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Mobile Devices Seen as Key to 21st-Century Learning

By Andrew Trotter — January 09, 2009 4 min read

Children’s lives have been caught up in a tide of mobile digital technologies—games, cellphones, and smartphones—that if carefully managed could significantly boost their learning, concludes a report released today by a research center based at the Sesame Workshop.

“Mobile devices are part of the fabric of children’s lives today: They are here to stay,” Michael H. Levine, the executive director of the New York City-based Joan Ganz Cooney Center, at Sesame Workshop, wrote in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “It is no longer a question of whether we should use these devices to support learning, but how and when to use them.”

The 52-page “Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning” calls for the incoming Obama administration and the business community to invest in more research on the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices for children in school and after-school settings. It also calls for a gradual lifting of school cellphone bans.

The author of the report is Carly Shuler, a researcher in the children’s media and toy industry who is a fellow at the center.

“While these devices are undoubtedly a source of fun and entertainment, proponents of mobile learning believe they have significant potential to be a key ally in supporting learning experiences,” she writes, drawing on interviews with mobile-learning experts and a review of scientific literature and industry trends.

Fast-Growing Segment

The report compiles relevant data, such as a finding of the Pew Internet & American Life Project that children under age 12 form one of the fastest-growing segments of users of mobile devices. However, the use of such mobile devices has grown much more rapidly in other sectors, such as health, banking, politics, and citizen journalism, than in education, it says.

The report also includes an inventory of more than 25 projects in which hand-held devices are being used for learning or are the subject of research in the United States and other nations.

“We were really actually quite surprised with how robust the experimentation is, particularly in other countries, with mobile technologies,” Mr. Levine said in an interview.

Other nations are experimenting more quickly with new technologies than the United States, he said, adding that a more permissive approach to trying new technologies exists in Asia and Europe than in the United States, because of concerns among U.S. parents and educators about mobile devices being used in disruptive ways.

Mr. Levine added, however, that he thinks “the pendulum is swinging back” toward a loosening of those restrictions.

Smartphones for Math

One U.S. project highlighted in the report is Project K-Nect, a pilot program in its second year that has placed smartphones—which are mobile phones that have wireless Internet and computer-like capabilities—in the hands of 9th grade algebra students in four North Carolina high schools. Teachers, from their laptop computers, send specially designed activities related to curriculum topics to students’ smartphones.

The activities include digital simulations and digital manipulatives that turn abstract concepts into real-world examples. Students can use their phones’ video, text-messaging, and instant-messaging functions to send and receive problem-solving strategies and tips to and from students at the other schools and to tutors from the Math Forum at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Shawn Gross, the executive director of the project, said it is proving that smartphones, which in some communities students already own or have access to, can provide “many services that can be used as an educational appliance rather than as a distraction.”

A long list of recommendations in the report begins with a call for government and philanthropies to make new investments in research and development aimed at understanding the impact of mobile technologies on children’s learning and development, including brain and behavioral functioning.

The report calls for creating new industry designs and educational applications rather than applying traditional learning models or downsizing software designed for personal computers to fit mobile devices.

Another recommendation is establishing a digital teacher corps that would train other teachers and after-school caregivers to use digital media to promote 21st-century literacy.

Presidential Initiative?

The center urges that the incoming administration convene a presidential initiative on digital learning, beginning with an audit of current government spending on digital technologies for learning.

The initiative, including a White House summit, should also set up a digital-investment fund to accelerate education reform and promote mobile innovation to benefit the economy, the report says.

Most pertinent to local school leaders, the report calls for school districts to modify and gradually lift restrictions on student cellphones—which most districts ban from use in classrooms or even altogether from campus. The report recommends steps to gradually introduce mobile devices into schools, starting with experiments in which teachers are trained in how to integrate interactive media, while students learn the needed skills and behavior for using cellphones appropriately in a school setting.

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