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Virtual Reality Gives Cellphones a New Purpose in the Classroom

It’s one of the hottest new teaching trends: utilizing past generations of popular smartphones as handheld computers to assist with learning.

Unlocked Cell Phones
As technology has advanced at a rate of speed that can now only be clocked with a stopwatch, personal computing gadgetry has progressively become less expensive, and more accessible, to students across the country. Not so very long ago, it was a rarity to come across a kid who owned a cellphone. Now, the inverse is the case.
Of course, this can only spell trouble for that legion of teachers everywhere whose life’s work has been dominated by the daily battle to keep their students’ cellphones out of their hands. We’ve seen extracurricular suspensions levied as punishment for in-class cellphone use, a myriad of gadgets to deposit the phones under lock and key once the learning starts and policies mandating that only mom or dad can retrieve a confiscated phone. Yet, the struggle continues.
Would it surprise anyone to learn of teachers who are working hard to secure cellphones to get into their students’ hands…? One of the hottest new trends in teaching with technology is utilizing past generations of popular smartphones as handheld computers to assist in conveying teachers’ learning objectives. “They’re like a little Wi-Fi-ready device,” explains Traci Bonde, chief technology officer for the Dublin Unified School District, “and they’ve become really popular. You just think about them the way you’d think about using a cellphone in a classroom, minus it being a cellphone.”
According to Bonde, many school districts are receiving donations of perfectly functioning outmoded phones. Companies will sell “unlocked” phones directly to schools, who then set them up as Wi-Fi ready and use them to achieve some of their learning objectives. “I’ll receive a box of iPhone 4s or iPhone 5s that are not going to be used by our staff anymore,” she says. “They’re ours. Forty-five of them. What are we going to do with them? So now, what a lot of districts are doing is repurposing them for instruction. I’ll give these to a class, and they’ll use them for video capture, imagery capture, as well as stuff with virtual reality.”
An obvious and effective use of these unlocked devices is virtual reality (VR), another cutting-edge trend currently proliferating in America’s most progressive classrooms. In the discussion of the potential for technology to transform how we educate our students in profound and meaningful ways, VR is the proverbial case in point.
With the ability to immerse students in their subject matter, VR establishes an artificial environment where they can explore and interact. Studying the Civil War? Why not take students on a virtual tour of Gettysburg National Military Park? Teach an anatomy class? There are a number of virtual atlases that will allow students to dissect any part of the body they’re studying in larger-than-life scale. 
(Editor’s Note: Educators who are still unsure, or unaware, of the value of VR technology in better engaging students and helping them retain key learning concepts are invited to reference the story of Hunters Lane High School, of the Metropolitan Nashville Public School District, whose six-week experiment to determine student and teacher perceptions of VR-based learning and evaluate the potential for integrating VR effectively into the classroom is documented in a case study published by the Center for Digital Education last year, Cultivating New Levels of Student Engagement through Virtual Reality.)
As amazing and effective as these experiences can be, the technology that enables them is not nearly as out of reach as one might expect. Sturdy cardboard headsets begin at about $5 each. Slip in an unlocked smartphone, which, running an easily downloadable app, provides the VR experience to students who will leave the classroom not only feeling as though they saw the lesson or heard the lesson, but that they actually experienced it in a hands-on manner.
According to Diane Ashby, national education business development manager for Samsung Electronics America, the first thing that must be done to a repurposed cellphone is to take off what’s referred to as bloatware, all the different apps that come with a carrier phone on Wi-Fi that may not be relevant to its new function. The phones then become what is referred to as “containers.” An academic container can have curricula and may have all the student’s information, but it is password protected, so no other student can gain access to its contents. Then, before the phone is redistributed, they have the ability to wipe it clean. But in the interim, no other student has access to that data.
So, does this new trend have a future? Are we about to see cellphones assume the role of the indispensable tool of educators that their larger cousins currently play? Ashby seems to think so.
“I think it’s reached that critical mass where, from the perspective of a functionality and acceptability as it relates to capabilities, it can be an effective classroom device,” she asserts. “It’s a movement that meets students where they are. If you look at what students are walking around with, the one device that they have, the one device that they use for most of their communications and their research — and now they’re starting to pivot to creation on these devices — it’s really a telephone, more than any other platform. So more than tablets, laptops, notebooks, they’re kind of self-contained with their phone. We actually had a superintendent of a Colorado school district recently tell us that the most powerful computer that his students have access to is a cellphone. And he also believes that smartphones should be acceptable in the classroom, as many students are using them not only to consume content, but to create it as well. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement.”