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February 1, 2011
Vol. 53
No. 2

Can Mobile Devices Transform Education?

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The popularity of smartphones, including Droids, iPhones, and BlackBerries, that now have GPS, texting, voice, and multimedia capabilities has prompted industry and education reformers to shine the light on these mobile devices as vehicles suitable for transforming K–12 learning for the 21st century. Although they present challenges as well as potential benefits, education experts reason that these powerful small computers motivate students; provide constant access to the wealth of knowledge, tools, and experts on the web; and are cheaper and more plentiful than laptops or desktop workstations.
"A big choice for us is: we have this very flexible tool, much more like a Swiss army knife than a hammer. What do we want to use it for?" says Christopher Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.
Compared to laptops and computer workstations, mobile devices are cheaper, more portable, and physically less obtrusive, especially during collaborative work. "Kids like working together with their cell phones in front of them more than their laptops. If you sit around a table and they all have their laptops, there's a sense of a wall," says Dede.
In a 2009 survey, nearly 300,000 students stated their preference for the use of mobile devices. The reportCreating Our Future: Students Speak Up About 21st Century Learning, by Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit education group backed by a variety of interests, including universities, philanthropic groups, and technology companies like Apple and Blackboard, shows that students desire to use digital curricula for learning and to engage in peer collaboration.
The survey also showed that teachers and administrators who actively use mobile devices at home or in the classroom agree that mobile devices or mobile computers should be used for learning in the 21st century school. Administrators noted that to attain that vision, issues that need to be tackled include professional development for teachers, policies to address network security, and equity of access for students. In the survey, some teachers also voiced concern that mobile devices would distract from core learning processes and raised questions about effective and meaningful integration of the devices into instruction.
The challenges of "how" notwithstanding, in a digitally linked global community, training students to understand and use sophisticated technology tools is an economic imperative. The U.S. Department of Education's National Educational Technology Plan (NETP), published in November, notes that "technology is at the core of virtually every aspect of our daily lives and work" and calls for "leverag[ing] it to provide engaging and powerful learning experiences and content." The plan further adds that technology should be better used to measure student achievement in "more complete, authentic, and meaningful ways."
Dede, who was also one of the NETP's advisors, says digital tools like computers and mobile devices have the ability to collect data about student work and provide a "cognitive audit trail" that can be analyzed to show how students think and what they understand. However, some researchers argue more work needs to be done to develop more sophisticated designs for using mobile devices for such cognitive analysis.
As some schools ease policies on cell phone use, teachers may already be allowing students to use their cell phones to record their Spanish lessons or interview a subject to produce a podcast for an oral history project, for example. Some teachers even use cell phones for formative assessments by asking students to text their answers to quiz questions, which creates a bar graph display that provides an instant snapshot of student understanding. But in a variety of pilot projects and ongoing initiatives in schools, students are using mobile devices to accomplish much more.

The Innovators

In North Carolina's Onslow County Schools, the district got wireless industry funding to pilot the use of smartphones to promote math learning. Starting in 2008, high school Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry students at Dixon High School and Southwest High School were given smartphones with Internet access, instant messaging, video and photo capabilities, and calculators in order to use Project K-Nect curriculum, a specialized program that links math learning with mobile devices.
Those students' scores on the state-mandated North Carolina End-of-Course (EOC) tests were 10 percent higher than the state average in the Algebra II and geometry courses and 20 percent higher than the state average in Algebra I. Anecdotally, students reported increased communication with teachers and peers, according to an evaluation report by Project Tomorrow. Students reported being more engaged in learning math, and some chose to continue taking higher math courses. Students also said they used their wireless devices to look up information on the Internet and consult with other students to share tips for solving problems or clarify their understanding of concepts with the teacher.
Connecting students to their home gaming environment and creating a hook to motivate those unengaged with traditional classroom learning prompted one school to try mobile devices six years ago. Now Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., uses a variety of mobile devices, including the iPod, iPod Touch, iPad, and Nintendo DS, to support learning across the curriculum. Fostering content delivery, creativity, and collaboration are the project's goals, according to the school's instructional technology director, Camilla Gagliolo.
The school has a tool kit containing eight of each device that can be used across the curriculum with students at each grade level. The tools are used at learning centers in the classroom with an interactive whiteboard but also link to mobile devices students have at home, such as the Nintendo DS, a popular handheld gaming device that offers education software for math, science, and social studies. While Gagliolo notes the devices have been used mainly for language arts and math activities, she says they give students "multiple ways to learn a concept" and allow for differentiation.
For example, using the Word Warp app for the iPod or iPad, students practice their spelling skills. Working in teams, each student must try to spell as many words as possible on his own device using certain letters. The teams then rotate through two other spelling activities, in 15-minute intervals, which culminate with a test on the 25 targeted vocabulary words.
Gagliolo says the devices have created a "lot of excitement with teachers and students" and engage students with the curriculum materials through play and games. One challenge, she notes, is managing the mobile devices and updating them with the various apps and programs.

Augmenting Reality

At the cutting edge of mobile education technology research, K–12 students are using mobile devices to access digital information that overlays or infuses the real world around them; hence the term "augmented reality" (AR) to describe this model.
For example, in TimeLab2100, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), students must reduce the negative effects of global warming in the year 2100 by selecting and researching five environmental laws that were enacted 90 years earlier. Combining elements of computer gaming and curriculum concepts, the activity helps students work in teams to gather information, often from virtual characters that appear on their mobile devices at designated geographic points.
Matt Dunleavy, an education professor at Radford University in Virginia, heads the Radford Outdoor Augmented Reality Project, a state-funded project in partnership with MIT and Hewlett-Packard to pilot AR learning scenarios for K–12 curricula. Students use GPS-enabled handheld computers programmed to call up information at different locations in an outdoor area, such as a playground or field.
For example, in a game called Buffalo Hunt, elementary students use the handheld computers to track buffalo for their hungry American Indian tribe. Like games that allow multiple players, AR involves many players working collaboratively (or competitively) to reach a goal. In the Buffalo Hunt simulation, students approach various targets within the school grounds that trigger their handheld devices to call up narrative text, video, audio, and additional information (e.g., the buffalo herds are rapidly decreasing).
In preparing for and completing the simulation with their mobile devices, students meet state learning standards by comparing their content knowledge of various American Indian tribes from diverse eastern woodland, plains, and southwest regions, and thinking critically about how tribes in each area adapt to their environment.
Dunleavy hopes his research will determine whether using mobile devices can enhance learning. "I use a design-based research approach to delineate why and how, if at all, mobile learning improves knowledge and skills for students. My immediate objective is to create and share as many case studies as possible showcasing what innovative teachers are doing in the classroom when provided a set of iPod Touches and/or iPads," he says.
"If we can create an interactive and multimedia online learning community of teachers who immediately share classroom strategies for using mobile computers, the field will move much faster, especially when compared to traditional research and development models that typically take years to disseminate critical information to a very small, often insignificant, percentage of people who read peer-reviewed journals," says Dunleavy.
Whether the activity is real or simulated, using mobile devices allows students to extend learning beyond the classroom walls, says Harvard's Dede. And there's still plenty of research that must be done in how best to use mobile devices for education, not to mention issues of intermittent connectivity and slow speeds, he adds.
"The greatest strength of mobile devices could be for outside-the-classroom learning. It's a cheaper way of doing one-to-one learning, and students would have a shorter learning curve because they're used to these devices," Dede says. "There's a lot of promise here, but there are barriers to overcome to realize that promise."

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Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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