Making the Case for Mobile Computing

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 26, 2009 5 min read
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Are cellphones and other mobile devices powerful learning tools or intolerable classroom distractions?

For Elliot Soloway, the answer is a no-brainer. Cellphones, hand-held gaming gadgets, and netbooks—all relatively cheap, seemingly ever-present mobile devices used (and often abused) by today’s teenagers—can engage middle and high school students in learning inside and outside of school, he and other advocates of mobile learning say.

“These kids sleep with their devices,” Soloway, a University of Michigan education and computer science professor, said at a mobile-learning conference earlier this year. “Kids prefer these devices to computers or anything else.”

Then why not tap their allure and instructional potential? Because not everyone is convinced that mobile tools have sensible or effective applications for schools. Many schools, in fact, ban the devices during the school day because of the tendency for students to use them in class for texting classmates or other disruptive purposes. And at a time when many school leaders demand evidence of a product’s academic effectiveness before spending precious budget dollars, mobile-tech applications are hard-pressed to satisfy that requirement.

“The enthusiasm for [mobile learning] is based on observation and just expert thinking, and not on a lot of hard data,” says Robert Spielvogel, the chief technology officer and director of applied research and innovation at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center. “Teachers’ experience so far, because there aren’t instructionally validated applications, is that cellphones and the like are only a distraction.”

Gathering Evidence

Mobile-learning proponents are now working more aggressively to document the effect that small, hand-held technologies can have on learning, and to come up with evidence-based recommendations for using them.

Soloway has seen results firsthand in the classrooms he and his colleagues have been studying in Detroit, and he says there’s a growing body of anecdotal evidence about the impact of portable electronics on student motivation and engagement.

“The state of the research is that it is still emerging,” Soloway said in an interview. “The problem is, how do you use what might appear to be a toy as a real tool? To use them effectively, you need a learning-management system, a curricular rationale, evidence of the best practices, and those are coming out now.”

Soloway isn’t alone in suggesting that schools use mobile technologies to enliven lessons, encourage student collaboration, and promote greater communication between students and teachers. The Mobile Learning Conference this past winter drew educators and researchers from around the world, and a research conference in London this fall on hand-held learning devices is expected to draw some 1,500 participants, many of them already convinced of the value of the tech tools. The topic is also slated as a key focus of formal and informal events this week at the National Educational Computing Conference, or NECC, in Washington.

“As we start showing what’s an appropriate use for mobile learning devices, and as people get more comfortable with having them available in the classroom,” Spielvogel says, they will be viewed by more teachers as valuable instructional tools.

There is already some evidence to support the enthusiasm. Studies over the past five years by the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University in Ohio have found that using hand-held devices in the classroom can improve students’ motivation, engagement, conceptual understanding, and problem-solving skills.

Carefully designed research projects that equip students with cellphones to allow collaboration on math assignments—such as the Learning2Go initiative in the United Kingdom and Project K-nect in North Carolina—are showing similar outcomes.

Soloway’s work in Detroit includes some encouraging results in raising student achievement as well, he says, but those studies have not yet been peer-reviewed or published.

The EDC is working with market-research experts and education organizations to gauge cellphone usage among young people here and abroad for clues to how easily the devices might be utilized in schools.

“The studies are all pointing in the right direction,” in supporting the use of mobile devices in the classroom, says Soloway. “We just need more of them.”

Workplace Tools

In lieu of independent evidence, commercial providers of hardware and content applications are trying to make the case for themselves by publishing case studies and conducting research projects in schools that use their products.

Even though the literature on mobile devices is thin, there is strong evidence that the kinds of instructional approaches that they enable have a significant impact on students and teachers, says Bob Longo, the executive vice president of Studywiz Spark, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that markets learning-management systems with desktop and mobile applications.

“We know that if you put more time on task, you’re going to get a better result, so if you give students and teachers access to [content] 24/7, the learning experience extends outside of the 45-minute class period,” Longo says.

“There’s no question that the more data we can accumulate, the easier it is for people to make decisions” about how to use mobile technologies in schools, Longo adds. “But K-12 education is one of the only markets where we’re still trying to justify the importance of technology. Every other place, like in the workplace, it’s taken tech for granted as an environmental necessity.”

Many educators, however, are skeptical. Earlier this year, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers, for example, questioned industry officials’ claims that cellphones are effective educational tools. And many teachers have spoken out on blogs and in newspaper opinion pieces about how students’ unauthorized use of cellphones in school has undermined learning.

For Soloway, the proliferation of mobile devices among young people and the devices’ critical role in the workplace are reasons enough, for now, to begin integrating them into the classroom.

“This is the knowledge-worker age, and every knowledge worker has mobile learning, mobile computing; the mobile device is their hub around which all work takes place,” Soloway says. “If we’re going to prepare kids for the knowledge-work marketplace, then mobile learning’s got to be what we prepare kids to use.”


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