pounds of books in them.”
As an instructor, Farr is able to see what her iPad students highlight and focus on, and is better able to communicate with them through the social sharing feature.
A final assessment comparing the iPad biology app with students who used the traditional textbook will be conducted at the end of the school year.