Mobile Learning

“At a deeper level, when we challenge schools to incorporate place-based learning in the natural world, we will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.” -Richard Louv

Although Richard Louv was talking more explicitly about reconnecting children with nature, this quote seems very apt as we begin to fully embrace a world in which people carry the entirety of the world’s digital knowledge in their pockets.  For well over a decade now, teachers and students have been able to connect with the rest of the world and see exactly what it could bring into the classrooms.  Now, with the proliferation of mobile devices that are capable of connecting to that digital world from just about anywhere, teachers and students can head out into the world and make that same connection.

One way to think of mobile learning is “as the use of a wireless handheld device; a cell phone, personal digital assistant (PDA), mini-computer, or iPod to engage in some form of meaningful learning.” (Stevens & Kitchenham, 2011, p.3).  Essentially, learners today have access to internet resources through technology they tend to carry with them all the time.  In practice, the uses for this are hugely varied and will depend on the needs of each particular instructor and, more importantly, each particular student.  While the power to connect via a mobile device is exciting in itself, the connection is, in some ways, overshadowing the fact that learning is now widely available outside of the classroom.

On any given day in my classroom, I will have students access the internet through a handful of devices.  I have a class set of laptops, five desktop computers, student owned computers and a variety of smartphones or iPods all searching for information.  While this is certainly a marvel to behold, it does not constitute mobile learning, because, frankly, there is nothing mobile about it.  The most important distinction between a ‘wired’ classroom and a ‘mobile’ classroom has to be the same as the age old cardinal rule for real estate- location, location, location!

As I let my mind drift and dream up uses of mobile technology for learning, I see a world where the classroom itself is not the center of the learning universe.  It is a meeting place.  A spot to regroup and prepare for the next adventure outside of the classroom.  Perhaps a place to reflect on what was learned.  It is not, however, as integral to learning as it used to be.  More importantly, it may someday be seen as an obstacle to learning.

So what exactly can be done with mobile technology in the hands of motivated and interested learners.  Here are a handful of ideas.

Nature or History Trail
The school I work at, Solebury School, happens to be located a only 15 minutes upriver from where Washington crossed the Delaware River so many years ago.  The area is rife with history.  The area is also a wonderfully rural area that boasts a plethora of indigenous flora and fauna.  Both of these aspects of my school create a wonderful opportunity.  Armed with mobile technology, a class of History or Science students could collaborate on the production of a History Trail or Nature Trail app.  For a History Trail app students would research various historical sites, take photos, visit the sites and even record interviews of people that have more intimate knowledge of the area.  Once compiled, all of this could be woven, once again by the students, into an app that brings history to life for anyone with a mobile device.  The same could be done for a Nature Trail app.  Imagine exploring a local natural area identifying trees, flowers and animals along the way.

Such a project brings so many aspects of the so-called 21st Century Skills that students should be gaining experience in.  “Learning and innovation skills…digital literacy skills…[and] life and career skills” are listed in the book 21st Century Skills as skills that will be essential for students to master as they head out into the modern world. (Trilling & Fadel, p. 48) Production of a history or nature app certainly fits the bill.  Students would learn the content, rely on classmates with other specialties (such as an understanding of the technology vs. a penchant for researching), collaborate and produce a real and useable product.  Although a challenge to complete, the gains of such a project seem well worth the effort.

Campus Tour
Although not a tool for the learner in a class, an app developed specifically for a self-guided tour of the campus seems to be a wonderful application of this technology.  Utilizing the same GPS and interactivity seen in the Nature or History Trail app, families of prospective students could wander campus and learn about the history of a building, the departments it houses and basic information about the classes and faculty that could be such a big part of the student’s life.  Such an app would also be available for all students-not to mention faculty- to allow them to connect a little bit more with their everyday surroundings.

Podcast lectures
One area that has been on the rise in recent years is the use of podcasts for sharing lecture materials.  Whether the source is MIT’s Open Course Materials, iTunes U or simply a teacher’s own recorded class lectures, podcasting provides a chance for students to learn at their own pace.  Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Chemistry teachers and pioneers in the podcasting world, have even created a place for teachers to learn from each other as they begin to use this technology.

I began experimenting with podcasts lectures over the past school year and will continue to do so in my upcoming Biology class.  Providing podcast lectures has allowed my students to have access to material that can be used to learn to take better class notes, catch up on material missed from an absence or review material for tests or exams.  The fact is that students can watch lectures on their schedule and wherever they happen to be.  This certainly put the power into the learner’s hands.

Anywhere, Anytime Learning
Even if students are not personally developing an app or listening to their teacher lecture while riding the bus to a soccer game, having access to the world’s knowledge sitting in their pocket allows for easy access to information.  “What type of tree is that?” and “Why is the Liberty Bell cracked?” are questions that can be easily answered nowadays.  More importantly, learners can explore more in depth topics such as “How does photosynthesis work?” or “What causes global warming?”.  (Recently, I took a lesson on proper onion chopping from Jamie Oliver himself…via his 20 Minute Meals App.)  And, of course, students can also reach out to the world and say “here is my opinion, what is yours?” via any number of web 2.0 tools.  In many ways, it is this on-demand knowledge that may have the greatest impact on the shaping of future classrooms.

This small sampling is just the beginning of mobile technology in learning.  Interestingly, more and more students seem to be utilizing mobile technology for learning on their own, while their classrooms lag behind.  This will, no doubt, change over time as opportunities for learning become more more more available on mobile devices.

Resources:

Johnson, L., Smith, R., Willis, H., Levine, A., & Haywood, K., (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Louv, R. “Leave No Child Inside.” Orion (March/April 2007): 54–61.

Trilling, B. and Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco, CA USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Stevens, D. & Kitchenham, A. (2011). An Analysis of Mobile Learning in Education, Business, and Medicine. In Kitchenham, A., Models for Interdisciplinary Mobile Learning: Delivering Information to Students (pp. 1-25). DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-511-7

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