During a session at the Consortium for School Networking’s 13th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in Arlington, Va., on March 10, panelists discussed whether cell phones present an opportunity—or a distraction—for schools. And conference attendees learned that schools in at least one state, North Carolina, have embraced cell phones as tools for instruction.

The argument over whether cell phones should be banned from classrooms “is an intense one, and it’s one that’s going to be brought up more and more, as more students use cell phones to communicate,” said Sheryl Abshire, CoSN board chair.

Abshire gave an example of one school that experienced a cell-phone crisis. Several students started using their cell-phone cameras to shoot pictures in the locker room and then post those pictures on social-networking web sites. Because of the outrage of one parent and a few “older board members,” as Abshire put it, “a restrictive policy was put into place that experienced a massive backlash. So the policy was revised to [allow] students … to carry cell phones, but they must not use them in locker rooms or in the hallways.”

On the other end of the spectrum, four high schools from three districts in North Carolina (chosen for their high-speed broadband access, their composition of at-risk students, and because they were willing to take on the project) are part of a pilot project to include smart phones in every classroom. The project is called K-Nect.

Sponsors include QualComm, Digital Millennial Consulting, Microsoft, and Adobe, to name a few.

“We received one million dollars in funding,” explained Frances Bradburn, former director of the instructional technology division of North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. “I know a lot of you think you could have put one million dollars to better use, but let me explain why we did this.”

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are more people now using cell phones than not using them—and Americans have become more dependent on their cell phones than conventional phones. The ubiquity of this technology, coupled with recent advancements in cell-phone technology and the units’ comparatively low price, make cell phones intriguing instructional devices, panelists said.

“Five years ago I visited Asia and saw a little boy on the subway,” said Abshire. “I thought he was playing a game, because he was moving his fingers around so fast and barely looking at what he was typing. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, ‘Talking to my brother at home.’ I asked him how old he was, and he replied, ‘Six years old.’ I looked around, and every young child to adult had a cell phone. And this was five years ago!”

For Bradburn, the decision to pilot a cell-phone program was a strategic one. North Carolina has a high dropout rate, and the thinking was that perhaps students, who like to use cell phones, might be motivated to stay in school.

North Carolina also has a large digital divide, with many students who do not have internet access at home, Bradburn said. Yet, these students still manage to have a cell phone—a device that could be used for one-to-one learning.

“Our goals were to create a 21st-century, tech-literate environment, help students with math concepts, and, of course, raise test scores. We also imagined that we could test the efficiency and viability of cell phones in education, as well as get kids thinking about STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers in the long run,” said Bradburn.

The phones used in these four North Carolina high schools are made by Microsoft and have all basic office applications included. Students are using the phones to calculate Algebra 1 equations, create videos to post on blogs for other students to observe while solving math problems, and receive answers to blog posts.

Every phone, which Microsoft calls a pocket-PC, is based on a Wi-Fi platform, and students’ internet access is regulated by the school and a CIPA-compliant filter. Students can talk only during certain school-regulated hours, they can only access the camera function during school-proposed hours, and all conversation and activity can be monitored both by the students’ teacher and a general filter.

“Kids are beginning to talk math with these smart phones. No one’s ever treated them like they’re special and deserve this. They love it,” gushed Bradburn.

One story she told involves a boy from one of the three high schools. He was sick for most of the school year and in the hospital. His mother said the only thing that kept him going was that he could use his smart phone to communicate with his peers in class and keep up with his homework, which was posted on the web for him.

“He got through it because of this phone, because he was interested,” said his mother during a screened video.

“So far, we’ve seen higher engagement levels and no results of abuse,” said Bradburn.

When asked where the pilot will go from here, Bradburn explained that she hopes student test scores will improve, that this will inspire another one million in funding, and that the students who have their smart phones now will be able to retain them next year in geometry.