Why Mobile Learning in Schools Makes Cents

Thanks to Evridiki Dakos for the picture :-)
Thanks to Evridiki Dakos for the picture 🙂

This year I am touring various continents and countries with the message why we need mobile learning devices in schools. Funding isn’t the issue. Governments worldwide choose to invest in technologies in schools. They have done this for decades even equipping schools with the chalkboard and slates at one period. Unfortunately, the technologies they invest in mostly promote the traditional model of learning with the teacher at the head of the class sharing knowledge with students. The most recent technology that once again seems to support this traditional style of education have been IWBs. Currently, you can visit schools in the UK, US, China, the UAE, and other countries where the government has funded IWBs in the classroom.
What else will you see?
Many unplugged IWBs that never get used or those that are used only to promote more teacher talk time as the teacher stands in the front and shares information with students who are silent and sit in desks. My argument is that if governments are going to invest funds in technology then they should invest in mobile learning devices instead and equipped schools with smart phones, iPods, iPads, and so forth. What ignited this post is a conversation I had with the incredible e-learning specialist, Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) over my tweet, “Personally, I feel $$ better spent on mobile devices in classrooms vs IWBs.” Thanks Steve for forcing me to flesh my thoughts out.

Why Mobile Learning in Schools?

In Steve Wheeler’s post, Rock and a Hard Place, he also discusses the issue of funding mobile learning devices in schools and brings up a valid point that if teachers were better trained and had the time they could utilize an IWB to provide more authentic learning. He also encouraged me to share my tweeted thoughts in a blog post.
Here are the main reasons why I support mobile learning in schools. You will notice you can’t make these arguments about IWBs and other technologies:
Less training involved
The majority of the populations worldwide have experience using mobile devices. Educators, students, parents, and other stakeholders carry mobile phones in their pockets. Most use them daily. Many are familiar with their basic features and more. Several know how to take pictures, videos, send text messages, access the Internet, and post online. In many developing countries, mobile devices are the way they access the Internet. With such experience, less training is involved by everyone. The leap isn’t that huge. We also already know problems associated with integrating these devices. This is the reason many schools ban them. If we know so much about them, then why not think of solutions and lift bans? Why not invest in technology that requires less training.
Let me tell you a secret, the majority of governments won’t pay for professional development when investing in technologies for schools. This has been the case for years. I’m not saying they shouldn’t but if this is the situation we work with then why wouldn’t we choose a technology to integrate that takes less of a leap. I don’t imagine that mobile devices wouldn’t be used like IWBs.
Have more features that promote autonomy
I would argue that there would be less traditional teaching supported as well. Mobile devices are in the hands of the learner and teachers are forced to relinquish control to the learners. Learners know how to use them better than teachers and I bet a majority of teachers would be willing for their students to teach them how to use the mobile device. Something powerful happens when a technology is placed in the hands of learners. Mobile devices support this type of autonomy while IWBs and other technologies are too huge and stationary to do this. Many mobile devices are also equipped with cameras, video cameras, audio recorders, and even advanced apps. Basic cellphones come with various communication tools including the ability to take pictures and send text messages. These various communication tools promote autonomy as learners are able to collect visual, audio, text, and video records of their surroundings and environment. We can’t argue this about other technologies, especially IWBs.
One of the cheapest technologies to invest in
I have used my iPhone to support learning with my 4 to 80 year-old students in Germany. I was teaching English to various age groups and was fortunate my institute didn’t ban cellphones. I am not provided funding, though, for technology. Instead, I usually supply the technology. For this reason, I began using cellphones for learning.
How do we begin?
Have an edtech workshop for parents and demonstrate what technologies you will use and ask them for their support. I provide snacks they wouldn’t usually get in Germany like my 7 layer dip as an incentive to show up. Then, ask parents if they would be willing to allow their children to bring in their mobile devices for a show and tell day. Basically, the child would show what their cellphone can do. This allows teachers to see what technology is available to nearly every learner in their classes and for parents to feel more comfortable with the students using the devices for learning. In many cases, I have found parents are comforted by their students using the cellphone for learning because a majority of the parents I deal with feel that cellphones damage their children’s intelligence. They let their children have them, though, because cellphones are considered staples in the majority of societies worldwide. I discovered this when working with refugees in Athens. All but one in the class had a cellphone.
When you host your first successful show and tell day of cellphones, how much did this room full of technology cost your school?
It cost nothing!
You can’t say that about the majority of technology that exists today. If this is the case, then why are we still fighting cellphone bans?
They promote health and learning
Children worldwide attend schools 180 to 200 days a year. They spend 6 to 8 hours a day in schools where they are forced to sit in uncomfortable desks for long stretches of time, carry huge backpacks, and stay silent. Sounds like torture to me! With mobile devices students are encouraged to move around. They can go outside, move around the classroom, use them in class field trips, use them in their homes, and even get to use them on their travels home. I believe if schools equipped with mobile devices or even allowed educators to use them for learning then we would see more movement in the classroom. This is the nature of the technology. IWBs and other technologies are still stationary and need other software and training to promote movement. Moreover, children can carry their textbooks, homework, and so forth all in their mobile devices. This eliminates the carrying of heavy books. Did I mention this is more environmentally friendly as well. I know we are a long way from this becoming the norm but if we begin investing in mobile device filled classrooms now this is the potential to be the norm. No matter how much we invest in other technologies this does not have the same potential.
Promote the notion learning takes place everywhere
In schools, students collect evidence and research. They brainstorm and search. These are daily requirements. With mobile devices, students are able to collect this evidence through interaction with their environments. On the way home they can interview friends with the audio features, take pictures of their environment, type notes, or create videos. They can search online and save these searches with free apps like Evernote. They can brainstorm with free mindmapping apps. They can even record their thoughts audibly. The students choose which tool to learn with and what in their surroundings becomes part of their research. The students make the choices and interact with their environment. What better way to demonstrate hands-on that learning actually does take place everywhere?
These are my arguments and if you check out my presentation at ISTE, Sharing Stories: Motivating Young Learners through Mobile Digital Storytelling, we can have a conversation about the possibilities. I have so much more to say on the subject.

