Mobile Learning Could Be Key in Achievement Gap Equation

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By Leslie Rule
Leslie Rule is studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) program.

Can mobile learning bring quality education to under-served communities? Research is pointing in that direction.

A recent report by Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that the mobile Internet may be the very technology that finally helps close the "digital divide." Researcher Aaron Smith notes that access to the digital world is increasingly being untethered from the desktop, and this is especially true for people of color: African Americans and English-speaking Latinos are more likely to own a mobile phone, use non-voice data applications, and take advantage of a wider range of features compared with whites. Most interesting is the finding that minority populations' attitude towards, and use of, the social web is different. For instance, minority populations are much more likely than whites to view government use of social media as helpful and informative.

A 2010 poll by Education Next found, “online learning is growing more acceptable to the public at large.” According to Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Marty West, who conducted the survey, there was a 10-percent jump in support for the idea (from 42% to 52%). “In a single year, [that jump] is highly unusual,” he said. But what’s even more telling? That support for the idea of online learning is higher among minorities (African Americans: 61%; Hispanics: 65%).

Build for Your Audience


Digital divide activists have struggled for years to get desktop computers into under-served communities and to provide broadband access, but they often found little traction within the communities. Maybe now, armed with a better understanding of how digital tools are being used, we can better serve those communities.

Research tells us the following:

  • Mobile phone ownership is highest in minority populations
  • Social media use is highest and most valued in minority populations
  • Online learning has its highest approval rate in minority populations

In that light, understanding usage is essential when designing educational apps if we want to have them used. So perhaps a tethered desktop computer is not the tool of choice in this particular context. Mobile learning, combined with social media, seems to be the way in.

Great teaching meets students where they are. Clearly, sadly, and to students' misfortune we educational technologists have not been meeting under-served communities where they are, vis-a-vis their use of new media tools. We need to figure out how the education community can start designing educational materials that take advantage of the ways tools are used in these communities.

My answer:

  • Ask the community
  • Do ethnography research and discover what those materials might look and feel like
  • Test and revise

It might lead to a great learning experience for all.