Special Report

Teachers Testing Mobile-Learning Methods

By Katie Ash — March 16, 2010 8 min read
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It’s no surprise that students want to use cellphones and other mobile technologies in class, but getting teachers on board with the idea may be more challenging.

In fact, incorporating mobile devices can change classroom dynamics and significantly affect the way teachers teach, all of which requires technical and instructional support to be successful, experts in educational technology say. Such implications, in turn, are creating a demand for more high-quality professional development in this area.

“The important thing to understand with mobile devices in general, especially for education purposes, is it’s still in a state of infancy,” says Nabeel Ahmad, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a learning technologist for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. “We’re just scratching the surface.”

As a result, educators are just now figuring out how mobile devices can be used successfully for both teachers and students, he says.

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” cautions Ahmad. For example, just because an hourlong professional-development course can be delivered through a cellphone doesn’t mean teachers will actually want to receive instruction that way, he says.

But although the best practices are still being hammered out, some school districts and teachers have taken the lead in incorporating the devices into instruction.

Ariana L. Leonard, a Spanish 1 and English-as-a-second-language teacher for the 2,200-student Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, Fla., uses cellphones in her class to create virtual scavenger hunts for her students. She divides the students into groups and sends them clues in English or Spanish, depending on the class, that they have to translate and comprehend to complete the activity.

‘The Biggest Change’

Incorporating cellphones into her class for the scavenger-hunt activity, as well as in other ways, has affected the way she and her students interact, says Leonard.

“Mobile technology has been really useful,” she says. “It’s really opened up the lines of communication between me and my students. They’re not as afraid to ask questions, and if they don’t understand something, they pick up their phones and send me a quick text.”

As a result, Leonard says, students are more likely to turn in their homework, and she’s seen a rise in test and quiz scores.

Leonard also uses cellphones and Web tools to have her students call in and record oral assessments, which she can then upload to her iPod, group into playlists, and listen to outside of school.

Samuel V. Parisi, an instructional technology specialist for the school, says that what Leonard is doing with her classes represents an overall shift in how instruction is delivered because of mobile technologies.

“We are of the mindset that teaching can happen anywhere, anytime, anyplace, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Parisi. “What we’re looking at is this idea of breaking the paradigm that the only content and the only moment of education occurs in 50-minute blocks.”

Thomas J. Phillips, the superintendent of the Watkins Glen Central School District in New York, says he has observed a shift in the role of the teacher since his district integrated smartphones into 5th and 7th grade classrooms during this school year.

“The biggest change that I’ve seen with our staff is the role of the teacher has gone from the person who delivers the instruction to the person who facilitates learning,” he says.

That shift can be challenging for teachers who may not be comfortable with the idea that students could be more knowledgeable about the technology than they are, but putting mobile technologies into students’ hands can encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning, says Phillips.

“Students are now empowered to be leaders, to deliver instruction, to problem-solve, and to come up with their own solutions, versus waiting for the teacher,” he says.

One essential step in encouraging teachers to embrace mobile technologies is providing the support that they need, says Phillips.

“There’s nothing worse than putting these in the hands of teachers and then have teachers frustrated because they don’t know how to work the device,” he says. “Having that technical support as well as the ongoing professional development is critical to ensuring the success of the initiative.”

Unfortunately, because schools are just now starting to incorporate mobile technologies into classrooms, there is a lack of professional-development opportunities, says Carly Shuler, a Cooney fellow at the New York City-based Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which conducts and supports research on digital media technologies and learning.

“A huge problem with technology in the classroom, in general, is that the professional development isn’t getting to [teachers],” she says. “What we really need to be doing is teaching teachers how to incorporate these tools in their curriculum in a way that works for them and their students,” rather than just how to operate the devices, she adds.

Cory Tressler, the instructional technology coordinator for the 19,000-student Beaufort County schools in South Carolina, says that not only are ongoing professional development and technical support critical to success, but it’s also important to choose instructional technology leaders whom teachers will feel comfortable consulting when they need help.

