Special Report

Educators Struggle to Design Mobile-Learning Content

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 16, 2010 5 min read
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Figuring out how to put cellphones into the hands of students—complete with data plans and security features—is often seen as the most daunting step for districts eager to tap the potential learning benefits of mobile technologies. But once those logistics are conquered, another big question looms: How can educators find or develop meaningful, standards-based lessons that fit the visual and data constraints of a small-screen device?

In the push for mobile learning as a way to utilize tools that students are adept at using and are enthusiastic about, the quest for creating and finding high-quality content is proving a challenge. But as more schools decide to incorporate portable technologies into the school day, demand is growing for curricula developed with a three-inch display window in mind. And as more educators start to move beyond the simple mobile applications for education, like multiple-choice quizzes, flashcards, and polling, they are learning that adapting existing lessons to the miniature viewing area of a cellphone or personal digital assistant, or PDA, does not always work.

“You can’t just take something you use on a big screen and move it to a little screen and have it work well,” says Thomas Greaves, an education and technology consultant based in Encinitas, Calif. “There are not near as many people developing applications for small devices as there are for large ones, because the market isn’t there yet.”

Beyond ‘Dabbling’

As a result, many educators and administrators are using basic academic applications for the short term as they work on more-sophisticated lessons, or wait for additional products to come to market.

That’s the game plan at the Florida Virtual School, the largest state-sponsored online school in the country. Students who have cellphones, for example, can practice algebra using a 300-question study guide created for portable devices.

But FLVS officials are trying to get beyond such simple uses. They have enlisted a team of experts to develop mobile software, in partnership with a commercial provider, that incorporates video, interactive and social-networking features, and Web resources adapted for the devices.

Educators at the FLVS are embracing mobile learning as an opportunity to expand the reach of academic programs beyond students’ desktop and laptop computers.

But they are trying to get beyond just “dabbling or experimenting” with different unrelated activities to a point where they use mobile tools more strategically, says the school’s chief development officer, Joy Smith.

To do so, FLVS teachers might start each lesson with a student poll using cellphones to gauge what the class members know or think about the topic at hand. Soon, FLVS students will have the chance to take an entire course designed for small-screen gadgets, if they wish. The curriculum-development team is looking closely at the existing curriculum to determine the best places to add mobile options for students so that activities are integrated meaningfully, not just in ways that are isolated, or novel but insignificant.

“Right now, we’re just focusing on what’s easy, what can be developed quickly, because it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out what is the best practice for doing this,” says Smith. “You could very easily and quickly put out a lot of [software] applications, but I’m not sure that the pedagogy is behind that or if we would see the real instructional gains around that.”

What Teachers Want

For now, simplicity might be the safest route, according to David Metcalf, a researcher and analyst at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. A number of educational programs and several learning-management systems for mobile devices are already aligned to standards, and combine the fun features of video games and the knowledge and skills of specific subjects.

Some of those programs, like My Sports Pulse, the sports-themed math and science games Metcalf helped design, have shown results in building students’ knowledge and skills in their respective subjects.

Given the shortage of software applications, though, the most useful feature of any mobile device is ready Internet access, says Mark van’t Hooft, a researcher at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University in Ohio.

“Some of those basic tools on the Web for concept mapping, writing, using graphical information are what a lot of teachers are still looking for,” he says. “Having a connection with the Web is really key because then you don’t have to worry too much about if there’s an application made for it.”

Even that fundamental tool, however, requires students to be proficient at viewing Web pages in chunks, since most are composed strictly for large screens, experts say.

Educators also must consider the capabilities of specific devices, and their limitations, says Cathleen A. Norris, a professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas.

Some cellphones don’t allow students to create and store content, so schools need to provide access to Web resources that allow them to do so. Others don’t have Flash features for viewing graphics and video. Still others allow students to easily create spreadsheets or communicate via e-mail, but do not have word-processing programs or cameras that allow students to develop multimedia presentations, Norris says.

Teachers themselves, she adds, are becoming part of the solution to the curriculum crunch for mobile technologies.

In St. Marys, Ohio, a 2,150-student district that issues mobile phones to elementary students, teachers have put together an online forum for sharing curriculum ideas and resources with members. Teachers there have also organized show-and-tell sessions to demonstrate how they work with cellphones in the classroom. In May, a statewide conference is planned for educators hoping to learn more about how mobile learning is working in schools that are implementing programs.

“Teachers [who are using mobile strategies] are working together much more than they ever had before,” says Norris. Because sufficient lessons aren’t available, “it’s required the teachers to work together,” she says. “So one creates a lesson for this subject, another works on a different subject, and then they can share them.”

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