Concluding Thoughts and Questions

My intention is not to argue mobile devices versus IWBs. My intention is to get those in charge of funding technology in schools to see the possibilities of equipping our schools with mobile devices and get educators, parents, administrators, businesses, and students to support these measures. At the very least, get schools to lift bans on the use of mobile devices. Mobile learning has the potential to be a real game changer in education.
Here are my questions to you if you care to share in the comments section:

  • So why won’t bans on mobile devices at schools be lifted?
  • Why won’t governments invest in mobile devices in classrooms?
  • What is the best mobile device for schools? Well, that’s still up to you to decide.



Leave a comment about the questions I proposed. Let’s discuss ways schools can begin lifting bans on mobile devices.

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0 thoughts on “Why Mobile Learning in Schools Makes Cents

  1. Hi Shelly
    Here are my first, instant thoughts to your questions. I MAY be playing devil’s advocate, you decide 🙂
    * So why won’t bans on mobile devices at school be lifted?
    Teachers are aware of how much time pupils spend on FB, playing games, texting, maybe even sharing videos and chatting to each other. How can they be sure pupils are working? They are worried their practice may be perceived as risky if they do use them.
    There is no common platform to prepare resources accessible on all mDevices.
    How can teachers be sure pupils are not sharing naughty pics? Are they at fault if that happens?
    Who is going to load the apps onto the mDevices?
    Who pays for the licences?
    How do they ensure the apps have been removed once they are finished with so that the licences are free so that the app can be installed onto the next class’ devices?
    How does school protect its infrastucture against viruses, malware and spyware?
    Who provides and pays for anti-virus software for the devices? Is there one antivirus software can can provide for all devices?
    Who is going to update it on all devices?
    How are they going to be charged if several suddenly lose charge during the day?
    * Why won’t governments invest in mobile devices in classrooms?
    Is there an e-safety issue? Can strangers access pupils?
    How does the Government provide filtering or monitor use of dozens of different devices?
    Who is responsible for insurance if a pupil’s phone is stolen or broken?
    Is wireless really safe? What happens if 15 children in one area using mDevices in the classroom suddenly develop leukemia?
    * What is the best mobile device for schools? Well, that’s still up to you to decide.
    As part of a team I have decided which is the best device for our primary schools… but they are only a tool and the right tool needs to be chosen for any specific taks. It depends on what do you want it to do!
    I may think of loads more yet – this is first instant thoughts 🙂 I am very much in favour of mDevices in the classroom – but there are issues!
    Hmmm – may have lost half of my original response, I used a word that it did not like so I lost the lot!!

