For Scott Newcomb, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Marys Intermediate School in St. Marys, Ohio, using smartphones in the classroom helps him teach math to his technology-savvy students in new ways. Instead of the typical textbook geometry lesson, Newcomb brings his students outdoors, where they use smartphones to snap photos of parallel lines, acute angles and other examples of geometric shapes.
In the classroom, he sends students math problems on their mobile learning devices, varying the questions depending on each student’s ability. Newcomb, a teacher for 11 years, says it’s a way to differentiate instruction and assess which students might need more help. “The students are so engaged, it’s almost weird how quiet it gets in the classroom when they’re working on a project,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how excited they are.”
From New Jersey to San Diego, school districts across the country are participating in mobile learning pilot programs that bring 21st-century technology into the classroom. Advocates believe the technology not only will reach a new generation of learners, but will ultimately help change the way teachers teach and interact with students.
The St. Marys City School District, where Scott Newcomb teaches fourth grade, is in its fourth year of using donated Verizon smartphones coupled with GoKnow, a mobile learning platform that runs educational software on handheld computers. The school district now has more than 500 students in grades 3-6 with their own mobile devices and boasts one of the longest-running mobile learning pilot projects in the country.
Newcomb says that teachers have worked together to develop lesson plans that combine the state’s curriculum with mobile learning. “The biggest misconception is that you have to create this huge new curriculum to go along with mobile learning,” he says. “We’re still using the same curriculum, but we’re teaching it in new ways.”
Teaching Outside the Box
With the help of mobile learning, teachers are changing the way they teach in the small, rural town of Stratford, Iowa. Stratford Community School District’s technology director, Lisa Schaa, says that more than 100 students at Stratford Elementary School are now in their second year of a mobile pilot program using GoKnow. Schaa says that curriculum can include everything from drawing animated cartoons of the water cycle on smartphones to blogging on the bus ride home after a field trip. “We’re including technology that the kids use every day at home, and if we don’t engage them with their own technology, we’re really missing the boat,” she says. “To keep these kids engaged, you have to change how you teach.”
Schaa says that professional development for teachers is key for a meaningful experience with mobile devices in the classroom, but most teachers will likely need more time before they feel comfortable using the technology as a classroom staple. “I think the reason people are not just jumping on board is they feel like they need to have a canned curriculum to go with these mobile devices,” she says. “But I don’t think canned curriculum works anymore. It’s all about teaching outside the box.”
Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says that mobile devices can help schools move past a dated “industrial era” model of education and into a digital age in which students learn using multiple platforms. First, though, states and districts will have to reinvent their curriculum and the way it’s taught. “For a district to do this well, they have to look at how the device is going to help change the pedagogy,” he says. “It’s important to understand that the device itself isn’t the innovation. People can’t just digest worksheets and stick them on a cell phone and think that’s going to be some kind of breakthrough. Good curriculum has to be rethought—not so much transferred, but more creatively redesigned. It’s a question of our being willing to be creative and recognize the opportunities available, to look at this small computer as something that has new potential to redesign education.”
While mobile learning devices have grown in popularity in recent years, Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, says the technology is still fairly new and changing quickly. Educators, he says, will need time to assess its benefits and limitations. “We’ve seen benefits in the classroom, but we’re still going to need to see a lot of development before [mobile learning devices] reach their full potential,” he says.
Developers will need to work with school districts to design a variety of comprehensive and effective software applications to use with the mobile devices, Knezek says. Districts in turn will have to invest in teacher training.
Knezek believes the technology will explode within the next decade. “I think every student who doesn’t have access to a digital learning device in five years will be viewed as deprived,” he says.
But for cash-strapped school districts struggling in a tough economy, investing in teacher training, mobile devices and pricey wireless plans can seem like a distant dream. Kyle Menchhofer, technology coordinator at St. Marys schools, says the district pays about $24.75 a year for each mobile device, which, when added up, can be costly for a struggling district. The district was forced to slash $3 million from its budget this year due to state funding cuts, but the school board still chose to keep the mobile learning program because of its various benefits, such as an increase in math scores and student engagement.
Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan, co-developer of GoKnow and a DA columnist, believes mobile learning will need a combination of government funding, visionary school leadership, and a new curriculum before it can truly take hold in classrooms. “It has to start with the school principal and superintendent saying, ‘I want this in my school,’” he says. “If you value something, you’ll find the money for it.”
In one funding boost for schools, the Federal Communications Commission this school year launched an innovative pilot program that provides free wireless connections for school districts and libraries in 14 states. The project, called “Learning on-the-Go,” is aimed at giving participating K12 schools off-premise connections to the Internet to increase access to digital textbooks and other mobile learning devices. The program is providing a total of $9 million in funding for the participating schools and libraries.
In addition, the San Diego Unified School District has received a $1 million grant from the FCC under the program, which will help the district continue its major pilot program. For now, the district is integrating 24/7 online learning into its curriculum for all sixth-graders in 10 middle schools.
With the help of a $2.1 billion school improvement bond passed by voters in 2008, the district has issued 30,000 netbooks so students can access curriculum beyond school hours. District officials hope the technology will transform the learning experience in and out of the classroom.
Kelly Puente is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.