By Pam Derringer
Five years ago, school administrators using smartphones or PDA s to check the status of hallway loiterers or read email under the table during dull staff meetings were the height of cool.
But today, mobile devices are more than cool. Combined with real-time access to sophisticated Web-based data systems, mobile devices are beginning to transform the evaluating of students, teachers, and administrators and edging closer to education’s holy grail: How well are schools teaching kids to learn?
Meanwhile, the tools themselves are becoming progressively lighter. The move from laptop to netbook and then from netbook to iPad has lessened the physical burden of tech tools that administrators must tote from class to class to assess instruction.
“The iPad opens the door for two things: collecting classroom observations and checking off teacher behavior” and gathering from many sources information about an individual student, says Miguel Guhlin, a technology director in the San Antonio region. “With access to real-time student data in the palm of your hand, you can do a lot on the fly.”
Administrators can call up a Google Form checklist to assess how well teachers are using technology, differentiating instruction, or following up on student interventions, Guhlin says. A nd now this information can be stored, analyzed, and aggregated to evaluate performance on an individual, building, or district level. L arger districts too big for their own number crunching can get more-sophisticated analysis through third-party vendors. The downside, though, is that these applications are pricey, averaging a $200 to $300 onetime fee per user, and some vendors charge per student instead of per user.
Another step forward, Guhlin says, is that data can be retrieved wirelessly without plugging into a network. Data are always current, unlike the situation a few years ago, when they were updated only overnight. Now real-time data are uploaded at a district’s data warehouse or a third-party hosted application, such as Eduphoria or Media-X, directly to a handheld device. “Transparency is the goal,” Guhlin says. “We want to support teachers but hold them accountable.”
Debbie Iosso and Jennifer Fano, a principal and an administrator, respectively, with Randolph Township (NJ) Schools, also are converts to the iPad for informal class observations, full teacher appraisals, and collaborating with other administrators. Until this fall the district relied on the BlackBerry and laptops, but the screen on the BlackBerry was too small, and the laptops were too heavy. Using the iPad, administrators can tap teacher ratings directly into a Google Form without any writing, and the information can be emailed to the teacher before administrators leave the classroom and downloaded to a spreadsheet. “The time savings is huge,” Fano says. “This has transformed our ability to get data on every teacher.”
“The iPads are so small and light, they are almost invisible, the batteries last a full school day, and you can really use them on the fly, even for nonteaching tasks, like reporting a cracked window,” Iosso adds. Although they don’t use the iPads as phones, she says that emailing memos and documents is all they really need.
Another mobile device that has quickly won converts in Randolph Township is the 1.5-pound, $69 IPEVO document camera, which administrators use for professional development, staff meetings, and even—thanks to Skype—for videoconferencing with prospective candidates. “It’s just plug and go,” Fano says, referring to the USB port. “It replaces transparencies and displays objects and documents very conveniently.”
Scott Floyd, instructional technologist in the White Oak (TX) ISD , says his district uses Wi-Fi–embedded iPads for phone calls over the district’s VOIP network using the Acrobits application. D istrict administrators also use iPads to do performance evaluations, access student data, and share videos during staff meetings. White Oak previously experimented with HP IPAQ netbooks and Apple iPod touches but liked the iPad the best. “The iPad is faster and has a bigger keyboard and a longer battery life, and rapidly earned its ROI in saved time,” Floyd says.
Smaller districts, like White Oak, according to Guhlin, are often more nimble and open to innovating technology than larger districts, where deployments cost more and more stakeholders weigh in on proposals. As for the future, Guhlin predicts that savvy districts will begin to use mobile devices for community outreach, such as showing residents what the schools are doing by posting photos, videos, and podcasts about events to their Web sites as soon as they occur.
Further down the road, Guhlin anticipates that simple, affordable videoconferencing equipment will enable administrators to converse with one another and/or broadcast on the fly. The challenge, he says, will be supporting all these devices from different vendors.