  2. Great text Shelly.
    Since some years I have been conducting experiments on integration of mobile technologies in school. Like using SMS http://www.slideshare.net/linade/mobile-learning-sms-in-educational-contexts
    This is the abstract of
    my PhD Thesis research:
    Mobile devices, such as mobile phone, PDA, Pocket PC or Tablet PC, have been used as tools for learning. The emergence of new educational scenarios has led us to conduct this research to understand the challenges and opportunities of integrating mobile phone, into teaching and learning.
    It was proposed a framework based on constructivist approaches, in Activity Theory and ARCS Model, which underlies the study. The study analysed how students appropriated mobile phones as a learning tool, assessed the mobile phone as a mediation tool in learning activities and discussed the potentials and limitations of their integration in teaching and learning process. To achieve these objectives we have established a variety of curricular activities mediated by students’ mobile phones and developed in the Portuguese and French school subjects.
    It is a qualitative research with multiple study cases (four), but with one unit of analysis only. Sixty-eight students from two urbans schools, one a State secondary school and the other a semi-private vocational school, attended this study. This is an exploratory study, due to the scarcity of studies in the area, because it is the integration of new technology, such as the mobile phone, into teaching. The data collection techniques used were inquiry and observation. We developed and validated four questionnaires and two guidelines (one for individual interviews and the other for a focus group). The first questionnaire aimed to characterise the participants, the second questionnaire collected students’ reactions to the use of podcasts for content review and improvement of reading and pronunciation in French, the third questionnaire analysed students’ reactions to SMS activities and the fourth questionnaire studied students’ opinions about using the mobile phone as a learning tool, both inside and outside the classroom. Individual interviews allowed to get participants’ feedback concerning the use of the mobile phone as a tool for learning and understanding the interaction and communication established during the study development. The focus group allowed to collect additional information from mobile phone use as a mediation tool.
    The data analysis showed that despite the novelty of integrating mobile devices as tools to support learning activities, the students accepted to use their own mobile phones, which naturally incorporated it in their study practices, exploring several features on different curricular activities, both inside and outside the classroom, individually and collaboratively. The mobile phone used as a mediating tool for learning, allowed to ask questions, learn at a when it is most convenient, be in permanent contact with the curriculum contents, increased students’ motivation for the school subject and promoted the improvement of foreign language pronunciation. The data also showed the students’ great satisfaction in performing tasks that made the process of learning and teaching more attractive, and they recognized the educational potential of mobile phone to support the school study.
    This research is a contribution towards the integration of mobile devices into education and an alert about the new learning opportunities that are offered by mobile learning.

  3. Hi Shelly,
    My teaching partner and I are planning on experimenting with mlearning next year. We hope to design a project where we start with a “show and tell” lesson (as you suggested – but sans the parents) and then test out how cellphones can be useful as tools during certain limited projects or activities. The phones will still be “banned” at our school, but we are hoping to get permission to collect the phones at the beginning of the school day, hand them out for use during the activity/project (in our own lessons) and then collect the phones again afterwards. Our students all have smartphones, either i-phones, blackberries or the newer Samsung types (as far as we have been able to find out). We are on the planning stage right now and when we have a good plan we’ll take it to our administartors for approval. My question to you is; do you know of any activities/projects/apps that have been used successfully by other teachers (of teenagers)in ESL and are they willing to share details? Any help would be much appreciated!

