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Going Mobile

Mobile Devices as Essential Tools

Carts of laptops haven’t raised student achievement—and neither will carts of iPads.
Students at St. Marys (Ohio) City Schools learn the concept of measurement through real life applications in collaborative activities using their mobile learning devices.

Elliot: It looks like mobile learning is finally at its tipping point.

Cathie: It really depends on one's definition of mobile learning. Schools are buying carts of iPads.

Elliot: I know, it breaks my heart. Haven't we learned anything from the past?

Cathie: A cart of iPads will have about as much impact on student achievement?

Elliot: a cart of laptops had on student achievement. Deja vu all over again!

Cathie: And lest there be any doubt about what we mean...

Elliot: Stop the presses! You, the Queen of the Indirect Statement, are going to make a direct statement? I am all ears!

Cathie: Oh hush. The point is this: Carts of laptops have not moved the needle on student achievement, and carts of iPads won't either. Carts of devices, with laptops or iPads, are shared, so a student might have access to a computer for an hour or two a week. When I was teaching eighth grade math, my principal told me to integrate the school's cart of laptops into my curriculum. So I found a couple of places where I could add in a computer-based activity or two. The students definitely preferred them to paper-and-pencil activities, but those supplemental, add-on activities didn't increase student achievement.

Elliot: As long as computers are a shared resource...

Cathie: a cart of laptops or iPads...

Elliot: ...teachers will use them as supplemental add-ons to their existing curriculum and pedagogical strategy.

Cathie: So to say that using iPads is mobile learning is really a misnomer; the only thing mobile about a cart of iPads is the fact that it is moved from room to room.

Elliot: Ouch. The emperor has no clothes.

Cathie: Scott Newcomb, in contrast, is doing real mobile learning in math in St. Marys (Ohio) City Schools. He has his students, each with a smartphone, take pictures of what they think are complementary angles outside of the classroom. The next day, the students discuss them in class.

Elliot: I'm still not sure what complementary angles are! Scott's students are using mobile devices to link abstract math concepts taught inside of school to concrete objects outside school in students' everyday world.

Cathie: And since the devices are connected to the Internet cellularly, as opposed to via Wi-Fi, the students can access the Internet on the school bus, in the bleachers during a soccer game, or whenever.

Elliot: In particular, for children of the "have-nots," an Internet-connected device in the palm of their hand levels the playing field. Now, all children—urban, suburban, rural, rich, poor—have a tool they can use to answer their questions. This capability is unprecedented and it surely is a digital divide eliminator!

Cathie: As the famous inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil said, "I'm merged with [my smartphone] already; I don't go anywhere without it. It gives me access to all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes."

Elliot: For Kurzweil, as for Newcomb's students, mobile devices are essential tools for learning, 24/7.

Cathie: Mobile learning devices have even changed Newcomb's pedagogical practices. Instead of just telling his students about math, he is showing his students how to find out about math themselves.

Elliot: When students do the learning, they better understand and remember the content. Newcomb's role has become the "guide on the side," helping students as they do the finding.

Cathie: And because the devices are truly mobile?

Elliot: ...and not carry-alongs, like a certain 10-inch-screened, 2-pound tablet?

Cathie: ...they are truly essential to learning. In fact, they are hubs of all learning activities inside and outside of school.

Elliot: If only I had had a teacher like Newcomb. Even I would have learned math!

For more information on St. Marys' mobile learning Web site: DA

Visit Cathleen and Elliot's Going Mobile blog. Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE's Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past ten years they have advocated for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.