ED. Magazine

Have Phone, Can Learn

By Lory Hough

SmartphoneSmartphones are used for everything nowadays. To check our bank accounts when standing in line at the coffee shop. To search the web for a favorite recipe or directions to a store when we’re lost. To film our kids playing soccer and to snag photos of celebrities unexpectedly having dinner at the next table. What about using one to take a course?

This is what three former students from the Ed School wondered. The alums, , ’04, , Ed.M.98, and , Ed.M.’10, formed a group at Education Development Center, Inc., where they all worked in Newton, Mass. Along with their former professor, Chris Dede, they started talking about the potential of mobile technology, like the smartphone or a tablet, to teach a course — something that, surprisingly, hasn’t really been done before. They decided to send out a pilot survey to school administrators in New England — educators who were extremely busy, not often rooted at their desks, and in need of information quickly. They asked them if they used smartphones and if so, how.

“We received 92 responses and 70 percent had smartphones,” Larson says. However, most were still using them like traditional cell phones to make calls and maybe send text messages. “Only 33 percent were using them to keep up with social networks. We wanted to explore the potential.”

They decided to pilot a small project: a professional development course taught and taken using a mobile device and Twitter. (A blog was also set up, but mostly stored links and discussions.) In March, 20 education administrators signed on for a three-week course about using data to inform and support instruction.

Larson, Peterson, Dreier, and Dede didn’t start the project hoping to prove any point or vindicate any personal beliefs — they simply wanted to see what the pros and cons are of primarily using mobile devices to take a course. (Participants were allowed, on occasion, to use a desktop computer if necessary.)

“I’m very interested in learning about the limits of mobile devices,” Dede says. “Too often, people get so excited about a new technology but only focus on the strengths. It’s hard to learn much from a project if you work around the limits.”

Using Twitter as their home base, for example, only allowed students to weigh in on a topic using 140 characters. And because the course was designed to be taken during small bits of free time — waiting in line for coffee — the group also wondered about learning in short bursts.

Dreier says, “I was interested in seeing, if participants only have 10-minute chunks to participate and the conversations are not overlapping, how deeply can they engage.”

This was a problem for Ellen Peterson, now an assistant superintendent for Mansfield Public Schools in Mansfield, Mass., who was, at the time, director of teaching, learning, and technology for Norwell (Mass.) Public Schools. “I like spending longer chunks of time for professional development rather than short, frequent contact because I think I can absorb and reflect more.”

She also found that because of Twitter’s character limit, she didn’t pose as many comments as she might have, and that she had to check in more often in order to keep up with the quick pace of posts. Twitter did have one positive side though: It forced people to be succinct.

“You had to put thought into your comment before posting,” Ellen Peterson says. “It was also a timesaver to read other posts that were short and to the point.”

Now that the pilot is over, the group is evaluating lessons learned so that if future funding comes through, they can run another course. Dreier says that given the variation in Twitter knowledge, they would spend more time up front getting everyone comfortable with the platform. Kirsten Peterson says they would consider combining technology: mobile devices for conversations and desktop computers for reading longer pieces.

For future courses, they would also have to address access issues: Some schools block certain sites, and certain phones didn’t do well with the multimedia platform Flash or didn’t have a lot of memory, limiting the ability to share video. They’re also considering having different course levels, with some geared toward beginning technology users and some toward what they call the “super users.”

Ned Kirsch, superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union in Vermont, is one of the super users from the pilot course. He had already been active on Twitter before the course started, even teaching his administrative team how to use Twitter to create an online personal learning network. After the course ended, Kirsch also developed a course for teachers in his district called Digital Personal Learning Networks. Every teacher who signed on received a stipend for an iPad or smartphone. As far as he’s concerned, this is only the beginning of using mobile learning in schools.

“I had a parent tell us at a board meeting last month, ‘I love the newsletters I get from everyone at the school, but I wish the information could come to us on Twitter. Say it in 140 characters. That is all I need.’”

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