In the Common Sense Media report, 32 percent of teens said they have searched the internet to find a teacher’s manual or publishers’ solutions to problems in their textbook. While the report characterized that as proof of cheating, this behavior is totally consistent with how today’s students are far ahead of adults in using internet resources to solve problems and gain new knowledge. The real test of competency today is not a regurgitation of data, but how to apply data and information to real-world problems to create new knowledge. While many of our teachers (39 percent, according to Speak Up results) are stuck in a paradigm of using technology primarily for homework and practice, students are already using a wide variety of Web 2.0 tools to create subject-specific podcasts and web sites for personal use as review materials, taking online self-assessments to gauge their own content knowledge, and auditing online classes to further their study in particular subject areas–all without the knowledge of their classroom teachers.

These “free-agent learners” have, to some extent, given up on their school’s ability to prepare them for the world and have stepped up to assume front-line responsibility for their own learning. In a focus group last spring, I learned from students in a science class that they were regularly going online after school to check on the accuracy of what their teacher lectured about in class that day. Their teacher actually encouraged this behavior as a way for her students to gain valuable information and media literacy skills. By the way, those students in that science class were only in sixth grade, and already they were taking responsibility for their own learning process.

From the Speak Up 2008 data from 280,000 K-12 students, we learned that while 88 percent of middle school students (grades 6-8) and 95 percent of high school students say they have a cell phone, only one-quarter of those students have internet access through their cell phone, and the cell phones that many kids are carrying today are either limited in their text or photo capability, or don’t have those capabilities at all, owing to parental or financial constraints. For today’s student, however, that cell phone represents much more than a communications device for chatting or texting with friends about the upcoming dance or latest movie. Increasingly, students are interested in leveraging that “computer in their pocket” for improving their school-life productivity and learning experiences.

For example, one-third of students would like to use a mobile device to communicate with their teacher, record lectures they can listen to later, and share and edit calendars. More than 50 percent of these students want to receive alerts and reminders through their cell phones about homework due dates and upcoming projects, as well as conduct internet research for schoolwork. Fifty-three percent say they would like to have information from their online textbooks downloadable to their cell phones, so they can have ubiquitous access to learning materials–both in and out of school. And students have high aspirations for using those mobile devices for better collaborations with their classmates on school projects. From 2007 to 2008, we noticed, for example, a 46-percent increase in students using their social networking sites for school-project collaborations.

But these are all just dreams for most students, because their schools are still very effectively prohibiting their access to these devices. A third of students say not being able to use their mobile device at school is a major obstacle, and two-thirds say the best way their school could make it easier for them to work electronically on schoolwork would be to allow cell phone usage.

In some schools, teachers and school administrators are taking students’ ideas to heart and thinking about how to leverage these mobile devices effectively within the classroom. Seventy-two percent of principals told us through Speak Up 2008 that they believe incorporating mobile devices into instruction will increase student engagement, and 50 percent say the devices provide opportunities to personalize learning for each student and help students prepare for the world of work. One out of four parents believes that mobile devices can help extend learning beyond the school day. A quarter of teachers want new school policies put in place so they can use mobile devices within their instruction (without violating their school or district policies); only 9 percent of teachers say that cell phones are a distraction and should not be incorporated into classroom activities.