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I Spy: What's Happening on All Those Student Devices?

The race is on to develop classroom management software
that works across student devices.

Lisa Carrigan, a program coordinator and health science teacher in Rock Hill, South Carolina, uses classroom management software to make sure her students stay on task in the computer lab. “I can glance at my screen and see who’s looking for prom shoes or prom ­dresses, and I can close down that window from my computer,” she says. “They’ll turn around and look at me, and they’ll go back to what they’re supposed to be doing.”

But what if students are checking out those same prom dresses on their smartphones? “I’m out of luck,” Carrigan says. It’s a familiar conundrum. As schools have embraced bring-your-own-device programs that allow students to use their Internet-connected phones and tablets to aid their learning during the school day, kids have inevitably seized the opportunity to covertly check out sports scores and post photos to Instagram. Carrigan says she has caught students texting under their jackets, beneath strategically placed hats, and even within their pockets. It would be helpful, she says, if there was a way for her to monitor students’ phone screens the same way she monitors their desktop computers.

In fact, there is. Sort of. Vendors like NetSupport, AirWatch, and Stoneware have developed products to help ­teachers manage devices that students bring to school, but these products still lag behind desktop classroom management software in features and capabilities.

Syncing Devices With Software
Netsupport’s software can provide teachers with a real-time thumbnail of students’ Android device screens, but it can’t do the same for Apple devices—a result of the limited access to its operating system that Apple provides third-party developers.

For NetSupport School—the company’s classroom management system—to work, students have to download an app to their devices. On Android devices, teachers can prevent students from closing out the app and, say, playing Angry Birds, but there’s nothing to prevent students from doing that on Apple devices.

With Stoneware’s LanSchool app, teachers can’t see a real-time thumbnail for either Android or Apple devices. However, they do see an icon for whatever app students are running on their Android devices, so when students are playing games, teachers know about it. If a student using an Apple device closes out of LanSchool, the ­teacher can’t see what app the student has launched but does see that the device is “not ­responding.”

Products from both companies allow teachers to see the remaining battery life on kids’ devices, receive questions from students, and share their own screens with the class. A number of other features, including the ability to lock students’ screens, vary from company to company and from device to device.

Marcus Kingsley, chief executive officer of NetSupport, says administrators’ concerns about kids misusing their ­devices created an immediate demand for software that would work with BYOD programs. “They certainly were worried,” he says. “Everybody jumped on the bandwagon and thought, ‘We have to have [BYOD],’ but then they thought, 'What are we going to do now that we have it?'"

Kingsley cautions that it’s important for administrators to understand the limitations of mobile devices when compared with desktop computers. “We knew the business was going BYOD, so we would have reacted and gotten that in place as quickly as we could [if all device makers had allowed NetSupport full access to their operating systems]. You can’t expect to have a comparable ­functionality that you have with [laptops and desktops].”

As of now, Kingsley says, only about five percent of NetSupport’s customers are using the mobile software, but he expects that number to grow. He hopes that software for mobile devices will catch up to classroom management systems for desktops, but that depends on how much access device makers give to developers. “It will change very quickly,” Kingsley says, “and we hope it will continue to be more accessible.”

Stories From the Front Lines
John Alawneh, Chief Information Officer for Katy Independent School District in Texas, would like teachers in his district to be able to monitor what’s happening on students’ screens. But because of its limitations, he hasn’t purchased mobile classroom management software yet. “This is the next big thing for us,” he says. “What we’re looking for is the ability of the teacher to monitor anything that’s going on on that device, and also to be able to push an app to the device, or to assign homework and push the content to the devices.”

In the absence of that ability, ­teachers in Alawneh’s district rely on old-­fashioned classroom management techniques to make sure kids are using their devices properly—physically checking students’ screens and doling out warnings and punishments as needed.

Drew Lane, director of technology for Derby Public Schools in Kansas, says his district will soon use classroom management software for its school-owned mobile devices. He wonders, however, whether mobile devices will ultimately present any more of a classroom management issue than students passing notes or whispering to one another.

“You’re always going to have those two or three students who want to be off task,” Lane says. “But over time, as some of the novelty wears off and the technology becomes integrated in the classroom, I think the management systems will become less important.”

“I’m not saying we’re going to come to a time when these systems aren’t ­needed,” he clarifies. “But right now, there’s this drive that they’re essential. I’m not sure that will be the case in the future.”

NetSupport’s Kingsley is more skeptical. He laughs at the notion that students will studiously ignore text messages and social-media updates from their friends and simply put their devices down when the ­teacher is talking. “Have you been in a classroom?” he asks. “If only the kids would do that.”

“The level of temptation, whether it’s Facebook status updates or chatting with other students, there will always be students doing that,” Kingsley adds. “If you tell them to go to a particular website, how do you know all 30 kids are on that website? You don’t, unless you get up and walk around and check, and then you’ve just wasted 10 minutes of class time. The whole point of this software is to free up time for teachers to do what they do best, which is to teach.”

Also, Kingsley notes, classroom management software isn’t just a policing tool but a teaching tool as well. “It’s not about locking down little Jimmy so he can’t do his Facebook update. That’s part of it. But the bigger part is, how do you encourage greater student engagement, how do you encourage greater peer-to-peer assessment? You need tools. You can’t just expect teachers, on their own, faced with this new plethora of technol­ogy, to be able to get the maximum return from it.”

Carrigan, the South Carolina ­teacher and program coordinator, says that without technology to help her monitor students’ screens during, for example, exams—when she has students turn off their devices and place them facedown—she has to continually enforce boundaries once the test is over and the phones buzz back to life. “I have to remind them a lot, because their phones are attached to them,” she says. “That’s a constant ­battle."

Summer 2014—

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