Using mobile devices to increase student engagement

11/27/2011  |  ALAN JACOBS
Technology and Learning
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Today the vast majority of consumers own a cell phone, including millions who take it a step further with smartphones. As a result, people now have anytime, anywhere access to the Internet and e-mail, which is dramatically changing the way we work, find information, and communicate.

Of course, nobody makes better use of mobile connectivity than young people. Not only is a mobile phone a link to their friends, it’s also a way for parents to keep in touch with their kids. Educators, too, are discovering a built-in opportunity to reach and teach students outside the traditional classroom setting with new, personalized one-to-one learning.

The 2010-2011 Horizon Report outlines the power of mobile devices with anytime, anywhere access. “New features are being added to what mobiles can do almost continuously, and the unprecedented evolution of these do-it-all devices itself is drawing a great deal of interest. Their ever-increasing capabilities are enhanced by the circumstance that schools do not have to buy or maintain them. In the coming months, the vast potential of these devices for learning will begin to outweigh concerns about misuse that currently dominate most conversations about their use in school settings. It is the sheer power of these devices that make them interesting, and that power lies in their ubiquity, their portability, the wide range of things that can be done with them, and their ability to access the Internet nearly anywhere through the growing cellular network.”1

It’s no surprise that educators are looking hard at mobility and asking big questions, like: “Is there something we can do with this technology that can really be a game changer, resulting in engaging students to improve student achievement? Does all academic teaching only happen in the classroom, or can we extend it further?” The answer is rapidly emerging that mobile learning and one-to-one learning can make a substantial difference, with the dynamics being driven by the ability to access a school’s curriculum anytime and anywhere.

Why is it important for educational institutions to join the mobile learning movement? Consider these factors:

  • Student expectations are changing, especially in higher education. Today’s students juggle a complex life of school, work, family and social time. As a result, they expect to access learning content and to complete assignments at the time, pace and place that’s most convenient for them.
  • Unlike the traditional activities of reading an assignment then writing a paper or completing a worksheet, students expect learning to be more interactive, collaborative and engaging. Student learning styles are changing because of their use of technology outside the classroom. Parents also expect schools to prepare students to use the complex technologies that play an increasing role in career fields.
  • Lowering the technology gap is also critical for preparing the future workforce. For students who don’t have Internet access at home, mobile learning is a cost-effective way to help them avoid being left behind in their understanding and use of technology.2

Understanding the impact that mobile capabilities can have on learning can best be illustrated from successful pilots throughout the United States. One example, which has been operating since 2007, is Project K-Nect. Students participating in this pilot used smartphones and applications to share content, complete assignments, collaborate inside and outside the classroom, take quizzes and improve language skills. Due to students scoring lower in mathematics, a specific curriculum was designed for Algebra I. Teachers were given the ability to remotely enable or disable various phone-based software features and functions instantly for individual students or groups of students, based on their particular mathematical aptitudes and levels of achievement.

Across multiple schools within Onslow County Public School System in North Carolina, principals reported significant improvements in student academic success as a result of Sprint and Project K-Nect solutions. Based on state proficiency testing results and overall classroom performance, there was a reported 30 percent increase in mathematic achievement in those classes utilizing the mobile learning approach. There has also been a greater academic involvement with harder-to-engage students who have especially struggled with mathematics.

This example shows that the right tools with the right curriculum bring positive results, and demonstrates technology that engages students. A school must examine digital content they plan to use, as this will determine which type of device to use. In the case of Project K-Nect, it was project-based learning, where a smartphone worked well. In other cases, going with digital content from a publisher may require a laptop or tablet. The device should also have the network bandwidth to support the content, as some content can require large video files or high-bandwidth applications.

No matter which device is most appropriate for the student, it should be able to use both Wi-Fi and cellular to ensure anytime, anywhere capability. Limiting a device to just Wi-Fi will limit the results for engaging students, and potentially prevent higher student achievement. The 21st century student wants to do what they want to do now, not when they get to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Although education publishers have gradually moved to digital content and apps, the pace of change is quickening as more schools adopt new mobile learning platforms. These include development tools for teachers to develop lesson apps, such as Mobl21 or Brainshark, and innovative courseware from leading educational publishers. These solutions often have assessment elements, so a teacher can see how a student is progressing and meeting objectives.

This marks the advent of the new electronic textbook, the new individual interactive whiteboard, new collaboration system, new project creation station, and the new digital lab with tools. What is really great is that the new mobile device with applications works as well for language arts as it does with STEM.

While this is may be a new direction for a district’s curriculum, mobile technology is already familiar to teachers, administrators and students alike, which should help with implementation in the classroom and beyond. However, it still requires updating of curriculum and new methods of teaching, so professional development is required to get the most out of this new universe.

It is an exciting time for education to start a pilot and test the concept to better understand what can be achieved through mobile learning. Yet as educators become more familiar with its teaching benefits, they are also carefully considering how best to evaluate and implement the technology in a cost-effective manner. Fortunately, the new solutions and management tools needed to achieve this are expanding as the mobile learning market grows.

By partnering with a wireless company, such as Sprint, that offers a try-buy pilot program, it’s possible to see how effective mobility with one-to-one learning can be, while ensuring that it provides the right results, at the right cost.Sources:

1.Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Haywood, K., (2011). The NMC Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

2.Mobile Learning; What It Takes, How to Get There, Center for Digital Education; 2011

Alan Jacobs is the Business Development Manager – Education at Sprint.
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