Thursday, October 22, 2015

Students’ Use of Mobile Devices for Learning

Mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, smartwatches) might not have been around when you grew up, but they are going to be on the educational scene from now until… forever. And on balance, this is going to be a good thing.

I say that even though I’m quite cautious and skeptical about the digital world children enter into nowadays. I am dismayed when I see a five-year-old plunked down with an iPad, playing games for hours on end. As far as I’m concerned, that kid’s mind is far better served by being engaged in the world around him/herself, especially plain old leaves, dirt, sticks, grass. If that’s not available, a book to look at, an art project, building blocks. I don’t believe parents genuinely hand their kids these electronic devices to make them smarter – what they’re doing is buying some time off from minding the kid. And that’s totally understandable and okay! 

Yet… I’ve come to think that a period of ‘mindlessly’ watching TV – my own parents’ answer to the kid time-drain – is in some ways better than a tablet, especially when good videos are selected by the parents. Sure, kids’ TV is passive, and often not very enlightening. But my concern with tablets and the like is that these devices are so immersive that they are certainly shaping the brain of their young users, in ways we don’t even understand. Later on, we’ll see that the time they spend checked out of the real world and into the virtual shaped their character – in ways we don’t yet know. It’s an experiment. Young minds are malleable, and there are many ways our modern world drives a kind of distance between us as we grow up that would be alien to earlier generations. 

Okay, that’s my skepticism, and it is mostly concerned with the exposure of the youngest ages, say up until 8. But let’s consider the world of the 7th grade teacher. Pretty certain, every kid in his/her class will have put in substantial time on an interactive device – a game console, a computer, a phone, a tablet. They’re natives. It’s no good denying it; now the question becomes, how do we channel the time they’re going to spend online anyway into activities that are most beneficial, most educational for them? There are a couple of tricky parts to this: How to slip that objective in there without making it boring and easily rejected in favor of a favorite game? And how to know that the activity is beneficial? 

For the teacher, these are such crucial questions, because as soon as the kids are out of the classroom, these digital diversions immediately become their go-to activities. What we want is market share in their head space (permit me some jargon; it’s actually serious, because that’s what all the advertisers in the world are grappling for, 24/7). Building some of this digital/mobile activity into homework and classroom activity is the way to take some of that territory.

Conversely, because of their already-blossoming “addiction” to these devices, allowing the students to engage in absorbing problem-solving and learning activities on them is a surefire way to increase the students' interest in and commitment to the business the class is conducting. Don’t you suppose they’d rather work on that iPad assignment than the one that requires them to crack open a book or put pen to paper?

We should also bear in mind that the fields of authentically researched and validated project-based learning and educational gaming are coming into full renaissance now. Increasingly, researchers and developers are producing online activities that are substantially outperforming traditional means for teaching certain subjects, as measured by resulting test scores. For learning certain things, the digital game medium is just better than a great teacher in the same room. 

And there’s efficiency: as a teacher trainee, I’ve been assigned a lot of online reading, videos, and such. When I’m commuting or standing in a line, I can just pull out my phone, access my next reading assignment, and get right to it. That convenience makes me want to do it right now, because I know I’ll have to take care of it at some point, and right here and now I have some time to burn. Later, it’ll surely get in the way of whatever else I’d rather be doing. 

So, teacher, how best to seize this opportunity?

  •  Only do what is reasonably accessible to all your students. The activity must reduce the “digital divide” (by which less privileged kids get less access), not increase it. If it fails this test, don’t do it.
  • Make it project-based. Learning through projects that require problem-solving sticks far better than rote learning, and digital media can excel at this.
  • Make it game-based. A good game requires experimentation, and delivers stages of advancement and reward that propel the learner forward.
  • Test it out. You need to avoid technical hindrances that could derail an otherwise great project.
  • Go with what’s proven, and with what works for you. Rely on what’s been tried and well-reviewed; and if you have a different reaction, move on to something else.
  • Make the kids figure it out. They are your best resource for finding ways to keep the project moving forward – they are natives, after all; they enjoy the challenge; and they learn from it.
  • Go with easy. If something isn’t working, reach for the alternative. Better yet, rely on your kids to do that.
  • Make the kids help each other. Collaboration should be built into the assignment. And more advanced students should get credit for helping others who need guidance.
  • Make it measurable. There should be good ways to assess what’s been learned.

So, what’s a good mobile-based activity? Likely it will be exploratory and collaborative, and engage students’ problem-solving skills.

I recently led students in a “functional geography” activity, in which they used tablets to capture photos and audio narrations to describe particular locations and the purposes for which they’re used. Then they sent this field material in, and edited it together in a voicethread. This was a project that involved creativity, collaboration, and quite a lot of problem-solving as they worked out how to get the material onto one device, then send it to another. They learned to act fast, to find work-arounds when they hit a roadblock, to perform, and to use their devices in productive ways they’ve never encountered before.

A friend of mine has his students create a podcast about some aspect of their family history. While much of the editing might happen on a laptop, the capturing of this material is most easily done with any mobile digital device that can capture sound and send it elsewhere. And when the student needs to transcribe the interview, s/he can easily do it at home using this device, not having to wait for one of the two computers in the classroom to become available. The efficiencies these devices enable make the project more practical to achieve in a reasonable amount of time, without getting tangled up in technicalities. 

This stuff isn’t the future; it’s the present. And with a bit of inventiveness, combined with a thoughtful consideration of educational objectives, it’s going to make for better schooling.

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