Using smart phones and other mobile devices for learning isn’t just a trend, but rather a sustainable approach to educational technology that can adapt to future assessments and help raise student test scores significantly, said presenters at the first-ever Mobile Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17.

"Year after year, when students are asked on our Speak Up Survey what they’d most like to have, I get the same answer," said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, a national education group that publishes the largest annual survey of student, parent, teacher, and administrator attitudes toward school technology.

"I hear: I want a laptop," Evans said.

But it’s not the specific nature of the device itself that kids desire, she explained; instead, it’s what a laptop gives them: the ability to control their own knowledge. According to Evans, a laptop serves as a proxy for intellectual freedom–and with recent advancements in handheld and smart-phone devices, these technologies can offer much of the same experience, at a typically lower cost.

"With handheld devices, students can have that freedom," said Evans. "It’s learning on the go, it’s portable, it’s anytime, anywhere access, and it can provide a personalized learning experience."

Mobile devices are not "just shrunken computers," said David Whyley, project director of Learning2Go, the largest collaborative mobile learning project for students in the United Kingdom.

"The mobile device is a case of digital tools at your disposal. It can provide an ultra-portable portfolio of work and provides a full range of resources and capabilities that information and communication technology offers," Whyley said.

"To put it simply, there are three points to mobile learning," said Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan who has developed software for smart phones that allows them to be more like personal computers.

Soloway’s three points are that mobile learning is…

1. Big: By combining the main functions of a PC with the resources of the internet in an ultra-portable device, smart phones and other mobile devices truly give students the ability to practice "anytime, anywhere" learning

2. Sustainable: Because most students will already have a cell phone or mobile device, parents can buy the technology for their kids, and schools can purchase only the software. Also, students prefer handheld technology to laptops because it’s more portable. At the same time, handheld devices, software companies, and educators are creating programs to help implement mobile devices into the curriculum.

3. Able to provide unique opportunities, especially for interaction through blogs and academic-related text messaging.

Soloway and his team of researchers have developed a software suite that transforms smart phones into virtual PCs. The Mobile Learning Environment, which is being tested in a Texas elementary school, gives students a handheld platform that duplicates many of the educational features of a PC, including the ability to map concepts, do internet research, use animation, and run versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.

For Tim Magner, director of the Office of Education Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, the question of whether mobile learning is good for education comes down to one question: "What is the purpose of school?"

"For 150 years, no one has asked this question, and schools have remained the same–based on the model that a school is meant to deliver information to its students," Magner said.

"But times have changed, and students can get information from the internet, as well as many other places. Schools need to be the center that provides not simple information, but collaborative experiences based on that information. School should be the place that connects parents, students, and communities–and technology can leverage all of this by providing the information. Technology makes school progress possible."

Real-life integration

A pilot project using smart phones in North Carolina schools reportedly has helped raise math scores there by 20 percent.

Project K-Nect is a two-year pilot program that began during the 2007-08 school year. The project addresses the need to improve math skills among at-risk ninth-grade students in North Carolina using advanced wireless technology.

To be eligible for the program, students had to have limited at-home internet access, qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program, and have below-average math proficiency levels.

Qualified students were given EV-DO enabled smart phones to wirelessly access the internet both on and off school campus. The phones not only provide access to supplemental math content aligned with their teachers’ current lesson-plan objectives, but also allow students to collaborate with each other and contact after-school tutors who can assist them with mastering a targeted skill set.

The project is an offshoot of Wireless Reach, a global mobile learning initiative from wireless provider Qualcomm that aims to empower underserved communities through the use of 3G wireless technology. Schools in China, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Vietnam also have taken part in the Wireless Reach project. A grant provided by Wireless Reach ensures that the smart phones and service are free of charge to participating students and their schools.

Project K-Nect allows only authorized users to communicate electronically within the system and is monitored to ensure that acceptable use policies (AUP) are not violated.

"Teachers can read every text message that their students send, read every blog post, [and] look through the information on their phone," explained Suzette Kliewer, a math teacher at Onslow County Schools’ Southwest High School. "Once we let the students know exactly how and when … we’d be monitoring them, delinquency dropped immediately. And if a student is misbehaving, the phone’s software allows the teacher to completely disable that phone with the touch of a button."

Kliewer discussed how much the students can do on their phones and gave attendees a brief demonstration of the phones and their applications.

"Students have access to state-standard problem sets created specifically for K-Nect, access to an eContent repository, [and] they can IM, post to blogs, create videos, take pictures, draw and take notes, access Windows 6.1, access Windows Media Player, create PowerPoint presentations, take quizzes, and have access to a virtual hard drive," said Kliewer.

When students complete assessments, all the data reportedly are recorded and stored for the teacher to look at whenever he or she is ready through an application created by software supplier SOTI MobiControl. SOTI MobiControl works in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Onslow County Schools, Digital Millennial Consulting, and Qualcomm.

The software also allows teachers to monitor their students’ phones in real time, as well as create and send out assessments, multimedia, and notes.

“This program has taken average-level kids to the honors level," said Kliewer. "Students who felt shy participating before are communicating via phone, which usually leads to them participating more in class."

The project hasn’t been without challenges, however.

One problem is that not every teacher is cut out for mobile learning. "I’ll be honest: It takes a lot of time outside of the classroom, and a lot of knowing how to integrate solid curriculum. It’s not for everyone," Kliewer said.

Tom Greaves, chairman of the educational technology consulting firm The Greaves Group, echoed Kliewer’s statement, saying that the most important thing to worry about in mobile learning is not the device, but how is it "being put together and used."

"Laptop [use is] up 20 percent a year, netbooks are growing 100 percent a year, and with smart phones, well, staff usage is going up, but not student usage. This can be for many reasons, but mainly because phones and handheld devices are usually banned in many schools, as well as the fact that many phones are not designed with education in mind," explained Greaves.

Soloway believes that if educators fully explain their district’s AUP–a policy that allows for educational uses of smart phones and other handheld devices–students will be less likely to act out.

"There should be open school-wide discussions on AUP, and the more we trust students, the more autonomy we give, the less students behave irresponsibly. I like to think of it as the Responsible Use Policy," he said.

"Too often we say that technology is the fix-all to our schools’ problems, and because of this, the technology fails," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. "You can’t implement technology and then restrict it. You can’t implement technology without fully understanding what you want to accomplish with it. What skills should your students have? How can you implement technology into the curriculum seamlessly? Cell phones won’t solve all your schools’ problems, but they can help solve some, and they can help to inspire student innovation."

For Evans, adults and teachers need to realize that handheld devices not only engage students, but help them to be productive.

"Mobile devices can help with homework alerts, students can download lectures, they can access school portals, control their own learning … Students want to be just as organized and productive as adults, and mobile devices can help them to accomplish that," she said.

"This is just the beginning. Educators are already ready for the next steps in mobile learning: eight-hour batteries, low total cost of ownership and minimal support staff, functional integration, processors like GPUs and DSPs, OLED and projection displays, connectivity and teraflop research," said Greaves.

He concluded: "The research is out there, pilots are being funded. It’s not just a trend, it’s the future."

Links:

Mobile Learning Conference

Project Tomorrow

Learning2Go

Elliot Soloway

“Project Uses Cell Phones as Computers in the Classroom”

Keller ISD mobile learning project

Project K-Nect

Wireless Reach project

Onslow County Schools

SOTI MobiControl

The Greaves Group

Consortium for School Networking

Additional resources:

IAmLearn (International Association for Mobile Learning)

OER Commons (Open education resources)

ISTE SIG Handheld Computing


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