Cellphones & school: A great mix

Two views representing two generations on how and why mobile learning is good for school and students

By Anne Collier

If you have any doubts about mobile learning at school, I have two suggestions: 1) Take about 5 minutes to watch 18-year-old social entrepreneur Travis Allen of Fayetteville, Ga., demonstrate how iPhones can be used in school, from classroom applications to keeping track of homework to student-teacher-parent communications in a video on YouTube, and 2) check out the iSchool Initiative, a nonprofit organization Allen founded as a “partnership of students, teachers, school administrators, and software application developers” designed to help all parties “comprehend each others’ needs” and help students themselves advocate for the intelligent use of technology at school.

It all started, Allen says in his blog, when his parents got him an iPod Touch for Christmas of 2008. Now at Kennesaw State University, he says the Initiative has “three primary objectives: raising awareness for the technological needs of the classroom, providing collaborative research on the use of technology in the classroom, and guiding schools in the implementation of this technology.” He’s not alone. See, for example, this tutorial on YouTube from Radford University in Virginia showing teachers step-by-step how to create a quiz on the iPod Touch so the class can take the quiz and together go over the results in the same class.

Why cellphones, not textbooks?

Qualcomm has been looking into just that question, funding field research such as Project K-Nect in rural North Carolina, where remedial math on iPod Touches has helped students increase proficient by 30%. Guest-blogging in O’Reilly’s Radar, Marie Bjerede, Qualcomm’s vice president of wireless education technology, says the project has turned up four reasons why it helps to teach with cellphones:

1. Multimedia in their hands. Each set of math problems starts with a little animated video showing how to work the problem. “You could theorize that this context prepares the student to understand the subsequent text-based problem better. You could also theorize that watching a Flash animation is more engaging (or just plain fun),” Bjerede writes.
2. Instruction is personalized. So “students need to compare solutions” not answers. “How did you get that” replaces “what did you get?”
3. Collaborative math. “Students are asked to record their solutions on a shared blog and are encouraged to both post and comment. Over time, a learning community has emerged that crosses classrooms and schools and adds the kind of human interaction that an isolated, individual drill (be it textbook or digital) lacks and that a single teacher is unlikely to have the bandwidth to provide to each student.”
4. Unanticipated participation: “Students who don’t like to raise their hands use the devices to ask questions or participate in collaborative problem solving [with blogging and instant messaging]. There appears to be something democratizing about having a ‘back channel’ as part of the learning environment.”

Related links

* A teacher’s iPod Touch proposal (to her school tech director) is linked to in this blog post about her – Sonya Woloshen, a new teacher who uses mobile and other technologies in the classroom but whose focus is on “the meaningful engagement of students … learning transferable skills and teaching each other as they learned,” writes blogger and Vancouver, B.C. vice-principal David Truss. Here’s another educator’s blog post about Sonya, including a video interview with her about teaching with students’ “Personally Owned Devices” (PODs) – Hey, it’s 2010. They’re in their pockets! Sonya says. And stop with the excuses, like, “They don’t all have one.” They don’t all have to; they can share in class; they have splitters that allow five to listen at the same time!
* Touchscreen phone data: Gartner says the market for touchscreen phones like the iPhone, Droid, and Nexus One will nearly double this year. It says the worldwide market “will surpass 362.7 million units in 2010, a 96.8 percent increase from 2009 sales of 184.3 million units,” and they’ll account for 58% of mobile device sales worldwide “and more than 80% in developed markets such as North America and Western Europe.”
* “The three important lessons banning cellphones teaches kids” in The Innovative Educator blog
* Two important studies on this from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York: “Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning” and “The Digital Promise: Transforming Learning with Innovative Uses of Technology.”
* My last feature on this at the beginning of this school year: “From digital disconnect to mobile learning,” linking to some important data and mobile-learning projects and drawing from compelling research by Project Tomorrow

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