There is some wonderful work going on these days in making cell phones useful in education. My PhD advisor, Elliot Soloway, is making cellphone applications that improve science learning. Google has announced new tools facilitating the use of Android phones as a classroom programming platform. The question that I've been wondering lately is, "What was wrong with calculators?"
Schools in Georgia start pretty early. We've been in class since the second week of August. So, I've been spending a lot of time in the office supply stores, getting materials for our three children. While they figure out what folders and pens they need, I tend (in my geeky, gadget-interested way) to wander over to the calculators. Have you looked at new calculators lately? They're cheap, programmable, and amazingly powerful. The stuff that Elliot is building into cellphones is already there in calculators! Why not just use calculators?
Because perceptions matter. Everytime I've mentioned this issue to anyone, the first response is always, "Calculators are so nerdy!" Technically, there's nothing wrong with calculators. Economically, a powerful calculator is cheaper than a cellphone (especially with a contract). But that initial response cuts short the discussion. Students tend not to engage in activities that are viewed negatively or that promote a negative label or identity. Perceptions influence behavior.
It's the same problem for our field overall. The ACM/WGBH report on the perception of computing among youth came out over the summer. There's a distinct gender gap in the results. Girls are much less interested in computing than boys. However, there are some real bright points in the report, too. Children are excited about computing as "having the power to create and discover new things." There are perceptions there that we can emphasize, to facilitate students' engagement with computing. We don't have to be the field of pocket protectors and, yes, calculators.