Monday, September 29, 2008

Thinking Outside the Ban Pays Off - NYC DOE’s Million Project Explores and Finds Educational Value of Cell Phones (Then abandons the project)

When I began writing this post, the headline was, “Thinking Outside the Ban Pays Off - NYC DOE’s Million Project Explores Educational Value of Cell Phones.” That was before a phone call from a reporter on Friday asking for my help with a story she was interested in doing about using 21st Century tools in education. After our call, it is clear that the headline needed updating to include the addendum (then abandons the project), but you’ll need to make your way to the end of this post to discover why.

During the call she asked whatever happened after the stories ran about using cell phones in education. I shared that I was encouraged because following the NY Sun article Despite School Cell Phone Ban, Course Sees Them as Aid that I was featured in expressing my belief that cells have education potential, I was contacted by the DOE’s Equality Office who shared that they would like to speak to me regarding one of their projects, called the Million which provides students with free cell phones and enables them to earn minutes and text messages through achievement in schools.

While I share the publicly-acknowledged disconnect (pun intended) about the NYC DOE having a cell phone program for kids despite them being banned in schools, I welcomed the opportunity to promote the use of technology for educational gain. After speaking with the office I learned they were minimizing the disconnect, because what they were actually researching was ways to use cell phones to engage middle school students in academic content "outside" of the regular school day.

As an enthusiastic advocate of schools investigating the use of technology as an educational tool I was excited about the decision to investigate using the technology most kids already have…cell phones. It also seemed like a potentially natural progression into the future. Once teachers, administrators and students begin acknowledging, using, and becoming comfortable with technologies such as cells for educational value outside of schools, eventually they may be able to transfer these ideas within school walls. As District Administration’s recently reported, “Now is the time that schools should purchase mobile computers. But in the near future, students will bring their own mobile computers to school-smart cell phones. Cell phones or cell phone use is banned from many school districts now, but savvy administrators will realize they can avoid buying computers since the students' own devices will be sufficient for most learning tasks.”

As a result, I did quite a bit of work this summer to support the Equality Office’s investigation into determining the educational of cell phones including setting up focus groups, developing and distributing student and teachers surveys, and connecting the office to industry leaders including Liz Kolb, Marc Prensky, Will Richardson, and Shawn Gross and others. Each of us devoted time to this project as we were thrilled to learn that the NYC DOE was involved in a program that was dedicating time to research and recognize the educational value of technology.

This was exciting work and this group of individuals came up with various recommendations for using cell phones in education including:

At the end of the summer I received a nice email from the office stating:

I wanted to thank you once again for all of your help. You really played a vital role in every step. Thank you. I also thought you might be interested to hear some of my conclusions. I found that teachers are skeptical, but excited about the possibility of utilizing cell phones to engage student learning. I also found that if a cell phone initiative is implemented well, it will focus less on providing content to students and more on providing opportunities for students to create and share their own content. As such, I recommended that we pursue a gradual approach that consistently phases in greater student control. But first, we must sit down and talk to students to find out what they really want and then work with teachers to recruit a pilot cohort and get them the proper training.

It seemed all this dedication paid off for what appeared to be a promising educational technology program at the NYC DOE. But things were not quite what they seemed.

NYC DOE’s Million Project Discovers Educational Value Cell Phones – Then Disappears

After sharing my excitement about the direction and future of the NYC DOE’s program the reporter hesitantly shared that there was just a story in the NY Times about the demise of the program due to lack of funding.


I was on my way out for a date that evening, so I didn’t have the opportunity to investigate what she said. I tried text messaging Cha Cha on the way to my date to find out if this was true. I asked Cha Cha, "Is Roland Fryer's Million project for NYC Schools occuring this year?" My Cha Cha guide said, “So far there is no mention of Roland Fryer doing it again this year.” Hmmm, this would definitely need further digging…. When I got home, here’s what I found.

While the program had come out like a lion roaring as recently as this summer in a press release where the School Chancellor hailed the campaign as a bold idea to re-brand achievement and motivate students…it has gently faded away right under our noses.

Just a few days ago, on September 25th the NY Times reported Dr. Roland Fryer, the guy behind the program has, “quit his part-time post as chief equality officer of the New York City public schools to lead a $44 million effort, called the Educational Innovation Laboratory, to bring the rigor of research and development to education.” Further down in the article they report, “A separate Fryer initiative, which rewarded New York middle school students with cellphone minutes for academic performance and classroom behavior, was discontinued because the city did not raise enough money from private donors to pay for it this fall.” However, he said he hoped that the cellphone idea would gain traction in other cities.

Wait? They couldn’t get donors to pay for this incentive program, but Fryer is starting a $44 million dollar effort with $6 million handed up front by Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation?

And, in the same article they report, “New York schools plan to continue Dr. Fryer’s experiment of paying students in the fourth and seventh grades up to $500 a year for doing well on reading and math tests” even though as the article goes onto say, “Conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of this program has been scant, and Dr. Fryer said officials are still examining the data on last year’s cash incentives.

So, it seems NY Schools are funding a program without conclusive evidence about it’s effectiveness, but are not continuing the Million program despite the Chancellor’s recognition that with the Million program, we have seen encouraging results, including: The Million pilot achieved a high degree of engagement among students and their families during its first months of operation. More than 85% of eligible students opted to participate, and the impact of the program can be observed in preliminary data from student and parent surveys administered in late May 2008:

  • 65% of parents said their children are doing better in school since the start of the program;
  • More than 75% of Million students said the program impacted their schools in at least one of the following ways:
    1) Students are working harder; 2) Students are “more competitive in a good way”; 3) Students and teachers interact with each other more;
  • Over three-quarters of parents noted at least one of the following changes in their child since the start of the Million program:
    1) Spends more time doing homework; 2) Gets more excited about certain classes; 3) Receives higher grades and/or better progress reports; and 4) Studies more with friends.

Educational Value Cell Phones Can Be Realized without Million Program Funding

Let's hope that at some point the NYC DOE puts the recommendations from staff and leading experts to use. Using cell phones is a smart idea and it doesn't require the level of funding that a program paying kids to do well on tests requires. Students already have access to cell phones. They don’t need the NYC DOE to buy them. Let's teach teachers how their students can use the phones they or their parents have as motivational educational tools. While we’re at it, how about partnering with Google and other companies that have cell phone app downloads to get free incentives, contests, rewards and programs for kids who do well in school.

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