Mobile Learning Accelerates

Heidi Larson helps education decision-makers understand the benefits and challenges of virtual and blended learning. Her other work and interests have included studying the impact of technology in professional development, student learning, and assessment, and in 2012 she was honored into the Consortium for School Networking Volunteer Hall of Fame for her work on the Leadership for Mobile Learning initiative. Here she reflects on the evolving role of mobile devices in our lives and in education:

A common bit of humor at conferences is reflecting on how many participants spent the first 20 years of their lives without a mobile phone (most), and how many would now return home from miles away if they realized they forgot their phones (all, to laughter). We are at a point where we depend upon the convenience and intelligent fact-finding of these phones and other mobile devices, and we may even have outsourced some of our memory functions to them. For instance, how often do you check your phone for the date, your brother’s phone number, or for directions to a location you’ve been to several times before? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 82% of adults and 75% of 12-17 year-olds owned cell and smartphones in 2010, and we can presume that not only will this percentage increase, but the amount of time we spend on them will as well.

What has this meant for education? Definitely a mixed bag. The first reaction was to ban the use of cell phones in schools, and many schools still abide by this rule. Others allowed phones in school but not in class. However—and is this surprising?—the majority of teens claim they bring their phones to school every day and even manage to send texts in class. Helped in part by the economic downturn, the pendulum is now swinging so that schools are looking to cell phones and other mobile devices as a cost-effective way of enabling students to interact with knowledge, whether it be with an online textbook, a guest expert, a science game, or a Spanish lesson. Students may also use them to interact with their classmates around an assignment or to give feedback to a teacher. School administrators have learned that a robust wireless infrastructure is crucial to making this work with minimum frustration. Equally important is educating students and their parents on their roles in promoting good citizenship and safety online. Rather than publishing lists of “Don’ts,” schools are having students understand and sign Responsible Use policies that emphasize the “Cans” and “Shoulds” over the “Can’ts.”

Many aspects of this evolution are interesting to me and to colleagues at EDC and Harvard University. One is how mobile devices, in conjunction with social media, can be used for professional development and community-building for administrators and teachers. It has been interesting to discover how much access is blocked even to superintendents! Another is watching how teachers react when given mobile devices by their districts and asked to experiment, with no guidance. Last, we’ve been looking at what devices teachers and administrators use, when, for what types of activities, and if the learning differs from one device to another. Through our work and that of organizations such as the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) we hope to expand the base of useful, accessible, and evidence-based information.