Mobile Devices: Facing Challenges and Opportunities for Learning


According to Will Richardson (2008) "Our students must be nomadic, flexible, mobile learners who depend not so much on what they can recall as on their ability to connect with people and resources and edit content on their desktops, or even more likely, on pocket-size devices they carry around with them" (p. 18). As I agree with that assessment, it became disturbing to read House Bill 363, introduced to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania on February 11, 2009, to ban students' possession of "telephone paging devices, commonly referred to as beepers, cellular telephones and portable electronic devices that record or play audio or video material" on "school grounds, at school sponsored activities and on buses or other vehicles provided by the school district." There are only two exceptions, those being if students are members of a volunteer fire company, ambulance, or rescue squad or if students need beepers or cellular phones due to a medical condition of an immediate family member (Cruz, 2009).

It's easy to find teacher reactions to the bill. I'd join the ranks of those opposing it. A ban on mobile devices would thwart innovation in schools. Beyond the difficulties of enforcing such a law, if passed, Pennsylvania would be added to a list of states banning the very tools that have the potential to motivate learners, individualize learning, add to the options that teachers can employ for immediate assessment of group learning in the classroom, and, in general, prepare our youth for the competitive global society of which they are a part. Yet, there are courts, such as a state appellate court in New York (Broache, 2008), that have upheld school cell phone bans on school grounds for reasons that primarily have to do with control, security, and discipline.

Thus, the issue is two pronged: that of administrators charged with overall school safety of our children and that of the educators who desire some degree of academic freedom to wisely select whatever it takes to prepare every student in their charge with 21st century skills within a safe environment. Which side do we take? Can we make both sides happy? What are potential challenges and opportunities for learning via mobile devices? It's time to explore.

Whether school-owned or learner-owned, John Waters (2009) pointed out the difficulty of controlling the uncontrollable, a category into which mobile devices such as cell phones and iPods and hand-held media devices might be placed. A report from California-based Cenzic Intelligent Analysis Lab "found that vulnerabilities in media players are causing a widening security hole that school districts need to be aware of, given the role that media players have in presenting online educational content" (p. 40). Couple this with the requirement of federally funded schools to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act to install filters protecting students from unsafe online content, one can appreciate the solution of some districts. If you can't control it, block it or ban it.

However, even with attempts to filter Web applications from access on hardware that schools provide to learners, blocking all streaming media and online games, for example, from certain Web sites is not a safety solution either. Development of high-quality educational online games is rising, including those for use on mobile devices. One only needs to look at MIT's Education Arcade to appreciate that. Educators using Web 2.0 applications know the instructional value of many of the vodcasts and podcasts posted on the internet at YouTube, a site often blocked from school use. Many educators are teaching their learners how to develop those, as well.

A Key to 21st Century Learning
Marc Prensky (2005) wondered why we are fighting the trend toward using cell phones in education. He maintained that students can learn anything from a cell phone, if we educators design it right. People learn in many ways, "but among the most frequent, time-tested, and effective of these are listening, observing, imitating, questioning, reflecting, trying, estimating, predicting, speculating, and practicing. All of these learning processes can be supported through cell phones. In addition, cell phones complement the short-burst, casual, multitasking style of today's "Digital Native" learners" (para. 7).

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop cited mobile devices, such as iPods, cell phones, and portable gaming devices, as key for learning in the 21st century, even with young children. Their report, Pockets of Potential by the Cooney Center Industry Fellow Carly Shuler (2009), ultimately recommended a presidential White House initiative on digital learning. Shuler provided evidence from more than 25 handheld projects being conducted both in the United States and abroad, and examples drawn from interviews with research, policy, and industry experts of how those devices have the potential to transform teaching and learning in the near future. "Projects focusing on deepening children's mastery of key literacy, world languages, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, collaboration, and critical thinking skills, both inside and out of school, are featured" (p. 5). They reveal the diverse nature of what is being undertaken by innovative individuals, organizations, and developers.