  4. Shelly,
    Incredible post. I am currently looking to develop learning objectives for some of my non-attending outreach students. They all have and use cell phones, and never leave them at home, unlike the required pencil and paper. While I don’t ever blindly dive into using any learning tool, I am coming to the realization that in order to help the disenfranchised achieve learning success, I have to meet them where they are. I’ll put many of your ideas to good use.

  5. Hi Shelly,
    Interesting post and interesting questions by Carol in the comments.
    I cannot really answer all the issues Carol raised, but I think the core reason why teachers are struggling with mobile tech is that they lose their control over students and their activities and don’t know how to respond to this. And may of Carol questions’ linked specifically to this dynamic.
    Personalised technology disrupts the traditional class-based learning and teaching models as you mention in the middle of your post. It changes the role of teachers and the dynamics in the classroom dramatically towards personalised learning.
    And this is scary as teachers have to develop a new understanding on how they add value to students as individual learners and not just an assumed group of equals. I guess this is also the reason why governments prefer to opt for tech that sustains current collective teaching models.
    So for me the tech and the education models that teachers use are intrinsically linked and if you just change the tech to mobiles and not change your teaching approach to personalised learning, I’d expect any teacher to really struggle.
    At Apps for Good we take things even further and expect young people to become creators and not just users of technology (creating their own mobile apps) by addressing problems they care about. We are very much aware how disruptive this is for teachers and are working hard to create a support framework that will enable them to test new learning models without losing their face and professional reputation as educators. They don’t have to become subject domain experts (we have a dedicated expert community of developers and designers for that), but focus on their role as trusted learning guides.
    And believe me, there are many teachers out there happy to really implement personalised learning and tech tools as a consequence. 🙂

  6. Shelly, it is an enormous challenge for education to keep pace with technology under the current rules of engagement and system.
    Starting with educational TV (circa the late 60’s) through to today’s smartphones, each new wave of technology has promised and sporadically delivered improved opportunities for learning. These successes have been local (class, school and even some districts) but have not transformed learning. In no way am I undervaluing these specific improvements. I think the question that needs to be asked and understood is why has their (the technologies) collective improvement to the learning community been so underwhelming.
    The delta between the promise and the result is far too wide. I have for a number of years now asked myself, “What systemic changes need to occur to significantly narrow that delta?”

  7. Hello Shelly. I think everything you say is true…however: Thinking devices would be great for learning and convincing the ‘Powers that be’ of your arguments, are something quite different. I agree that there is no easy way to create learning objects for use on iPhones, so teachers feel that they have little control over the learning students do while using phones. Although kids can access the internet, mobile phones are not ideal for creating content online – have you seen how long it takes to type a longer text message? Now think how long it will take to type a blog post! There is also little feedback back to teachers when kids play games on their phones. While it may be true that they are learning through the games, the teachers don’t get the results, so it cannot be used as an assessment tool. Furthermore, while most kids have mobile phones, not all kids have smart phones…and so the difference between kids with and without smart-phones really creates a digital divide in access to learning tools. These are the reservations the people holding the money bags have. For the most part, I can see their reservations really ring true. If mobile phone companies really want education to invest in mobile phones as learning tools, perhaps someone should start creating platforms with easy accessible and cheap (or free) learning tools, games and so forth, which kids can register for, and nominate that the results of the kids completing these learning tasks be sent back to their nominated teacher. I am big on trust: We should trust our students to do the right thing while using mobile phones as learning tools…but teachers are being held accountable for so many of the problems in modern society, I can see why many teachers just do not want the added responsibility to look out for kids while they are roaming around the wonderful world unlocked by mobile phones. Yes, kids can access this world unsupervised when outside the classroom, but how many teachers would be willing to accept responsibility for what kids do on their mobile phones while under teacher supervision? This is the same argument that many teachers had about Second Life…
    So, having said all that, I love mobile devices and their potential for learning. I have, in fact used mobile devices as learning tools in my own classes. But I can see the reservations that teachers may have. Thanks again for your input in this regards, Shelly. I think we are on the same wavelength, but I can understand why many departments of education would say that these mobile devices are not what they are looking for at the the present time. Finally, if schools decide to invest in mobile devices instead of more expensive technology, they MUST commit to spend the money they have left over on teacher training.

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