Mobile Learning Technologies for 21st Century Classrooms

By Jonathan Wylie

The mobile revolution is here. More and more schools are moving toward mobile learning in the classroom as a way to take advantage of a new wave of electronic devices that offer portability and ease of use on a budget. Netbooks, iPads, cell phones, iPods, e-readers and even PDAs are increasingly becoming the tools of choice for today's educators, and it is easy to see why.

Mobile learning technologies offer teachers-and students-a more flexible approach to learning. Computer labs are great, but do your students use technology in the classroom, in the school garden, in the study hall, in the gym, and on field trips? With mobile learning devices, you can do all this, and more.

In 2001, Marc Prensky warned us, "Our students have changed radically. Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach." He went on to describe how these "digital natives" are being exposed to more gadgets and technology than was ever thought possible. This is having a profound effect on the ways in which children learn. They are more engaged in learning when using the latest technological gadgets, because it is what they are most used to interacting with. Our students don't just want mobile learning, they need it.

The education system we work in is not always known for its speed at latching on to new ideas and methodologies, but with mobile learning it is catching up-quickly. The iPod Touch, for instance, is among the more popular mobile learning devices to hit classrooms across the country. This tactile, touch-screen device is easy for children to use, and comes with built-in Wi-Fi to access the Internet. However, it also has the ability to tap into the thousands of apps available at the iTunes store. For instance, you can use the dictionary and thesaurus on Dictionary.com, explore the world with Google Earth, or plot equations with Quick Graph. Download the Kindle app and turn your iPod into an e-reader, create your own stories with Story Kit, and find out about the latest space missions with the NASA app. These, and many others, are free downloads that are ideal for educators to use with their students in school.

The research that has been done on the use of mobile apps like these has been very promising. For example, a recent study funded by the Department of Education, looked at the link between learning, and the PBS Kids educational gaming app, Martha Speaks Dog Party. The study found that after children had used the app every every day for two weeks, the vocabulary of Title 1 children between three and seven years old improved by as much as 31 percent. A similar study, conducted at the Abilene Christian University, centered upon the use of the Statistics 1 app. Students used it in and out of the classroom and remarked that they understood the content better, and were more motivated to do well, when using the app. The instructors agreed with this observation, and added that the students were also better prepared for classes.

Studies like these help underline the academic potential that mobile learning devices can have to enrich the learning process for students. They are versatile, motivating, and active learning tools. Deidra Hughey, a colleague of mine who teaches students with special needs, likes mobile learning devices because of the accessibility they have to a wide range of students. "Students with learning differences benefit greatly from mobile learning, as such opportunities allow them to feel more like their peers, and foster a sense of normalcy," she says. "This is very important for social development that can be seriously affected due to late or slowed academic development."

One example of mobile technology for children with special needs is Proloquo2go, an assistive technology app available on iTunes. Students with autism spectrum disorders, and others who may have difficulty speaking, can use the app's library of symbols and text-to-speech conversion to communicate easily and naturally with others. This type of assistive app helps broaden students' horizons both in and out of the classroom.

So what about e-readers? Is there really a place for these in the classroom? In June of last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a digital makeover for California's school textbooks. The future, as he saw it, was ebooks. They are portable, easy to update, and cost-effective, and can be read on netbooks, e-readers, laptops, and more. It's only a matter of time before other states start to follow his lead and welcome e-books into their own curriculums.

Still not convinced? In July of this year, Amazon announced that in the last quarter it had sold more Kindle e-books than it had hardcover books. In fact, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, and this number is still rising. In the last month, it was as high as 180 Kindle editions for every 100 hardcover books. Can you imagine a world where students can carry around all their textbooks in one easy-to-read, lightweight device? I can.

Apple's iPad offers a great e-reader experience, but has the added functionality of wireless Internet browsing and office applications. It can also tap into all the same educational apps that have become popular on the iPod Touch-and a new wave of dedicated iPad apps. The Elements is an amazing interactive periodic table, Alphabet Fun teaches handwriting, number and letter recognition, and the Beautiful Planet HD app is a visually stunning photographic tour of 160 different countries.

With its high-resolution 9.7-inch screen, the entry-level iPad is priced about the same as an average laptop. Although it currently lacks support for websites that run Adobe Flash applications, and has less processing power than a laptop, the iPad is much more portable, has the same easy-to-use multitouch interface as the iPod Touch, and is arguably more engaging to use. It is a relatively new device, but it is still seen by many as an ideal addition to the classroom.

Kelly Tenkely, a K-5 Technology Integration Specialist and the author of the iLearn Technology blog, has recently submitted a proposal to use the iPad in a one-to-one learning environment at her elementary school. She sees it as a great way to improve the reading, math, and science skills of the students at her school. 

"It provides the potential to empower and uplift students in their learning," she says. "To maximize effectiveness, education in the 21st century has to be active, engaging, and customized. Students must have universal access to mobile technologies that will enable critical thinking, differentiation, and problem solving. It is our belief that the technology in Apple's iPad meets these needs and more."

Cell phones traditionally have a bad reputation in schools, but that is starting to change. Instead of banning cell phones, some forward-thinking educators are actively embracing them. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in Ireland, for instance, is currently in phase 3 of an interesting experiment with the use of cell phones at a number of Irish schools. Most students speak English as their first language, but Irish language lessons are encouraged to maintain a link to Ireland's cultural past. The NCCA program aims to increase the level of oral fluency in Irish by providing students with cell phones to support them in language classes. Students are sent text messages with Irish vocabulary words to use during classes, and call a number with a voice-response system to leave answers to teacher questions.

Other innovative uses of cell phones in education involve websites like Poll Everywhere and Text the Mob, which allow a teacher to create a set of questions that the students can respond to with a text message. The results can be displayed instantly as a graph via an LCD projector, or on an interactive whiteboard, and the teacher can gauge the level of student understanding very quickly. A class set of student response systems can be an expensive outlay, but if your students already bring their cell phones to school, why not put them to use in the classroom?

Students are more engaged and motivated to learn when they use mobile devices, and research shows that academic performances can improve. We as educators need to take note of this, and look for safe, productive ways to integrate mobile learning devices into our curriculums. For Lisa Nielsen, the author of The Innovative Educator blog, few things are more important.

"When the world inside schools looks so different from the world outside of schools, what are we really preparing students for?" she asks. "When we ban, rather than embrace, real-world technologies, we leave students (1) ill-equipped to know how to harness the power of technology for learning, (2) unprepared to develop a respectable digital footprint and, (3), without adequate knowledge to safely navigate the social web."

Mobile learning is an exciting opportunity for educators, but in many ways we are just scratching the surface of all that can be achieved with it. With proper training, and time to explore these high-tech gadgets, teachers will soon be able make rapid strides with them, and be able to support and instruct the use of such devices in the classroom on a regular basis. Now is the time to act. Our digital natives are counting on us.

Jonathan Wylie is a certified educator and author of The Education Technology Blog. He is a husband and father with a love for education, technology, and photography. He is originally from Scotland, but now works as a teacher and freelance writer in Iowa.

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