One of the most exciting things about living in the digital age is witnessing huge cultural changes occur in real time.

We’re at just that point now with mobile learning. Whether it’s on an e-reader, a tablet, or a cell phone, there’s great excitement — though not a lot of research yet — around the potential of how these devices can strengthen learning.

“What if your mobile device had a sixth sense?” asked Harvard professor Chris Dede, who’s researching the diverse dimensions of mobile learning, at the recent ISTE conference.

When most of us consider education, we think of learning happening in isolated places — schools. But mobile devices are upending that assumption. With innovations like augmented reality, different kinds of information and experiences can be superimposed onto the real world, complementing and adding another dimension to “formal” learning institutions.

Pilot programs are springing up all over the country (more on those soon), as educators and researchers determine what kind of learning can happen best with mobile devices.

“We know from generations of work that devices are catalysts,” Dede said. “The device never produces learning, but when coupled with changes in content, new forms of assessment, linking people together, that’s what enables learning.”

Mobile devices are getting more powerful with each new generation of gadgets. “But a lot of people are frightened by them and banning them in schools where they might make the most impact,” Dede said.

Dede’s job, along with others in the field, is to make sense of the devices’ strengths and weaknesses.

So what do we know so far?

When it comes to smart phones, some of what’s powerful on larger screens doesn’t relate as well to the small screen. “I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. We can’t put virtual worlds on cell phones and have them work well,” Dede said. “Visual immersion works with a large screen. Sure, you can watch a movie on a small phone, but it doesn’t have the same impact as watching it in an Imax theater.”

Yet students who’ve been given the choice between Netbooks and smart phones say they prefer smart phones simply because it fits into their pockets, Dede said, referring to recent research. Does that mean they’re more likely to engage in educational content on the smaller screen?

“We need to figure out what’s possible within that screen size and what they might be able to do if they had more screen real estate,” Dede said. “We want students to be able to bring their own technology to schools.”

The way to find out is to pilot projects in math, science, and social studies, and build curriculum on e-readers, tablets, and cell phones. “That way we get a feel for how learning happens,” Dede said. “There are frontiers that we’re just beginning to learn how to reach.”

In my next post, I’ll write more about the K-Nect smart phone-enabled math program.


Mobile Learning: Are We On the Cusp of Something Big? 19 July,2011Tina Barseghian
  • Robert

    Wonderful Post!  While I teach and research in the field of Special Education, all education is now and likely in the future to be revolutionized due to personalized mobile technologies.  We discuss the idea of differentiating instruction…  How better than to have each mobile device collect relevant data concerning student interests and where students spend their time and then build curriculum to meet learning needs by utilizing their interests… there are soooo many possibilities but you are right… little research exists… this is too new… I guess that is our job:)  Thank you for your post… I’ll be following…

  • Nice Post.  These are all issues I’ve pondered often.  

    The limitation of the screen size certainly defines a lot of what is and isn’t happening on smartphones these days.  Production is slow too when it comes to typing, same with tablets, but I feel this will change fairly soon.  

    I second Robert’s emphasis on “personal” and “mobile” are a huge part of what will make smartphones’ impact on education so powerful.  These days I see the devices more as collectors and consumers of information.  As they become more collaborative and productive, I think they’ll adapt better to the classroom environment.  Autonomous learning though is already a great potential.

    I can also understand the fear of educators towards classroom adoption.  They can of course be tools for improved learning, but they can also have a very distractive effect, both in deviating participation with the rest of the class, as well as being a device that could be used for purposes other than the task at hand.It’ll take time to see how it’s adapted. Just subscribed and look forward to next write-up !

    Cheers, Brad

  • Michelle Deets Haynes

    Thanks for the post! As a tutor, I’m very interested in encouraging students to study in multiple, small bits rather than long runs.

    “Yet students who’ve been given the choice between Netbooks and smart phones say they prefer smart phones simply because it fits into their pockets, Dede said, referring to recent research. Does that mean they’re more likely to engage in educational content on the smaller screen?” I think the extreme portability of smart phones is key. It’s not much different than carrying around a pack of U.S. history note cards and flipping through them while waiting for mom to finish at the store. But note cards can get left in the locker. Most of us are constantly aware of our cell phone’s location.

    The portability and constant presence of digital notes (such as on would be a tool to fight cramming. True, memorizing history and biology facts isn’t the critical processing learning that we hope mobile devices will one day provide. But all of us teachers and tutors know that there are a certain amount of facts that must be drilled and killed and committed to memory to succeed in a class. I think mobile devices can help with that right now.

    The next challenge: How do I get my students to buy into those bite-sized study moments? And, how do I find the best apps and encourage parents to pay for them?

  • Bill Waters

    Great site! And great post!  We’ve been working on a web based e-teaching platform that adapts video, support resources, notes, collaboration and semantic discovery for any mobile or computer device.  The challenge isn’t so much the technology, but the traditional thinking of tenured instructors.  We are currently working with developing countries to deliver education to the billion wanna be students who don’t currently have access to education.  The infrastructure and the legacy of education in those areas is non existent, so the adoption is extremely fast.  However, in the well established countries, there is extreme resistance to upsetting what has been working for over four hundred years.  Packaging learning objects in bite sized pieces is not what North American instructors are used to….or agree with.  It will be quite awhile before our systems with adapt.

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