One cannot help but be inspired by Project K-Nect, a two-year pilot program that began during the 2007-2008 school year in North Carolina schools. At-risk grade 9 learners are using smartphones with Internet access to help raise their math achievement in algebra. Learners use the tools inside and outside the classroom, as they also have limited or no computer or Internet access at home. From the project video, one sees how smartphones have motivated learners and benefited at least one learner who found himself homeschooled but was still able to collaborate with his peers and use Internet resources to help learn to solve math problems. State leaders, classroom teachers, administrators, students themselves, and at least one parent voiced the benefits to learning and developing social skills made possible because of the smartphones and to bridge the digital divide (United States: Project K-nect, 2008).

The Geo-Historian Project at Kent State University in Ohio is an example of another project designed to bridge what goes on inside and outside of the classroom. While still in its early stages, the project, also described on YouTube, will enable students to use mobile phones with video capturing capabilities, built-in GPS, and wireless Internet access to link classrooms with local historical landmarks, zoos, museums, and so on. Students will become video historians not just for the classroom but for the community, creating and sharing a living history of real people and real places. Tools such as Livecast will enable streaming video from mobile devices to selected Internet sites.

Learners are benefiting from accessing media on their iPods. Consider the value of streaming videos for middle and high school science learners on the YouTube channel from Nature, the international weekly journal of science, which Nature indicates can easily be uploaded to mobile devices. I like The Math Dude video episodes for algebra from Montgomery Public Schools in Maryland, which have also been optimized for play on an iPod. Recalling that Pennsylvania bill, wouldn't a parent and teacher be extremely pleased to learn that on a long bus ride home from school, a student was motivated to get a jump start on homework by using an iPod to view any of those, or any other school content, rather than being loud and obnoxious? And really, what is wrong with listening to music or audio programming on a media player in this setting, if earphones are being used?

What about achievement? Consider that the effectiveness of technology in general is only as good as its implementation. Sixth grade teacher Richard Whittaker in Boise, ID uses iPods in his instruction. Class iPods are loaded with "lessons enhanced with video clips, homework assignments, quizzes, videos, music, books on tape and more" for use in subjects he teaches, including English, math, social studies, and reading (Forester, 2008, para. 3). Ultimately the technology helped his prior year's class "achieve some of the highest Idaho State Achievement Test scores in the state: 100 in reading, 95 in math and 95 in language arts" (para. 8). Whittaker indicated he believes the technology helped level the playing field for those who did not have computers or Internet access at home and allowed his students to work at their own pace, reviewing lessons as needed for better understanding.

Educators are piloting iPod Shuffles at the high school in North Port, FL in hope that the devices will help increase the reading fluency of students involved with intensive reading classes. While reading assigned books in the library, students use the Shuffles to listen to the audiobook version. The Shuffle has no screen and is wearable. So far, the devices have received enthusiastic support. One learner stated that having something in her ears actually helps her to focus on what she is reading. Media Specialist Kristi Alexander said she believes that if she can get students to like to read, their academic achievement will improve, and they will do better in their classes (Gibson, 2008).

As with the introduction of any innovation, there are challenges to implementing mobile devices. Shuler (2009) pointed out the potential distraction, unethical behavior, physical health concerns, and data privacy issues. While there is a growing circle of those who see the potential of such devices, many parents and educators have legitimate concerns and believe cell phones have no place in schools. Assessment, pedagogy, and the design of such applications for education are hampered because of no widely accepted learning theory for mobile technologies. Such a theory relies on knowing answers to some fundamental questions, among which are the skills and forms of expression (e.g., reading, writing, language development, creativity, reflection) that might be supported by mobile devices, which features of the devices themselves would lead to learning, under what circumstances, and for whom. There are concerns about access, cheating via text messaging, and sharing inappropriate content, and that cell phones provide an additional means for cyberbullying.