“It should be someone who knows the curriculum and the technology and is on the same level with [teachers],” he says, rather than an administrator who may be perceived as evaluating teachers’ performance.

“If you don’t have that support person there that’s able to walk them through in a friendly, nonjudgmental way, it’s going to be really hard for a lot of these teachers to adapt,” says Tressler.

Data in Their Palms

At the 800-student Oak Grove Elementary School outside Atlanta, teachers have begun to use mobile hand-held devices loaded with mCLASS software from New York City-based Wireless Generation, which develops software for mobile devices to help teachers give assessments and make data-based instructional decisions.

Mobile devices are “a natural fit, because teachers are very mobile professionals,” says Andrea Reibel, the vice president of corporate communications for Wireless Generation.

“They make the process of giving assessments more accurate and more frequent, which makes formative assessments as a whole more valuable to [teachers],” she says, referring to assessments that regularly gauge how well students are learning and enable teachers to adjust their instruction accordingly.

“Teachers have found that it’s a huge timesaver,” says Jennifer Scrivner, the principal of Oak Grove. Using the hand-held devices and mCLASS software to assess students also allows teachers to immediately synchronize the data to their computers, where it is transferred to a Web-based program that teachers can access either at home or in school.

“It enables the teachers to pinpoint what their needs are for the kids in the classroom,” says Scrivner. “And for the first time as an educational leader, I feel like I can make decisions about professional development based on data.”

By examining a teacher’s data, Scrivner can customize professional development for each teacher, she says.

“That way, you can truly differentiate the training,” she says, “and it becomes very job-embedded and relevant and meaningful for them because it’s exactly what their kids need in that classroom at that time.”

Teachers at Oak Grove Elementary also use Wireless Generation’s Burst:Reading software, which groups students based on their skills and embeds instructional materials and suggestions within software, providing job-embedded professional development through the devices, says Scrivner.

Using mobile devices is also helpful, she says, because teachers can stop her in the hallway to consult about certain classes or students and have all the data at their fingertips. “The portability of the device is very important and gives teachers a lot of flexibility,” Scrivner says.

Debra Stephens, a 2nd grade teacher at the school, says she uses the devices to communicate with parents at conferences, too. “You have it right there, and you can show the parents where their child is performing,” she says.

But the real value is in the immediacy with which teachers can use data to inform instruction.

“Because the results are so instantaneous, we’re able to very quickly look as a team at where our children are struggling or succeeding and see what we need to do,” says Jennifer Garland, an academic coach at the school.

Using Student Cellphones

James Lamb, a math teacher at the Annville-Cleona Secondary School near Harrisburg, Pa., also uses mobile technologies to improve his instruction, but instead of personal digital assistants or student-response-system clickers, he taps in to student-owned cellphones and an online tool called Poll Everywhere.

“Clicker systems are thousands and thousands of dollars,” says Lamb, “but Poll Everywhere uses existing hardware that kids already have—cellphones.”

He sets up questions in advance for his students to answer after he’s gone over the day’s lesson, and once they’ve answered the question, he can tell how well the class comprehended the material.

“It gives you a lot more immediate feedback,” he says.

Lamb also uses an online tool called Text Marks, which sends text messages to subscribers at a certain time each day. He sends out messages with daily homework assignments to his students to help keep them organized.

And although he encourages other teachers to use cellphones in their classes as well, Lamb emphasizes that “everything you do with the technology should be 100 percent driven by the curriculum and what the kids need,” rather than technology for its own sake.

Starting with learning objectives and goals when incorporating mobile technologies into the classroom is imperative, says Karen Fasimpaur, the president of the Portal, Ariz.-based K12 Handhelds, which helps schools integrate mobile technologies into classrooms.

“You have to start with what you want kids to accomplish,” she says.

And although teachers can certainly benefit from mobile devices, she says, the real value comes from putting them into the hands of students.

“It’s amazing what kids will do,” says Fasimpaur. “That’s where it really changes what the classroom looks like and what the teacher’s doing.”

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