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Amidst a Mobile Revolution in Schools, Will Old Teaching Tactics Work?

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Just a few years ago, the idea of using a mobile phone as a legitimate learning tool in school seemed far-fetched, if not downright blasphemous. Kids were either prohibited from bringing their phones to school, or at the very least told to shut it off during school hours.

But these days, it's not unusual to hear a teacher say, "Class, turn on your cell. It's time to work."

Harvard professor Chris Dede has been working in the field of education technology for decades, and is astonished at how quickly mobile devices are penetrating in schools. “I’ve never seen technology moving faster than mobile learning,” said Dede, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

That's not necessarily surprising, given that a staggering 80 percent of teens have cell phones. This penetration of mobile devices in the consumer market has also wrought what Dede describes as a "sea change" in the education landscape.

"People are talking about this being an inflection point," said Elliot Soloway. Soloway is a professor at the School of Education at the University of Michigan, and a longtime proponent of mobile learning. "It feels like something major is about to happen. It went from a silly idea, to, 'Of course it’s inevitable."

The most recent data available is from 2010, and indicates that 62 percent of schools allow cell phones to be used on school grounds, though not in classrooms. But both Dede and Solloway, who are closely involved in coaching schools on how to use mobile learning techniques, said a lot of progress has been made in just the past couple of years.


"What I'm hearing from schools more is that they've eliminated policies restricting using mobile devices for learning and they're interested in developing mobile learning programs as fast as possible," Dede said. "We're going from districts fearing it and blocking it off to welcoming it and making it a major part of their technology plan. We’ll be surprised if a significant portion of districts aren’t using mobile learning inside and outside of schools soon."

More than 1.5 million iPads have been deployed in schools. That's not counting school-supplied non-Apple devices, or the most ubiquitous device of all -- students’ own mobile phones.

Classroom uses for iPads and cell phones are vast and varied. Some schools are replacing print books for apps that feature videos and interactive quizzes. Kindergarteners are learning to read using an iPad app. Teachers are using tablets to monitor student progress on “dashboards” that show moment-by-moment test scores. Others are using cell phones to take instant polls in class to gauge student comprehension. And more students are using smartphones, many of which have stronger processing power than their schools’ desktop computers, for instant fact-finding, calculating, mapping, and note-taking.

With all these direct applications for learning, it’s easy to justify using mobile devices in school. But what real and lasting effect will they have on the “formal” learning equation? Will this become just another passing craze in the long line of fads that have swung through schools and classes in past years? What criteria are being used to gauge a successful mobile learning program?

For progressives who have been itching to use technology to deconstruct and redesign the current classroom model – one teacher parsing facts to 30 or more students quietly sitting at their desks who will be tested on what they can memorize – the idea of mobile learning holds great promise. Here's an opportunity to reach every student in a meaningful way. But unless traditional teaching practices morph to adapt and fully take advantage of what mobile devices can afford, some fear the promise will go the way of all the technology collecting dust in the corner of the classroom. Worse, it might eventually lead to what everyone unequivocally dreads: the mechanization of teaching.

“I’m petrified that we’ll apply new technology to old pedagogy,” Soloway said. “Right now, the iPad craze is using the same content on a different device. Schools must change the pedagogy.”


“It’s the classic cycle of old wine in new bottles that tends to happen when people get excited about the technology itself,” said Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which researches how media affects learning. (The new wine bottles being tablets and cell phones, of course.) “They buy all sorts of new technology, things like interactive whiteboards, and slap on old practices on the new devices.”

Even with the latest available technology, schools are still using old delivery tactics --  like technology carts – taking iPads from classroom to classroom in schools that can’t provide a take-home device for every student. But that’s exactly the kind of short-term thinking that drives Soloway mad.

“A cart of iPads will have as much impact on student achievement as a cart of laptops had -- which is pretty much zero,” Soloway said. “So lots of schools are going to be disappointed after a year of iPad use when they see no gains.”