There has been wide diversity among the mobile devices themselves in terms of available features and proprietary platforms, and designs are not always optimal for all learners owing to limited capabilities for text entry, small screen sizes, and limited battery life (Shuler, 2009, p. 6). There's concern about the development of writing skills, as text messaging has given rise to abbreviations and text slang in writing. This development is not surprising given that the devices are just too small and impractical for entering large amounts of text at one time as one might do quickly using a standard keyboard.

Reading large amounts of text on small screens can cause eye strain (Shuler, 2009). Many children do not have the dexterity to fully control mobile devices. As Anne Mangen (2008) at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway points out, manual dexterity is an issue owing to the need for constant scrolling, which also can be mentally and physically distracting. Increased distraction makes content retention an issue. Couple this with numerous studies of screen reading, which have shown that we tend to scan text on screen (pp. 408-409).

The industry is working to address technical issues. Prices are dropping. Advancements have been made in software applications for mobile phones, touch screens, and gestural input (e.g., in iPod Touch and iPhone devices), and smartphones with operating systems just like computers (Shuler, 2009). For example, educators can use Toolbook to create content for the Apple iPhone, Google Android, and other mobile devices. Who would desire a ban on a cell phone equipped with software that would benefit the blind, dyslexic, struggling readers, learners of a second language, and learning disabled? In a joint venture with the National Federation of the Blind, Ray Kurzweil of Kurzweil Technologies directed development of the first cell phone that also reads out loud in multiple languages and displays on the screen what it is reading. This Mobile Reader Product Line is available from knfb Reading Technologies.

In the evolution of educational technology over the last century, we've seen challenges to the use of film, radio, television, computers, and now selected mobile devices. In each case, the result is basically the same. It's not a matter of whether or not we should, but how best to leverage the innovation for learning. According to Shuler (2009), "A national 'best practices' initiative to disseminate effective uses of mobile technology for education should be established with support from philanthropic and policy leaders" (p. 10). We should move away from schools providing all the hardware for student use and introduce ways to use mobile devices that students already own, the latter of which Prensky (2005) would agree with. Obviously for any initiatives to be effective, professional development from a teacher corps fluent in using such devices and their applications within a particular curriculum is essential.

Handheld mobile devices are being used for learning worldwide from China to Japan to the UK, India, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Africa. Bans on the presence of such devices in our nation's schools should be removed, at least gradually. Curriculum will need to include "mobile literacy," and acceptable use policies will need revision to establish appropriate behaviors associated with mobile devices and enforceable consequences for violations. There's no easy solution to acceptable use, as individual districts must make final decisions. We can examine policies that address all forms of information and communication technology devices, such as that of Merchant Taylors' School in the UK (PDF here). As data security is of utmost importance, schools can also learn from mobile device policies adopted within corporate settings. As a world leader, but also a nation with a growing concern about high dropout rates of youth from school, we need to seize upon any opportunities to address the problem, including permission to experiment with the potential of mobile devices.


Broache, A. (2008, April 23). N.Y. court upholds school cell phone ban. Cnet News Blog. Available:

Cruz, A. (2009, February 11). General Assembly of Pennsylvania, House Bill 363. Available:

Forester, S. (2008, October 28). An iPod in class? In one, it's not just OK - it's mandatory. Available:

Gibson, T. (2008, December 15). NPHS reading students use iPod technology at library. Charlotte Sun. Available:

Mangen, A. (2008). Hypertext fiction reading: Haptics and immersion. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(4), 404-419. Available: DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2008.00380.x

Prensky, M. (2005). What can you learn from a cell phone? Almost anything!. Innovate Journal of Online Education,1(5). Available:

Richardson, W. (2008). Footprints in the digital age. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 16-19. Available:

Shuler, C. (2009, January). Pockets of potential: Using mobile learning technologies to promote children's learning. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available:

United States: Project K-next, taking education to a wireless level (2008). Available:

Waters, J. (2009). Target: The Web. THE Journal, 36(2), 35-40. Available:

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.