Teachers and Schools Adopt Smartphones for ‘21st Century Learning’

Published April 27, 2011

American schools may be on the verge of a revolution in which “smartphones” such as the Apple iPhone largely replace textbooks and other materials on the classroom.

One prominent advocate says the burgeoning technology is better suited to the way young students live and learn, boosting student achievement as a result. The shift could also end up saving school districts and taxpayers money because students bring their own parent-purchased devices from home—though there are some other cost problems that must still be solved before widespread “mobile learning” will be practical.

“This is the 21st century. Every 21st century knowledge worker, their tool is the mobile computer,” said Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan education professor and the founder of GoKnow, which develops mobile learning applications. “We need to prepare our children to be 21st century knowledge workers, and prepare them to use these tools.”

‘Five Years … Very Different’
Thomas Greaves, founder of the tech consulting firm The Greaves Group, warns the shift to mobile learning is still in its early stages. “We’re talking about something that’s got 100 times more publicity than reality,” he said.

But even Greaves suggests that will change quickly: “I think that five years from now, we’re going to be pretty far along in schools that are very different from today’s schools,” he said, adding, “I think if it’s done properly, it can enhance student achievement.”

Web-equipped phones can be used in education as anything from a quick reference guide to “classroom clickers” with which students provide immediate digital responses to teacher questions, to social networking tools that help students collaborate on educational projects.

Pilot Projects Show Potential
An early pioneer in the field is North Carolina, where Project K-Nect—in partnership with technology company Qualcomm—has distributed phones to 3,000 students as part of a pilot project on the merits of mobile learning. (See “Smart Phones in the Classroom Help At-Risk Students,” School Reform News, September 2010.)

Program director Sean Gross says the project grew out of 2006 research that showed young students were avoiding math and science classes but could be encouraged in those fields with the smart use of technology.

“When they left the school building and had only a schoolbook or a worksheet, the student wanted access to a teacher or a peer. Immediacy is everything,” Gross said of the research. He added, “Most of the learners today don’t like using printed textbooks as remediation tools, particularly in math and science. They’d just give up.”

Gross’ project got underway with rudimentary smartphones—before the iPhone had even been introduced—with 200 students participating. Those students used social networking technology to collaborate outside of class on challenging math and science classes—making videos in which they’d ask for help on a question only to see, minutes later, a video response from a fellow student demonstrating how to solve the problem.

No Internet Service Required
Thanks to the cellular connection, students could do such tasks even in homes and areas with no Internet connection.

“The students were basically developing these personalized learning communities,” Gross said. “The students were taking control of their learning process.”

The first round of students in the program scored 20 to 25 percent higher in end-of-course tests than similarly situated students, he said. As the program has continued, he said, a higher percentage of mobile learners have ended up in Advanced Placement math and science classes.

The challenge now will be to expand such programs. The federal government is getting involved; in early March the Federal Communications Commission announced $9 million in “Edu2011” grants to 20 schools across the nation to distribute a variety of “off-campus learning” technologies to students.

But there are obstacles, the chief among them being cost. “A typical smart phone with a data plan costs, what, $50 a month? Over the course of a year, that’s 10 times their budget for technology,” said Greaves. “The schools are absolutely not going to pay current data rates for smartphones in schools. You’ll get a handful—maybe two or three or 10 districts—but that’s it.”

Gross suggests parents providing phones to their children will resolve part of the cost problem. One survey shows 62 percent of parents are willing to pay for a phone for their child for education purposes.

‘This Will Save Schools Money’
The cost challenge for low-income students could be solved several ways, Soloway says. Cellular service providers can lower data costs as low as $10 for education uses, citing the examples of Singapore and the UK. “Schools can afford that,” he said. “It would be better if it was five, but $10 is absolutely realistic and absolutely doable.”

And Greaves also notes several foundations, such as Mobile Beacons and Mobile Citizens, have sprung up to subsidize the cost of cellular usage for people who need it. “If a school has 90 percent of the students with a phone and 10 who don’t, a superintendent will figure out how to get phones to the other 10,” Greaves said.

Soloway is especially evangelical about the technology, saying the shift to smartphone learning will help educators meet students on their own terms. “They already use these tools in their personal activities. That’s great!” he said.

Soloway also sees practical reasons for schools to adopt mobile learning: More education budget cuts are coming, and soon.

“Schools will have increased class size. There will be fewer teachers, more kids,” he said. “This will save schools money.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.