Actually some schools are seeing gains. A couple of very early findings show somewhat higher test scores; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reported that students in one class who used its algebra iPad app showed a 20% increase compared to those who used its textbooks; and in Maine, kindergarteners who used an iPad app for literacy scored 2 percent better than those who didn’t. “We’re pleased with such a short window of using iPads as instructional tools,” said Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin in a Bangor Daily News article. “We are seeing it’s making an impact in learning.”


But Soloway and others question whether any of the old pedagogy around algebra or literacy have been affected by the use of the devices in these early studies.

“Publishers will create apps that support their paper textbooks – or they will port their paper textbooks over to a PDF and say, ‘See, we have an eTextbook.’ Publishers can't admit that their model is broken, that they are in the process of being disrupted,” he said. “All they can do is entrench further and talk even louder that they have the answer; that their apps are really exciting and will engage the kids.”

Soloway challenges schools to think about what they’ve gained in student achievement through the use of devices. “We are using new technology to implement old pedagogy,” he said. “We are not exploiting the affordances of the new technology to give kids new kinds of learn-by-doing activities. Flash card programs for the iPad are too numerous to count. What a waste!”

But what about student engagement, the buzzword that’s dominated edu-speak especially in reference to technology? Soloway said engagement will go up when the iPad is used. “But engagement always goes up when technology is used -- laptops, even electronic whiteboards. School is deadly boring to the kids who are accustomed to the fast-paced digital world in which they live the moment the school bell heralds the end of school. So to say that iPads result in increased engagement is to say nothing.”


So what exactly does this idealized view of mobile devices for learning look like? It’s not easy to specify, or even outline. Each educator, each class, each school will have to find the best way to integrate mobile devices based on its student population. The opportunity of using mobile devices and all of its utilities allows educators to reconsider: What do we want students to know, and how do we help them? And what additional benefit does using a mobile device bring to the equation? This gets to the heart of the mobile learning issue: beyond fact-finding and game-playing – even if it's educational -- how can mobile devices add relevance and value to how kids learn?

There's not just one explanation. As mobile devices evolve and become ever more powerful and multi-functional, the answers will change. In the meantime, there are some things educators know for certain do make a big impact on learning.

“There's something in the design of mobile that lends itself to a different way of learning and interacting,” Michael Levine said. “It’s a way of developing a one-to-one personalized computer
in the classroom. There’s a powerful notion that you can walk away with the world at your fingertips."

In class, the mobile device provides the “one-to-oneness” that Levine said allows for what most educators agree is one of the most important tenets of a well-rounded education: personalized learning – students owning what they learn.

A child, for example, who’s learning about plant growth, can take pictures of the roots of a tree on her way home for school, Soloway said as an example. She brings it into class the next day, shares it with the teacher and other students, and they talk about what they’ve discovered.

But can’t a camera do the same thing -- or finding the picture of the root online or in a book? “Taking a picture for themselves is a lot different than getting one from a book,” Soloway answered. “A child owns the picture when the child takes it; it is meaningful to the student. When the child takes a picture with a phone, the child can then integrate the picture into an artifact that also contains a concept map, an animation, etc. In fact, the picture can be imported into a drawing program, then labeled with text. So it is more than a camera.”

Shelley Pasnik, director of Center for Children & Technology agrees. “Having a personal device support your learning changes things up,” she said. “It’s different than having a computer lab down the hall.”

The closest students came to personalizing their learning before mobile devices was changing fonts on Microsoft Word programs. “Now you have your own collection of apps to choose from,” she said.


But the apps shouldn't be the focus of discussion. “That’s where the pedagogical practice comes to play, a thoughtful use of tool sets. Having the apps sitting on your phone on your desk in and of itself isn’t going to make you smarter, and it won’t make the classroom more anything," she said. "It’s what you do with it, and how it’s supported, how teachers and students know to learn, to use those tools. It’s part of a complex nature of learning.”

And for any this to succeed, the devices – whatever they may be – need to be integrated into a broader sequence of activities, not an isolated tool that sits outside of everything that’s going on, Pasnik said. But that’s exactly what first happens when new devices are introduced.

