It hasn’t been that long since cell phones were first introduced as instructional devices for the classroom. Seven or eight years ago, the discussion was centered on whether mobile devices had a place in schools or whether they should be banned, whether they were tools for learning or distractions. The discussion has changed dramatically since then.
We’ve moved from talking about mobile devices to talking about mobile students who need anytime, anywhere access to the Internet for their digital tools, content and, even more importantly, their communities of learning. Anytime, anywhere access means that students have access at school, at home, and everywhere in between, including the school bus, after school childcare, part time jobs, extracurricular activities, and so on. It may often mean using multiple different devices over different networks such as the school WiFi, home cable access, and cellular networks when out and about. It may mean having a mobile device for anytime/anywhere access, as well as having access to a more robust device such as a desktop or laptop when its time to do serious content creation and editing.
Why does mobile matter?
There is something very different about always having access to your tools versus sometimes having access, even if that access is quite frequent. Being able to rely on digital tools means that your workflow can change in profound ways. Think about how we use devices to accomplish personal and professional goals:
- We don’t have to keep a Thomas Guide in our car because we can trust Google or Apple maps
- We can make just-in-time appointments for collaboration or socializing because we can connect in real time
- We can work anywhere, accessing e-mail, documents, videos, or other materials from the cloud
- We can check information from spreadsheets in the middle of a meeting, without carrying paper copies around
- We can check information on the Internet to inform a discussion with facts we don’t have at our fingertips
- We can comparison shop, checking if the super-discounted one-day-only sale prices are better than those we can get online
- We can carry on high quality conversations asynchronously with friends and colleagues using social media, even if they are scattered around the globe
Mobile helps us focus on the higher-value contributions we make and allows us to outsource things to our devices and the cloud, instead of continuing to rely on logistical process and paper. But here’s the thing: if we only have access to the Internet 80% of the time, we can’t make that switch. We have to keep all the old ways of doing things in place as backup for when we’re offline.
Similarly, for students, if they know they’ll have access to a connected device at home, rather than sharing one with their siblings or even having to go to a library, they can plan for more ambitious approaches to homework and projects. They can become fluid and fluent in using technology for a mix of personal and academic purposes, with their expertise in one area improving their skills and usage in the other. They can work on digital homework while on the bus or at after school programs, giving themselves more time for academics.
But these examples only scratch the surface of what can happen with anytime, anywhere access:
- One of the greatest goods to come from mobile learning is the opportunity to learn with other students outside the walls of the classroom. Years ago, Project K-Nect in North Carolina demonstrated how connected students helping each other with math homework dramatically improved outcomes for struggling and engaged students alike. Since then, we’ve seen the higher tech version, “flipped learning.” In its simplest form, flipped learning gives kids access to video lectures outside school, which leaves face time for deeper work. When done well, it goes even further and asks students to think and write critically with each other on a topic before coming back to class. Even in primary grades, teachers ask students to respond to a prompt or a video and then critique each other’s work before coming back to school. This leads students to the “beautiful work” described by Ron Berger, where students gain the habit of asking themselves what would make their work better and learn to iterate towards excellence.
- Students are no longer dependent on adults to give them information. Whether it’s looking up sports scores to win an argument or using Google Earth to visualize the setting of a classic novel, students can nurture their curiosity at will. This plays an important part in shifting student dispositions to one of “ownership” of their own learning.
- Using devices for their own (generally non-academic) purposes, students persist in developing skills and fluencies that then translate to academic work.
However, there are obstacles to gaining these richer outcomes of mobile learning. For most districts, it is prohibitive to provide Internet access to students outside of the classroom if they don’t already have it at home, leading to an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. Districts are also struggling with the implications of student work and data being hosted by third parties at a time when concerns about student privacy and data security are at an all-time high. Well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive legislation to protect students has the effect of limiting those same students’ potential by limiting their access to the very tools that can transform their learning.
It takes a great deal of extra effort on the part of districts to mitigate these challenges, but the potential gains may be disproportionately high:
- What will happen when students who currently go home to non-academic environments are able to connect in engaging ways with their peers on academic subjects after school? Can the culture gap between home and school be reduced?
- What will happen when students use platforms, tools, and apps that give them insight into their learning and allow them to visualize their progress? Can students embrace the same kind of growth mindset and persistence as we see when they engage with digital games designed to provide such feedback?
- What will happen when parents whose work schedules currently preclude them from participating in classrooms gain the possibility of meaningfully participating digitally for 30 minutes during their day?
We no longer question whether computers and mobile devices serve as tools for learning. The questions now are how to evolve this emerging ecosystem for the benefit of all students and how to be thoughtful and creative in addressing the challenges, all while mitigating the inequities in order to provide every student the best tools and learning environments possible.
Marie Bjerede is an established authority on mobile learning, the Founder of e-Mergents LLC, and a 25-year veteran executive leader in high-tech and wireless communication development. Bjerede advises schools, startups, and technology leaders on the products, practices, and platforms that enable and scale authentic learning and teaching with technology. Bjerede takes an unconventional approach in all her endeavors—removing constraints from systems to get bigger payoffs with less effort.