Special Report
School & District Management

Mobile Learning Seen to Lack Rigorous Research

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 16, 2010 7 min read
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For their fans and promoters, mobile devices—whether smartphones, gaming gadgets, MP3 players, or netbooks—have the potential to transform teaching and learning by engaging students more deeply in lessons and promoting anytime, anywhere learning.

Only problem is, they can’t quite prove it yet. At least not with the kind of large-scale, empirical data that might persuade skeptics or decisionmakers that the investment needed to equip classrooms and train teachers would pay off in higher student achievement.

But researchers and educators who are already convinced of the benefits of mobile learning say that a growing number of studies here and abroad, as well as increasing anecdotal evidence from the K-12 field, are helping to strengthen the case for embedding portable tech tools into the school day.

“The problem that we’ve got on this is that all the research is promising, but it’s also based on very small samples,” says Thomas Greaves, the president of the Greaves Group, an Encinitas, Calif.-based education technology consulting firm. “It’s really too early to tell definitively yet. ... It’s real hard until we get large-scale results to know what difference they are making.”

Early Results Promising

Early results from two notable mobile-learning projects that involve thousands of students in North Carolina and the United Kingdom may help as well. Preliminary results show that cellphones equipped with Internet and a range of learning applications can help increase students’ collaboration and motivation, and improve their reading and math skills. (“Solving Algebra on Smartphones,” this issue.)

Smaller studies have looked at the effectiveness of specific applications for hand-held devices, and surveys have gauged the role that portable devices play in the lives of students and adults.

But those projects that introduce a specific activity or intervention for a short period of time—generally with small numbers of students—and then test any gain in the targeted knowledge or skills do not produce the kind of data the field needs to demonstrate how technology can transform teaching and learning, according to Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, and one of the foremost researchers of mobile learning. In fact, those focused inquiries may be counterproductive to efforts to position technology as a means of education reform.

“In general, there’s a lack of research on the sustained impact of technology on learning,” Soloway says. “The transition we’re trying to achieve is from technology being an add-on in the curriculum to technology being essential to the curriculum. So when you make that distinction, you realize the folly of this one-off research.”

Soloway is working in districts in New York, Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere to integrate cellphones throughout the school day using curriculum and data-management software he developed with University of North Texas researcher Cathleen A. Norris.

While mobile learning has a longer track record in other countries, particularly in Australia and several European nations, the literature as a whole is fairly thin, experts say.

An international review of the research published last year in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, for example, found that of just 44 studies on mobile learning in K-12 or higher education, only a handful used experimental methods. About half the studies were based on self-reported data, and more than half were short-term.

Cellphone Trends

Percentage of adults and teenagers who own cellphones, 2004-2008.


SOURCE: Pew Internet & American Life Project

The analysis concluded that, based on the limited research, there is evidence that mobile technologies are efficient for assessment of student skills and that they help motivate students to spend more time on academic tasks. But the research tended to focus more on the features of the mobile devices rather than on the “theoretical rationale or justification for using them” that could inform teaching, wrote researchers Wing Sum Cheung and Khe Foon Hew of the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

Assessing the Impact

Despite the lack of empirical data, however, Greaves argues that some of the research on other technologies, such as desktop or laptop computers, can be generalized to mobile devices, particularly their tendency to increase students’ time on task, communication, and motivation.

“The more technology [students] have, the better they do,” says Greaves, who has begun analyzing data from more than 1,000 schools for a special research project. The information gathered will be used to create a database of the practices and policies related to technology that have shown positive results and proved cost-effective. “If you have a computer for every kid, or every two kids, or four kids, there is a stair-step effect in test scores, dropout rates, course completion, disciplinary actions, so that the more technology, the more those schools are reporting better outcomes,” Greaves says.

But quantifying the impact is a bit trickier given that the influx of mobile technology into schools is recent and piecemeal, and is not spread consistently or widely geographically or throughout the curriculum. Beyond those issues, conducting experiments of classrooms equipped with mobile technologies and those using more traditional tools and methods may lead to unfair comparisons, according to Soloway.

In a classroom that utilizes mobile learning, “everything is different as a function of the technology,” he says. “Doing experimentation like that leads to ugly research because you’re not holding one thing constant.”

Ed-Tech Leadership

Percentage of public school districts that employ a person responsible for educational technology leadership.


SOURCE: Pew Internet & American Life Project

That leaves little solid evidence for school leaders to go on, some observers say. Those looking to move toward mobile platforms for learning might have to take something of a leap of faith.

The 60,000-student Katy district near Houston did just that when it signed on to participate in a pilot project using Soloway’s Go Know software, and provided specially equipped cellphones to 130 5th graders this school year. The district had already been using interactive whiteboards, desktop computing, and Web 2.0 applications, but in its effort to shift more teachers toward innovative strategies and tools, cellphones seemed a natural addition to the suite of tools, according to Lenny J. Schad, the district’s chief information officer. Educators in the district were persuaded primarily by observations about students’ preference for portable devices for completing a variety of tasks.

“There really weren’t a lot of people to talk to who’ve done this,” says Schad.

In the short term, the students have outperformed previous cohorts of 5th graders on standardized reading and math tests. While those results are hardly scientific, combined with reports of greater teacher collaboration, improved attendance, and reduced discipline problems, Schad says the experiment is successful so far.

By the Numbers

77% of teens own a game console, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.

74% of teens own an iPod or mp3 player.

60% of teens own a desktop or laptop computer.

55% of teens own a portable gaming device.

SOURCE: Pew Internet & American Life Project

“Math scores at the school are up by 20 points, reading scores by 18 points,” he says. “I don’t want to say that’s simply because of the [mobile] devices, but I think that they facilitated the increase in scores.”

‘It Motivates Kids’

The research that is available tends to confirm the effects in the Katy district, according to Mark van’t Hooft, a researcher at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University in Ohio.

Tracking Trends
Ed Tech Stats PDF

“It motivates kids to learn, and they tend to do more of whatever is being measured, maybe write more, read more, more review of content,” says van’t Hooft, the editor of the center’s refereed, multimedia journal.

But isolating the cause of those positive outcomes in schools that infuse tech tools in meaningful ways, he adds, is often difficult. Based on the literature in general, however, inferences can be made about the role technology might play in those improvements.

“Using digital tools tends to be a catalyst for improving teaching, improving learning,” he says, “with appropriate administrative support and tech support.”

Advocates are optimistic that the evidence will come. Meanwhile, they say, one of the most compelling reasons for using mobile technology to enhance instruction is the prevalence of the tools in students’ lives and their proficiency in using them to find and share information outside of school.

The research is clear on the ever-present nature of cellphones in the lives of today’s teenagers. The proportion of teens who have their own cellphones, for example, is catching up to the 77 percent of adults who do, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

“We’re struggling with engaging the digital learners of today,” Schad says. “So we’re using a tool that these kids use every single day.”

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