“That’s a common first step -- it’s the ‘extra,’ it’s what kids do when they finish their ‘real’ work,” Pasnick said. “But when it’s really integrated into a sequence of activities, kids are moving between screens given what’s developmentally appropriate, they’re playing games. Some experiences use screens, then manipulatives or other materials, they’re engaged in conversations with peers and adults in the room. That’s where it works. There’s not this ‘privileging’ of this device. Instead, all of it is moving toward the learning goal.”

Using mobile devices as tools toward a learning goal is exactly what students at Catholic High School in New Iberia, Louisiana, are doing. Seniors at the school are using their phones to convert historical information they researched about their hometowns into QR codes that can be used on a walking tour they designed. Smartphone users can learn about historical sites by scanning the QR codes on their devices.

This project exemplifies the kind of learning-by-doing that mobile learning can be used for. Though the device makes it possible to create dynamic, interactive features like QR codes, one could argue that the learning equation of this project is not necessarily creating the QR codes (though there’s also an argument to be made about teaching tech). The point at which kids learn is when they go into their community and research noteworthy historical sites to understand their significance.

Students could have just as easily created individual print brochures that featured historical sites around town -- and the educational value would have arguably been comparable. What the mobile phone added was an immediacy to the task at hand. Was it imperative to the learning process? Probably not. But did the QR creation make the project more interesting, more relevant to their lives, and thus more personal for students? That’s what educators are betting on.

But when it comes to using cell phones for things like taking polls, that may not necessarily change traditional lecture-based teaching tactics. “I personally think there are better things to do in the classroom than lecture,” Chris Dede said. “Polling devices are based on lecture. You’re not having a discussion about it, but getting a quick sense of what students understand and modifying lecture accordingly. I would like to see teachers using different pedagogy.”

As a college professor, Dede thinks students can use their cell phones to have “back-channel” discussions that happen during discussions that happen in class. But even then, Dede doesn’t display the Twitter discussions on the board because he says students find it distracting. And if it’s distracting for college students, it would definitely be distracting for grade-schoolers. “Kids are still learning to type, they’re not as good as multi-processing. It’s all they can do to keep track of one thing that’s going on,” Dede said.

These are the kinds of issues that are still being hashed out in schools: What's more distracting than helpful, what's just straight up utilitarian, what's helping students understand concepts better? What's allowing them to make a particular lesson more personal and relevant?


The way most classrooms are designed currently discourages social interaction in class. Desks are lined up facing front. But the social aspect of learning that’s been lost in the past decades, Levine said, can be leveraged with mobile devices. “So much of what research has taught us about child development, and even the most recent research on brain development, is that the social aspect -- relationships in the context of which you're motivated to learn, and the types of people who are encouraging kids to learn, that social aspect is fundamental to who we are,” he said.

Mobile devices seem to be -- at least in theory -- a real enabler of social interaction. "They’re social learning objects," he said. "Kids plug into their friends and families and important social networks. When you begin to combine features of mobility and socialness and access to every learning object you can imagine, that becomes more seamless and natural and interesting in terms of possibilities.”

This social connection is what helped at-risk kids do better and enjoy math more in a pilot study called Project K-Nect last year. Students collaborated with each other through blogs, instant messaging and email on their mobile phones.


From where we stand now, it seems that the mobile revolution in schools is inevitable. But as the hype around the wizardry of the technology escalates, it's imperative to focus the discussion on how to use devices not to mechanize and standardize, but to bring back the human, personal element to teaching and learning. Kids learning from each other, making what they learn personal and relevant, and giving educators more tools to reach students.


"Because mobile devices are the new piece here, people want to know does it make a difference," Pasnik said. "When we know that learning happens because of relationships, and we want to keep that richness. So the question of the value of a single piece like the mobile phone becomes reductive. You falsely are having to focus in one element, when in fact, learning happens because multiple elements are interacting with one another."

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