For most people, the words “mobile phone” and “learning” are antonyms. If Shakespeare’s plays and Proust’s novels are at one end of a spectrum tracing intellectual rigor, mobile phones—brimming with moronic Twitter feeds, emoticon-stained text messages, and absurd games—are on the other, or so the thinking goes. Despite the fact that mobile phones have become increasingly central to our day-to-day lives, we continue to maintain that far from facilitating learning, the devices tucked in our pockets actually thwart the development of analytical thinking skills.
As a result, schools often ban mobile phones. In developed and developing countries alike, a person is as likely to find a “no cellphone” sign taped to a school wall as a “no smoking” sign. And the similar design of the signs—an image of a phone or cigarette with a red slash through the middle—is hardly an accident. They both communicate an unambiguous message: cellphones, like cigarettes, provide a quick fix, but ultimately they will hurt you and, therefore, have no place in centers of education. Research collected at UNESCO indicates that phones are strictly prohibited in many schools around the world.
Fortunately, a small but growing number of school leaders have realized that mobile phones, far from being a Marlboro encased beneath an LCD screen, are devices of dizzying utility, and that they carry enormous potential to empower learning, not only in schools but also beyond them. Today, who among us has not used a mobile phone to solve a problem, learn something about the world, or cooperate with others? Whether it be reading a newspaper, geo-tagging photos, checking the pronunciation of a word, translating one language into another, exploring new music and videos, or composing something artful in an email or, yes, even a text message, we are all already learning with mobile devices.
Current projections suggest that you will be very hard-pressed to find anyone without working a working mobile phone by 2015."
To pretend that people cannot or will not leverage technology to improve their productivity is naive and ultimately self-defeating. We do not ask students to forgo word processors in favor of typewriters, calculators in favor of slide rules, or Internet databases in favor of card catalogs, and even if we did, students would ignore us. The benefits of having instant access to communication and the largest cache of information civilization has ever known are simply too great to ignore.
Just ask the people of Africa: On that continent, people spend, on average, 17 percent of their monthly income on mobile phones and connectivity plans. People in Western Europe and North America spend under 2 percent. Why are Africans willing to spend so much? Because the cost of not having a mobile device is greater. Mobile phones have become an essential ingredient of everyday life; they are more appendage than tool, often the first thing we look at in the morning and the last thing we see before going to bed.
Today, the question is not whether schools will engage with mobile technologies, but when and how. To borrow a (perhaps crude) analogy, the relentless push to enhance our intelligence with technology—and, make no mistake, we are enhancing our intelligence when we lean on our phones to fill in gaps in our knowledge—resembles an arms race. Sticking with swords when the other side is transitioning to muskets is not really a choice. And even if a treaty exists that asks all sides to keep muskets out of their armories, when one party defects, the others are suddenly under pressure to defect as well, lest they fall behind.
This innovate-or-die instinct applies to education as well: When one university makes the contents of its library searchable from any digital device with an Internet connection, others are obligated to follow. And when one school figures out how to teach students to use, rather than shun, ubiquitous and extremely powerful technology toward constructive ends, other schools must follow suit as well. Education may be notoriously slow to change, but it is hardly immune to the laws of creative destruction.
While “disruption” is often a word that gets tagged to efforts to integrate technology in education, the idea that learning facilitated by mobile devices will suddenly make teachers and perhaps even schools extraneous relics of a pre-digital age couldn’t be further from the truth. Knowing how to use technology in ways that foster healthy intellectual and social development is not self-evident at all. Study after study has revealed that despite knowing the basics of how to thumb through mobile applications, students are ill-prepared to skillfully navigate the oceans of information available to them. They can find websites and download software, sure, but filtering, organizing, using, and learning from myriad resources is a different matter entirely.
Experiments have shown, for example, that very few students know how to use electronic databases to help them identify high-quality content. More recent investigations suggest that even advanced university students will rarely consider information beyond the top four or five Web pages returned by an Internet search engine when formulating answers to complex questions. Increasingly, students appear to be putting more trust in machines than in their individual abilities to critically evaluate the relevance of data. Thus far, schools have failed to provide a counterweight to the unthinking algorithms of Google and Yahoo because, too often, they turn a blind eye to the technology students are using to access information.
To be sure, in the wrong hands, a mobile phone can be the intellectual equivalent of a cigarette. A teacher’s job is to show students how it can also be educational broccoli—something that builds healthy minds.
Mobile devices need not be threatening to educators. They can help both teachers and students work smarter and faster and in contexts that better approximate the technologically enhanced and, yes, sometimes technologically laden world waiting outside the classroom. A primary task of teachers is to help students know the difference: to evaluate when technology is a genuine tool and when it is a flashy distraction. Teachers are well-placed to help students learn how to leverage the technology that is increasingly converging inside mobile devices to accelerate learning.
Make no mistake, mobile devices are here to stay. They assist in tasks of every type, from finding and securing jobs, to learning the market prices of commodities, to sending pictures, to checking account balances, to bringing down corrupt governments. If you can think of a project, more often than not there is a way the phone in your pocket can help you do it. Today, there are more than 5.9 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide, and for every one person who accesses the Internet from a computer, two do so from a mobile device. Current projections suggest that you will be very hard pressed to find anyone without a working mobile phone by 2015. From Burma to Bangalore to Baltimore, we are a world united in our embrace of this transformative technology.
Banning mobile devices in an era literally saturated with them is no longer a viable option, not for individual schools or for larger education systems. Engage we must.
The harder question of how to use the devices to enhance learning will probably take years to sort out, but that task needs to begin in earnest. And educators, not technologists, are the ones who should blaze the path forward; they are the experts in learning and development. The Nokias, Apples, and Samsungs of the world have provided us amazing tools at affordable prices. It is now our job to figure out how these tools—the ones we use every day—can further and deepen not only the education of students around the world but, indeed, our own educations.
Mobile phones need not be an educational cigarette; they carry a vast and unrealized potential to make learning more accessible and more effective everywhere. The time to seriously explore this potential is now.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and not UNESCO.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Making Room for Mobiles