December 15, 2009

How Mobile Cell Phones Change Everything When We Do

Mac-filled lecture theatre
Will Richardson posts the above picture and asks
"how many educators look at that picture and think "OMG, puhleeeeese let me teach in that classroom!" (I suspect not many)".
He points out that with the mobile technologies already in our students' pockets we're probably not far off that level of ubiquitous kitting out in our schools already. He's right. But he's less right in implying that great teachers would want to teaching in that classroom.

Further on Will points out that often teachers and decision-makers can get hung up on the "what technology" question, rather than the "curriculum question". This might be a linguistic anomaly, but curriculum, to me, is deciding what we learn, when. It is important, but the most important peg on which we need to hang our thought is pedagogy, which is about how we learn. Teachers decide pedagogy, not administrators, authorities or Governments. That's why teachers discussing not tech, but teach, becomes ever more vital as technologies open up new ways to approach learning.

But linguistic anomalies are the stuff of learning, so I hope Will doesn't mind me challenging this one, and seeing what we really think it possible if we could encourage colleagues to move beyond "OMG puhleeeeese" statements.

The reason the picture presents a dubious message is that neither curriculum nor pedagogy have changed an iota in this learning space: it's about the same layout - with as many apples on laps - as a Victorian classroom would have appeared.

It's not an image to proud of, to smile at, to wonder at, or one I'd want to be in. It sums up the biggest challenge facing learning: too many educators look at that and think all of above.

What can we aspire to?

The other night Stephen Heppell pointed out the Education_2010 report that he, Graham Brown-Martin and other luminaries had pulled together in 1999, outlining what they thought technology would be doing for learning in 2010. The predictions and visions hinted at in that Garamond/Helvetica-shocker of a ClarisWorks document are not far off what we're close to as hurl towards the end of this decade. And that, in no short measure down to the work of the authors in promoting mobiles' inevitable conquest of learning spaces. The key message: learners will all have access to portable 'micros'. The micros, though, are maybe not the laptops or notebooks, even, that photos like the above one hint at.

Christmas Cracker Research

It's particularly apt as the decade ends with a supposedly "credit crunch Christmas" where iPhones and iPod touches, and cheaper but no-less effective smartphones with the major carriers, will be appearing under the trees of our youngsters (and, in what even I, a gadget fan, would consider a touch of spoiling, in their stockings).

In the UK the changes in equipment provision is already happening, and in the US it's going to follow really soon: the image of students locked to their laptops could change to a more human image of students talking to each other face-to-face, and using their mobile phones for research, reference and recording.

That change from the tech-oriented to the person-oriented could change, but it needs teachers, not tech, to make that change happen.

In the UK children have owned and used mobile phones at any kind of scale in schools (legitimately or otherwise) for about six years. I remember the Christmas when they all came back with them. The next year it was the mp3 player. This Christmas I bet it'll be the hyprid iPod Touch or iPhone (if they're lucky). What kids get for Christmas one year is nearly always the forerunner to what is really desirable in a few years' time. Where mp3 players were the hot item in 2003, the iPod shuffle and mini took until 2005 to hit the mainstream school audience. Where iPhones and iPod touches hit the Christmas pressie list in 2009, there will be something more profound and far more widespread in adoption in 2011.

If you want the real aficionados head to South Korea and Japan for a lesson in ubiquity, but still, I wouldn't bet on their curriculum or pedagogy having changed much as a result (and their relative educational success is more likely down to the insane hours students and their private tutors put in, compared to the average three weeks' per year absenteeism of Scottish students).

As the iPhone makes the mobile's northern American cousin, the 'cell', something more mainstream over the Pond, mobiles' learning potential is finally gaining more than a niche gadget audience's attention. It becomes even more palpable as the replacement cell phones are not of the simpler phone-text-image cariety, but, of course, the of smartphone stock. The pic below shows the scale of this: it's part of the half-a-million cells thrown out every day in the USA as people upgrade to the next, better model:

Some mobile phones

But the lessons learned about cell phone use (and handheld learning devices stuck in schoolbags) for learning in the UK, through trials, pilots and the generally higher adoption of mobile telephony here than over the Pond, risk being ignored. Most of the conversations being had in Will's monster 130-plus comment post are thinking through issues that have been thought through, put into action, analysed and researched in the UK as long as four years ago.

There's a monster post (or a book) in pointing to the work of the past decade and what it means for the next one. Many of those lessons are online, in places like the Wolverhampton Learning2Go project, whose initial work in mostly offline potential of PDAs was groundbreaking, or the Consolarium in Scotland which has pioneered games-based learning using devices often hidden away in school bags, not a pioneering effort in theory, I hasten to add, but in hard-to-initiate classroom practice.

Finally, though, it is heartening to see that the pedagogy of Higher Education institutions is changing. The above picture is still far from being out-of-date - for many campuses it's still light-years ahead. But iPhone-equipped students of Abilene university in the States have seen their lecturers change from information-transferal mode (that's what Google's for) to educator,  leader  and even developer roles in the lecture hall.

It’s like a mashup of a 1960s teach-in with smartphone technology from the 2000s.

Each participating Abilene instructor is incorporating the iPhone differently into their curriculum. In some classrooms, professors project discussion questions onscreen in a PowerPoint presentation. Then, using polling software that Abilene coded for the iPhone, students can answer the questions anonymously by sending responses electronically with their iPhones. The software can also quickly quiz students to gauge whether they’re understanding the lesson.

... And if students don’t understand a lesson, they can ask the teacher to repeat it by simply tapping a button on the iPhone.

This is the exception to the rule. Heck, it's in Wired. [Update: My good friend, former Pentagon man and superb Ireland-based educator Bernie Goldbach, blogs on what his students are doing with their Nokias, and the joy they have researching with them.] But a student in the story outlines why making these fundamental changes to access to technologies, whether that is giving it away for free (in Abilene) or just allowing students to bring out the panoply of kit from their Christmas 09 haul, is a no-brainer:

“They’re preparing us for the real world — not a place where you’re not allowed to use anything.”


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I think one of the key elements for the future in learning environments is interaction>/i> - for which a round or an oval table, not rows of drones (whether with laptops or with chalkboards) is the preferred mode of assembly.

I also think that the growth in the use of smartphones should see them welcomed (where appropriate) by educators to be used as enabling devices, and this is a market in which that I'm still amazed that the phone manufacturers and software makers have only just started to scratch the surface.

Interesting take, thanks for sharing Ewan.

Regards, David

Interesting points Ewan,

You are right, the key to all of this is the way in which the learning is presented to learners. Mobile devices of any description struggle in a "Chalk and Talk" environment. Teachers have to change their thinking on the learning process, then Mobile devices come into their own.

100% spot on fact the Bristol University evaluation of Dave's Learn2go project should have been published by now?

I have arranged to interview Thomas Black from Stanford Student services for Merlin John's series on Innovators later next year as they have gone mobile with a lot of their student support services.

ps forgot to mention the FE MoLeNET project which did some great stuff


It's crazy how the humble mobile phone deals with absolutely EVERYTHING we need to do in our daily lives. From functioning as an alarm clock, calculator, camera and flashlight to mail and messaging, they truly are redefining how we both communicate and manage our way of life.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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