The federal e-Rate program does not discount the cost of the data plan.

While the potential for mobile learning with smart phones or other portable devices is huge, many challenges remain before everywhere, all-the-time learning becomes a reality.

One such challenge is how to police the devices to make certain students are using them only for tasks that have to do with learning and are not accessing inappropriate content.

A simple way to do this is via identity management, says Phil Emer, director of technology planning and policy at The Friday Institute, which is housed within North Carolina State University.

Emer says it’s inevitable that students eventually will be allowed to bring their mobile devices into school, and identity management can help make this happen. Each child should have an account, and any time students use a wireless device, they should be required to log into the school’s wireless network, just as enterprise users do, where they can be monitored. “You can even put it all together on a website for parents,” he says. If a student is doing something inappropriate, either the parent or the school sees it and can put consequences into place.

“People over-interpret CIPA [the Child Internet Protection Act]. They do little or no monitoring, they just filter the whole internet,” Emer says. Instead, he suggests, schools should filter the “clearly unsavory stuff” and leave the rest flexible.

Still, students will always look for ways around security. “It’s almost like an ongoing arms race between students and administrators,” says Michael Flood, education solutions practice manager at AT&T. But there are solutions, such as “middleware” software that AT&T and other companies provide.

In a mobile device environment, “you can force all traffic from mobile devices to route back through the district, so you have some assurance that access is as good as it is on campus. You can also implement a filtering system through the mobile network, through the carrier,” he says. Mobile device management (MDM) software also can help solve the problem. “Some districts require that MDM be installed on any student- or faculty-owned device if they want to use it at school,” Flood says.

He adds that some school leaders look at the issue simply from an “acceptable use” perspective, addressing it purely from a policy standpoint and not a technological one.

That viewpoint is similar to what Eric Williams, superintendent of the York County School Division in Virginia, believes. Dealing with mobile devices in the classroom, he says, is a classroom management issue.

“Teachers have always dealt with classroom management issues like off-task behavior, cheating, and inappropriate materials,” he says. Technology simply offers new versions of these same issues. “They exist separate from technology, and they exist with technology. It’s a challenge for teachers regardless of whether cell phones are allowed in the classroom or not.”

Tom Greaves, founder of education technology consulting firm The Greaves Group and co-author of a study called Project RED, a national effort to analyze what’s working in technology-rich schools, says there are two camps: advocates of “lock and block” solutions, who want to lock everything down and block all inappropriate content, and advocates of giving students some responsibility. The latter camp is gaining in popularity, largely because students will, eventually, have to learn how to use discretion and make smart decisions regarding their online use. Besides, says Greaves, “if a student has done his homework, is finished with what he needs to be doing, and is watching ESPN Sportscenter for five minutes, is that the end of the world? I think the issue is going to resolve itself.”

Another challenge is whether to allow children to bring their own device to school—or whether they should be given school-issued devices. If students bring in their own, there could be equity issues: Some students will have a device, while others may not. And not all devices are created equal.

For now, schools that are encouraging the use of a child’s own device in the classroom for learning purposes are taking a laid-back approach. For example, next school year, the Katy Independent School District, in a suburb of Houston, will allow students to bring their own personal devices; the district is installing public Wi-Fi at every campus.

“Public Wi-Fi does not address the equity issue, of every kid having a device, but it does leverage the personal investment parents have made,” says Lenny Schad, the district’s chief information officer. “If not every student has a device, we have mobile carts, so teachers can supplement that way. [Or,] they can pair up with students who do have a device.”

The York County School Division also allows students to bring in their own devices and use them for instructional purposes. Recently, a middle school forensics science teacher had students taking photos of mock crime scenes using their cell phones. Students sent the photos to the teacher, who displayed them on a screen in the classroom for use in analyzing the crime scenes. When a student doesn’t have a device, he or she simply works with a student who does.

At this point in time, at the high school level, a very high percentage of students do have their own mobile devices, says Schad.

Additionally, Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey indicated that 67 percent of parents said they would be willing to provide their child with a smart phone if the school allowed it to be used for education. That number was pretty stable across urban and rural districts, says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow.

“Parents are thinking of smart phones as different from a laptop. It’s like paying for violin lessons, paying for a field trip or a calculator,” Evans says. “It’s a whole different category.”

In fact, Elliot Soloway, founder and chief executive of GoKnow, an education consultancy, predicts that by 2016, nearly every K-12 student in the U.S. will be using a mobile handheld device as an important part of his or her education. Greaves agrees: “I think the issue of whether it’s a student-owned device or a school-owned device is in migration. I think in five years or so, it will shift to student-owned devices. It’s like calculators: bringing a calculator to school is your own responsibility.”

Pricing is another major hurdle. The devices themselves often are subsidized by wireless providers; second-generation devices can be given or sold cheaply to schools once a new generation of device is released to the market. And besides, the devices are significantly less expensive than PCs or laptops. But the data plans that enable students to access the internet anytime, anywhere—that is, via a 3G or 4G network, allowing students to go online even when they are not connected to the school’s wireless network—can cost as much as $35 per student, per month.

Part of the challenge for schools is that the federal e-Rate program, which provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries, does not discount the cost of the data plan—although there is an e-Rate pilot program for wireless internet services for off-campus student use planned for next year.

Cost might not be an issue for long, Cathie Norris, Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, who works with Soloway, believes. “Eventually, you’ll get to the point where every student will be able to use [his or her] own device” at school, she says—the implication being that parents will be paying for the data plans themselves.