22 02 2010

Over the last week or so, I’ve been keeping up with the story of the US school that activated the webcam on a student’s Macbook while the student was at home, and took photographs to allege that the student was handling drugs (which the student asserts were actually candies).

In the half a decade I’ve been involved with mobile learning, the issue of student ettiquette in classrooms and schools has surfaced frequently. It is sometimes asserted, for example, that mobile phones and other portable digital devices are “intrusive” in classrooms; and they are cited as being problematic when it comes to the recording of playground fights and bullying, or to secretly record peers and teachers inappropriately.  While these issues concerning student use of mobile, portable, and ubiquitous devices are frequently discussed, the inverse responsibilities of schools and teachers are rarely, if ever, discussed.

Students at work on their laptops.

Students at work on their laptops.

But these issues now need to be properly addressed.  This incident will almost certainly whip up fear in educational communities worldwide – particularly amongst students and their families.  Many educational institutions have long-standing “student policies” on the use of mobile devices on campus; but almost none would have public policies on how mobile devices may be used by organisations when the student leaves the campus.

Turning on webcams when students and their families have a reasonable expecation of privacy is just one way mobile devices might be abused by educational organisations.  Unsolicited or overly frequent instant or SMS messaging, GPS tracking, or content/communications monitoring are amongst other issues that may need to be addressed in the wake of this incident.

The internal enforcement of policy would be another issue to address.  The school being sued for this particular incident has claimed that these laptop webcams were only used to try to retrieve lost or stolen laptops, could only be accessed by two personnel, and they were activated exactly 42 times, ever.  But none of that explains how someone else gained access to a laptop that was NOT stolen or lost, used said device to watch a student’s activities, and ultimately decided to take photos of those activities to confront the student.

I’m concerned that unless public mobile technology policies are put into place and enforced, this incident will have a chilling effect on the growth of mobile learning.  Students and families will be suspicious of institution-issued or -accessed devices, and from educational institutions will be afraid of issuing said devices due to resistance and/or being accused of inappropriate use of these devices.  In the words of this article on Arstechnica:

“School-issued laptops are becoming more and more common these days, but thanks to the action of one high school, students and parents might have second thoughts about bringing them home.”

That would be a terrible shame.   This school may have a lot to answer for for the damage they’ve done to the reputation and advancement of mobile learning.

This Edu-Netbook *might* be the best yet.

17 02 2010

The Mirus Schoolbook Convertible looks like it’s a decent step forward in the design of a low-cost mobile computing device for education.

Mirus Schoolmate convertible netbook/tablet: designed for learning.

Mirus Schoolmate convertible netbook/tablet: designed for learning.

It’s a step up from existing netbooks and even the OLPC because it features a convertible design – the screen can be swivelled and locked flat so that it turns into a “tablet” computer, which responds to both the built-in stylus and to finger touch (like an iPhone).

The finger-responsive touch screen is particularly useful in an educational tablet computer because of the device’s utility as an ebook reader.  Nobody wants to be holding a stylus to turn pages while reading an ebook, and this innovation allows stylus-free ebook reading.  However, a fully finger-based design (like an iPad or iPhone) wouldn’t be optimal: the stylus is much better than a finger for more precise tasks such as drawing accurate diagrams or writing handwritten notes.  And while I’m listing features that make this device better than Apple’s upcoming iPad for education, I should also mention that this device has a built in webcam (the iPad will not). 🙂

The design also features a liquid-resistant design just in case there’s an occasional spill or run through the rain – scenarios that are possible (or probable!) in a classroom, school yard, or school bag.

Like most netbooks, however, this device doesn’t have a massive amount of processing power or hard drive space; but it doesn’t really need it for the tasks it would most commonly be used for: accessing web-based activities and resources, working on homework or assignments, reading ebooks and basic communications and connectivity.  Indeed, having reduced processing power means it’s far less likely to be used for playing the latest computer games rather than used as a learning tool.

After analysing the product features and reviews of it that are sprinkled across the web, I suspect that this device could be better in a classroom than any edu-netbook I’ve previously seen.  The one specification that could probably do with improvement is the 5.5 hour claimed battery life.  Some netbooks are now obtaining usable durations of 8-10 hours, and this would allow it to be used for a whole day without requiring a charge.

All in all though, this is a most capably specified  device – so much so that I’m considering buying one myself to try out more rigorously.