DIY Classroom Research Station Using Cheap Cell Phones

posted Sep 25, 2014, 11:22 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Sep 25, 2014, 12:42 PM ]
Computer/Internet access is very limited in my school. We, after literally years of begging, finally got one single 36 station computer lab set up in the library. It is often booked, has technical issues and all around is not a great solution. I had two computers in my actual classroom - one of which is my own personal laptop. I've tried for years to find a solution to my lack of access problem. 

First, I got a couple Netbooks back when they were popular. They worked fairly well but they just didn't have the battery life to be an effective solution. I would have needed 9 of them realistically so each group in my class could have reasonable access. Though they weren't super expensive (about $220) I didn't want to go all-in and buy them if they weren't a perfect solution. I then tried iPods and those worked pretty well. They are, or were, basically iPhones without phone/text access. The problem was trying to justify the expenditure. They too were expensive and convincing higher ups that I wanted them as research devices got me nowhere.

So, last year I decided I'd just get a bunch of cheap tablets. They can be found as low as $60 for a functional model. I found that these low end models often suffered from poor battery life and system freezes. A good option but ultimately I'd be better off with the $100+ ones. I was ready for it, but then I found a topic on Reddit explaining how you can do almost everything on a cell phone without a contract. With the very low cost of cell phones these days I figured I'd look into it. My first two have come in and I'm extremely excited.

I spent $17 for one of the phones and $25 + tax for the other. I got a Nokia Lumia 520 from MetroPCS and an LG Optimus Zone 2 from Verizon (via a sale at Best Buy). I figured, even if they don't work as planned I can resell them and ultimately only be out a few bucks. The good news is, they work exactly as I'd hoped.

The Nokia is easily the better device (though it is often around $50) and I wish I had bought 10 of them. It runs Windows Phone 8 and requires no activation of any kind. It came pre-charged. I took it out of the box, put in the battery, turned it on, put in my WiFi password and just like that I was online. I was able to easily remove the extra apps that I didn't want my kids to mess with. I set up a new Microsoft account and downloaded a dictionary and wikipedia app that I put on the homescreen. When the phone comes on the kid only see Internet, Camera, Wikipedia and Dictionary. It is a beautiful and simple interface that kids will instantly understand. The screen is nicely sized (larger than all but the most recent iPhone) and the camera is great quality. I haven't tested the battery yet but with cell service turned off I should easily get a full day of use out of it between charges if not two.  My only difficulty with the phone is reconnecting it to the WiFi when necessary. Unlike Android and iOS there doesn't seem to be an easy way to see system tools and notifications on the Windows Phone home screen. I have to go into the settings app to reconnect which is an extra step. 

The LG was a bit more work to set up. It runs Android so it has access to all the typical Google services (like drive, the play store and gmail) which is nice but getting there was rough. Since it was a Verizon device they didn't want to make it easy for me to use without activating with them (and thus giving them a credit card number.) I had to go online to find a workaround (which I did). I just went to youtube and searched "Bypass LG Activation" and a wonderful tutorial popped up. It required 4 button presses and I was in. (For reference it is Volume Up, volume down, back button, menu button.)

The phone then works like any Android device. The screen is smaller than the Nokia and the camera is pretty awful (which is my experience with most Android phones) but it works. My biggest complaint is all the extra Verizon apps that I can't seem to remove. I can sort of hide them by making an extra page of icons and moving them but there doesn't seem to be a way to remove them entirely. Still the phone works well and quickly so if that were my only option at $25 I wouldn't complain. 

The other nice thing is that both phones (and basically every non-iPhone) use the same charger. I can just set up a surge protector with a bunch of chargers plugged in and not concern myself with which phones into which charger. 

For under $200 with the right shopping I can put a powerful Internet device into each of my groups. I can use the phones for research, for recording video, for apps and even as classroom response devices. I never have to give my credit card to anyone. The kids are already familiar with how to use them and little further teaching is needed. As time goes on and I build up my supply I can couple them with the ones students already have and I don't think it is unrealistic that I will soon have one in every student's hands. That was never even a goal when I first started looking into this. Now it is a realistic one. Finally, technology that is simple, readily available and best of all, cheap!

I highly recommend No-contract smart phones for all your classroom internet needs!


*Just to further prove the usefulness - I just had a student ask about Roman numerals and how to write them. I pulled out the Nokia, quickly searched and had it for her. Personalized, individualized information and instruction in your very hands!
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