Although smartphones are verboten in many schools, when used properly they may become powerful learning tools. When Qualcomm's Wireless Reach Initiative, an effort aimed at bringing internet access to families that can not afford it, put smartphones into the hands of low-income students, the students' standardized test scores improved — sometimes by as much as 30%.
Peggy Johnson, Qualcomm's president of global market development, believes that the improvement comes because students using smartphones have easier access to information at any time of day or night. They are also able to keep in contact with their classmates and even their teachers, which helps them stay on top of everything that goes on in school.
In an interview with Mashable.com, Johnson noted that even at the time when families are struggling to keep lights on — much less able to afford a PC or a television — initiatives like Wireless Reach are making internet access universal. There are hardly places around in the U.S. that are not covered by one cell phone company or another.
Accessing the Internet from a mobile device is the easiest way — and typically the cheapest — for people living in impoverished areas to connect to the web. Simply having access to information and the ability to easily communicate with others has been shown to provide a better classroom experience for students — and in some cases provide a digital teacher for villages that otherwise wouldn't have one.
Several schools in North Carolina have been recent beneficiaries of Wireless Reach. The students in the schools have chronically underperformed on standardized exams, something that Johnson attributes in part to lack of reliable internet access at home. To fix it, Qualcomm donated money to fund "Project K-Nect," which equipped all ninth graders at the schools with smartphones and data plans free of charge. According to Johnson, after one year, students who got the phones improved their test scores by nearly a third.
Johnson says that providing students with a mobile internet access device like a smartphone could help educators completely redefine the classroom. Allowing kids to be connected throughout the day means that learning can continue long after the school has gone dark.
Since its launch, the program has expanded to eighth though 12th grade students in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.
For these programs, Johnson says Qualcomm will either partner with government agencies, the private sector or local NGOs, but "always with sustainability in mind."