Special Report
Classroom Technology

Experts Talk About Mobile-Learning Challenges

March 11, 2010 4 min read

To provide exclusive insight into the role of mobile computing in education, Technology Counts 2010 Senior Writer Michelle R. Davis conducted audio interviews with leading experts. Those experts were Christopher Dede, a professor of educational technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Cathleen A. Norris, a professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas; and Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan. Following are excerpts from those interviews. Listen to the full audio interviews.

Listen to Audio

How widespread is the use of mobile technology in school?

BRIC ARCHIVE

DEDE: There’s a sharp contrast between students’ use of cellphones outside of the school setting and how many schools are taking advantage of that infrastructure. Even students from relatively impoverished families have cellphones of different types. They’re not getting the cellphones for learning neccessarily, but they can be repurposed for education in powerful ways. Cellphones today, even relatively inexpensive cellphones, are very powerful compared to prior models and are approaching what laptops could do just a few years ago. It’s exciting that students have this kind of technology at their fingertips.

That said, typically the response on the part of schools has been avoidance rather than adoption. Most schools have been very wary of the educational impact of having cellphones that are active during school hours.

How can schools tap in to technology that students already have?

DEDE: Where we are today with mobile devices is similar to where we were with laptops at the very beginning of laptop initiatives, when the operating systems were very different and software applications were very different, and they weren’t interoperable. You either had to specify that every student had the same device or you had a nightmare with a kind of Tower of Babel problem with all the devices not able to communicate with one another effectively. Just as that changed in the laptop industry, it’s now changing in the mobile-device industry. There are very powerful market forces at work that have nothing to do with education that are going to make these mobile devices interoperable. The story will be different even three years from now because of these market forces at work.

Why should a school consider using a mobile device?

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOLOWAY: You want technology to be essential. It has got to be 1-to-1, and it has got to be affordable. We’ve got all these [budget] cuts all the time in these districts. The one device that’s really going to be affordable for 1-to-1 is a [cellphone]. You are putting literally hundreds of computers in a school. The [budget] impact on a school is almost nil compared to trying to roll out 1-to-1 infrastructure with laptops or even netbooks.

BRIC ARCHIVE

NORRIS: For the most part, the cellular providers are providing the devices at little or no cost to the school, so the handset is practically free. When you look at the cost of building out a robust infrastructure—one that can handle every child in every classroom hitting that network during the day at the same time—we’re talking about a serious network that will handle that kind of traffic. The cost to the schools is between $75,000 to $100,000 to build out that infrastructure. Why would you build it out when you can outsource it to someone else whose business is networks, and you don’t have to pay the personnel to set it up, maintain it, and to keep updating it?

Give me some examples of things educators are using these devices to do.

SOLOWAY: Word processor, animation program, spreadsheets, concept math. All that range of software that is available can be turned into learning activities. Because it’s mobile, if you’re carrying a 30-ounce cellphone computer you are now in the world and relating the abstract concepts to the real world. That’s the profound change that you can do with a mobile device [like a cellphone] that you really can’t do with a laptop or desktop.

Do these devices extend the learning experience and the school day outside the classroom?

NORRIS: Learning truly is 24/7 now. We’ve seen examples of that over and over, particularly when asking students to document things they’ve done. You’re studying leaves, so find me examples of these leaves; photograph mold; take video; interview people in this situation. If you see someone you think perhaps was in World War II, or if you encounter Vietnam veterans, you’ve got MP3 players so you can use the device to do an impromptu interview to bring back to class. If you’re visiting a nursing home and there are people you think have some expertise in a particular area, you have in your hands the ability to do an impromptu interview to be part of your lesson and bring back and share.

Audio Q&A: Expert Perspective

Listen to Technology Counts 2010 Senior Writer Michelle R. Davis’ entire interviews with leading experts:

Making the Case for Mobile Learning at SchoolElliot Soloway, professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan, and Cathleen A. Norris, professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas, talk about how mobile computing devices have the potential to transform learning in K-12 schools.

Powering Up Mobile Devices for LearningChristopher Dede, professor of learning technology at the Harvard graduate school of education, talks about the imbalance between the widespread use of mobile computing devices outside classrooms and the slow pace at which schools are incorporating the portable tech tools into learning.

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