Communication centers, computers, laptops, mobile phones and tablets have all been spoken about at one point or another as technologies with promising applications for education.
But mobile phones stand apart in an important way. In United States high schools, 98% of students have access to some kind of smartphone, according to a report by Blackboard and Project Tomorrow.
Students around the world are increasingly bringing their own mini-computers (or some connected device) to class. Whether this creates a distraction or a boon to learning is debatable, but these four uses of mobile phones in education — and countless others — could one day help prove the latter.
1. Inquiry-Based Learning
Faculty have used the presence of phones in their classrooms in numerous creative ways. The theater department put on an interactive production of Othello, the student newspaper launched an iPad version and teachers have used phones to facilitate discussions on controversial topics.
The phones have also helped create a teaching style that the faculty refer to as “mobile-enhanced inquiry-based learning” — combining mobile phones and a learning theory that teaches through experimentation and questioning.
2. Flipping the Classroom
In many ACU classes, one component of mobile implementation is lecture podcasts, which allow students to consume much of the information typically delivered in the classroom on their own time and in their own dorm rooms.
The idea is to free up teachers during class time for interacting with students and working through problems, a concept known as “flipping the classroom.”
It also allows students to pause and repeat information that they find confusing, and they can work at their own pace.
Flipping the classroom is certainly possible without putting a mobile device in the hands of every student, and many universities — including UC Berkeley and MIT — have long made lectures available online, but Harapnuik says that doing so with a mobile component is an advantage.
3. Reinventing the Textbook
“Textbooks are always the wrong information, in the wrong order, at the wrong price, at the wrong weight in my backpack,” says Jed Macosko, an associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
Macosko is the co-founder of a project that aims to transform the textbook so that it complies with How People Learn (literally, it’s inspired by a book of that title).
The result thus far is BioBook, a device-agnostic, peer-written, node-driven text. In other words, it’s like Wikipedia on steroids.
In his classes, Macosko asks his students to write short one-concept nodes, which they then link with other nodes on the same subject. When a student opens the book, currently hosted on a wiki, he can click around the nodes to learn a subject in whatever order makes sense to him.
“It’s important to have the student engaged in connecting facts in a framework in their mind,” Macosko says. “When you learn a fact, you basically hang it on a hook of some pre-existing structure in your brain.”
In a pilot project of the book, students preferred the book over their traditional textbooks (no assessments were taken to see if BioBook resulted in deeper understanding). A final version of the book, which will be piloted at four universities starting in September, will include analytics, multimedia, short quizzes and other options for teachers to interact with students.
4. Teaching Hard-To-Reach Communities
In the report from the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union, mobile penetration rates in developing countries were expected to reach 68% by the end of 2010.
The prevalence of mobile phones has led many education efforts to come to the same conclusion as Michael Trucano, senior ICT and education policy specialist at the World Bank.
“Broadband will come, but it will not come quickly enough. Computers, as we think of them sitting on someone’s lap or on a desktop, will come, but not quickly enough. Phones are already there … We think there’s a real opportunity there to explore.”
Trucano cautions that there aren’t a lot of mobile education initiatives in developing countries that have reached scale. But there are several promising projects.
In Pakistan, for instance, one group of educators recently began experimenting with sending SMS quizzes to students. After the student answers a question, he receives an automated response, which varies depending on whether the answer was correct.
Others — like the text2teach program in the Philippines and the BridgeIT program in Tanzania — use phones to deliver educational video content to classrooms. The Human Development Lab at Carnegie Mellon University runs a program called MILLEE, which has used custom mobile games to teach language in India for the past seven years (the program has also expanded to rural China and sub-Saharan Africa)