The case for cellphones in schools

Mobile learning can help with the growing disconnect between students’ lives and school and between informal and formal learning.

By Anne Collier

The real disconnect is not the one between parents and kids (that I wrote about last week). “It’s the gap between how students learn and how they live! They really want to end that divide,” according to Project Tomorrow, the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that runs the annual nationwide Speak Up study.

And the disconnect is “alive and well … and growing,” was the finding of the latest Speak Up, which surveyed 281,500 students, 29,644 teachers, 3,114 administrators, 21,309 parents, and 4,379 schools in 868 districts in all 50 states and some in other English-speaking countries. “Students say they ‘step back in time’ when they enter the school building each morning – despite overwhelming agreement among parents, teachers and principals that the effective implementation of technology in schools is crucial to student success,” Project Tomorrow says in its release of last fall’s survey.

Cellphones everywhere. The Speak Up study found that about 77% of students in grades 9-12 have mobile phones (55% have access to laptops), indicating that leveraging that installed base by teaching with cellphones would be economical in terms of both time and money.

“Cell phones can be powerful computers. They can do just about everything laptops can do for a fraction of the price. And many students are bringing them to school anyway,” says University of Michigan education professor Elliot Soloway.

Still, barriers to adoption remain, including adult biases against technology for “serious” use; a diversity of cellphone products in the marketplace; phones’ physical features (screen size, battery life, etc.); and schools’ fears about student distraction and lack of responsibility toward the equipment, according to the 2009 Joan Ganz Cooney Center study “Pockets of Potential” (here’s my post on the report).

Responsible use the norm. About that last and crucial barrier, though, school districts that do incorporate cellphones and other handheld devices into classroom work find that student engagement and responsible use are actually the norm.

North Carolina math teacher Suzette Kliwer said her students are so eager to use phones in an educational setting that irresponsible use of them has not been a problem. She was one of several educators presenting their districts’ experience in a recent Project Tomorrow Webinar on mobile learning. Jeff Billings, an Arizona school district’s director of technology, echoed that: “When you engage students and put a pro who can guide them on the instruction piece, good things happen,” he said.

How they’re teaching with phones. “The mobile device is a case of digital tools at your disposal. It can provide an ultra-portable portfolio” of teacher’s and students’ work, said David Whyley of Learning2Go, the UK’s four-year-old “largest collaborative mobile learning project,” focusing on the British equivalent of grades K-6.

A recent story in USATODAY tells how Ohio students in grades 3-5 work with handheld devices. Using educational apps created by GoKnow!, a company co-founded by University of Michigan professor Elliot Soloway, they take and draw pictures, keep journals, write essays, work in spelling, and do math. “Students took the phones on a museum field trip where they took photos, uploaded them to a server where the teacher could view the assignment and wrote blurbs about what they saw,” the article says.

Tech coordinator and middle school teacher Samantha Morra in New Jersey put together a program for classroom iPod Touches with which students store, produce, organize, share, and access media such as podcasts and videos, access sources on the Web, take quizzes, work with flashcards, and discuss and collaborate in different configurations of users: one on one with their teacher, in small groups, and as a class. “Students devour engaging, customized curricula when it’s delivered on the iPod. Phones are a familiar and essential part of their lives now, Morra emailed me.

How can ed add value to tech? Which points to a question I think we all need to be asking: “It is not a question of whether these technologies add value somehow to education, but the reverse, can education add value to the communications and information technologies of our present day world, and its future?” That’s from Ira Socol at Michigan State University, a comment he wrote in Saskatchewan tech educator Dean Shareski’s blog, Think about how education has added value to the book! (See “School & social media: Uber big picture.”)

Here’s how students themselves told Project Tomorrow they want to use mobile devices to support learning: for communications (email teachers and classmates and access personal Web sites); collaborations (projects and calendars); creativity (create/share documents, videos, educational games); and productivity (research, downloads, and to get alerts and reminders).

Why mobile learning? In its “Pockets of Potential” review of mobile learning projects in eight countries (schools in some countries are way ahead of this whole discussion), the Cooney Center lists “5 key opportunities in mobile learning.” It…

1. Encourages “anywhere, anytime” learning – learning in a real-world context and bridging home, school and other environments.
2. Reaches underserved children – low-cost devices and tech many children already have, especially in disadvantaged communities & developing countries.
3. Improves 21st-century social interactions – fostering constructive and constructivist (collaborative) use.
4. Fits with diverse learning environments – highly accessible communication and content-delivery devices.
5. Enables personalized learning experiences for diverse student populations and learning styles.

Back in 2006, kicking off the multiyear, MacArthur Foundation-funded, $50 million Digital Youth Project, media professor Henry Jenkins wrote, “Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.” (my post on Jenkins’s paper back then).

Related links

*, a site by author and learning technologies doctoral student Liz Kolb at the University of Michigan – her book is Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education
*, created by mobile learning consultant Judy Brown, formerly of the University of Wisconsin
* Project K-Nect – a Qualcomm-funded program being implemented in some North Carolina public schools as “a supplemental resource for secondary at-risk students to focus on increasing their math skills through the use of smartphones” (here’s the students’ blog)
*Where phones in class are ok” at Inside Higher Ed
*Learning curve: Cellphone as teacher” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
*WCSA Mobile Learning K-12,” a presentation by Judy Brown in SlideShare
* For an online-safety perspective on the gap between young people’s formal and informal learning with digital meeting, see “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth.”
* Project Tomorrow wasn’t the first research group to flag the digital disconnect. As I mentioned last week, Pew/Internet first wrote about in a 2002 report.
* This past summer, Tech & Learning published retailer Wirefly’s “Top 10 cellphones for students,” looking at affordability, popularity and functionality.

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