A Clever System To Ensure That Kids Only Use Their Cell Phones In School To Do Work

With new technology under development at Qualcomm, kids wouldn’t be able to Candy Crush while in math class, but they could look up a problem sheet.

A Clever System To Ensure That Kids Only Use Their Cell Phones In School To Do Work
[Image: Kids on phones via Shutterstock]

If you catch a kid using a cell phone in school, chances are they’re not doing class-related research. But what if instead of having access to Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and the entirety of the Internet, kids could be restricted to a “school zone” mobile ecosystem, giving them the ability to tap into only what is necessary for class ?


Just such a “mobile learning framework” is part of Qualcomm’s efforts in education, coming from inside the chipmaker’s Global Market Development group, which acts as an internal startup incubator inside the company.

When I meet with Vicky Mealer-Burke, a Senior Director at Qualcomm in the GMD group, she reminds me of the extent of the digital divide that still exists in the US, where 30% of households lack high-speed broadband. That means if kids in these households want to do homework with help from online resources, they have to go to the local Starbucks, McDonald’s or another place with good Internet access.

The FCC has a plan, known as the E-rate program, that offers affordable Internet and telecommunications access to schools and libraries. There’s no way the program would pay for unlimited data plans for students without steady broadband access. But if there was a guarantee that those students would only use the data plan within the school zone ecosystem? Then subsidizing student data plans might start to make sense.

Mealer-Burke showed me what a sample school zone might look like: online resources in topics like math and English, some off-line apps, and even some native apps, like the camera (in this case, the camera had separate file storage within the school zone ecosystem so kids wouldn’t be distracted by their other photos). But this, Mealer-Burke stressed, was just an example.

“[The school zone] is an empty container that the school fills with apps and URLs. We create the framework and tie it to its own data plan,” she explains. “We put the controls of how much it’s locked down in the hands of schools.”

There are a number of potential lock-down scenarios. A school could automatically switch student devices into the school zone when they cross a geo-fence, such as the school entrance. But maybe the school wants to ensure that kids have access to other phone features in case of an emergency. So they could also give students access to text messages, or voice calls to certain contacts, like their parents.


Using cheap proximity beacons taped to the front of a classroom, a mobile device could automatically restrict students to a certain section within the school zone–only giving students access to the math section while they’re in math class, for example. Or a school could opt to not use a geo-fence at all, allowing students to use the school zone alongside everything else on their phone or tablet.

“This allows operators to come in and offer a different kind of rate plan,” explains Mealer-Burke. Qualcomm has been reaching out to a number of different operators, including Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T.

“We don’t have any verification that they’re going to do this, but we’re talking with all of them and they’re interested,” says Mealer-Burke. “We could keep it small, using caching strategies to get videos natively on devices while kids are in school on Wi-Fi coverage. This ensures that kids are using the subsidized data plan for schoolwork.”

Qualcomm doesn’t yet have a full school zone product–in fact, the company doesn’t necessarily want this to even be proprietary technology. “The long-term vision is to have this be cross OS, cross device, and to allow a community of content providers and app providers to innovate on what they do well,” says Mealer-Burke.

Qualcomm is hoping to begin school trials in the fall or early 2015.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.