Mobile Learning: Are We On the Cusp of Something Big?

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One of the most exciting things about living in the digital age is witnessing huge cultural changes occur in real time.

We're at just that point now with mobile learning. Whether it's on an e-reader, a tablet, or a cell phone, there's great excitement -- though not a lot of research yet -- around the potential of how these devices can strengthen learning.

"What if your mobile device had a sixth sense?" asked Harvard professor Chris Dede, who's researching the diverse dimensions of mobile learning, at the recent ISTE conference.

When most of us consider education, we think of learning happening in isolated places -- schools. But mobile devices are upending that assumption. With innovations like augmented reality, different kinds of information and experiences can be superimposed onto the real world, complementing and adding another dimension to "formal" learning institutions.

Pilot programs are springing up all over the country (more on those soon), as educators and researchers determine what kind of learning can happen best with mobile devices.


"We know from generations of work that devices are catalysts," Dede said. "The device never produces learning, but when coupled with changes in content, new forms of assessment, linking people together, that’s what enables learning."

Mobile devices are getting more powerful with each new generation of gadgets. "But a lot of people are frightened by them and banning them in schools where they might make the most impact," Dede said.

Dede's job, along with others in the field, is to make sense of the devices' strengths and weaknesses.

So what do we know so far?

When it comes to smart phones, some of what's powerful on larger screens doesn't relate as well to the small screen. "I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. We can’t put virtual worlds on cell phones and have them work well," Dede said. "Visual immersion works with a large screen. Sure, you can watch a movie on a small phone, but it doesn't have the same impact as watching it in an Imax theater."

Yet students who've been given the choice between Netbooks and smart phones say they prefer smart phones simply because it fits into their pockets, Dede said, referring to recent research. Does that mean they're more likely to engage in educational content on the smaller screen?

"We need to figure out what's possible within that screen size and what they might be able to do if they had more screen real estate," Dede said. "We want students to be able to bring their own technology to schools."

The way to find out is to pilot projects in math, science, and social studies, and build curriculum on e-readers, tablets, and cell phones. "That way we get a feel for how learning happens," Dede said. "There are frontiers that we’re just beginning to learn how to reach."

In my next post, I'll write more about the K-Nect smart phone-enabled math program.