Blended Learning | Viewpoint

Mobile Matters for Blended Learning

In the third installment of their monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker address BYOD and other mobile device strategies for blended learning.

Are bring your own device (BYOD) policies a high-tech classroom distraction, or are they key to broadening access and creating personalized blended-learning experiences for students?

Early reports indicate some of both. The implications of schools allowing smartphones and iPads on campus differ significantly depending on whether schools use the devices to create technology-rich traditional classrooms or to extend access to transformative blended-learning models to far more students.

In many cases classrooms are embracing mobile devices to enliven the traditional teacher-led model. Companies like Socrative have introduced student response systems that allow teachers to engage their classrooms through a series of educational games using smartphones, laptops, and tablets.  Although rigorous studies about the impact of such practices are not available, most likely BYOD policies in technology-rich traditional classrooms will mirror the effects of 1:1 laptop policies. In some cases they will reduce attendance and discipline problems and improve student attitudes about school, and in others they will be neutral or distracting.

Meanwhile, some schools are using the power of mobile technology combined with online learning to transform the traditional classroom and create innovative blended environments. Mobile devices untether students from location constraints for those who benefit from increased geographic flexibility. For example, Albuquerque's eCADEMY  allows its alternative education students to complete online courses remotely provided they maintain at least C grades. Retention rates have climbed from 50 to 70 percent.

Students at the Hawaii Technology Academy, including a few professional surfers and actors, attend campus a couple days a week and complete the rest remotely. Other schools offer different on- and off-campus arrangements.

BYOD policies can lower the cost of technology associated with launching blended-learning programs. Some 75 percent of teens now own cellphones, according to a Pew Research Center report. Another Pew study reported that African Americans and English-speaking Hispanics are slightly more likely than whites to own a cell phone. These findings suggest that mobile devices, particularly smartphones, could facilitate blended learning in schools without the budget to provide 1:1 devices and in those with high minority populations. BYOD policies are most equitable when schools provide devices to students who do not have their own.

One key to capturing the benefit of mobile devices for blended learning is to begin with the end in mind. The idea that every student gets to use a shiny wireless tablet makes for a great marketing slogan, but does little to guarantee improved student outcomes. The best blended-learning implementations seem to focus on how to build learning environments that help each student learn best. They deploy technology only to facilitate that strategy.

Furthermore, many mobile devices are good consumption devices, but not great creation vehicles. Students are hard pressed to craft an essay as easily using a touchscreen or keypad as with a full-size keyboard and screen. Moving assessments onto mobile devices requires particular attention to ensure equality despite device variance.

Schools need wireless networks that are secure, reliable, and have the capacity to deliver access to everywhere for everyone. They must attend to compatibility issues that arise when students use different devices and operating systems. They must also grapple with how to handle viruses, theft, and other security issues.

Mobile technology can help deliver the vision of students learning at their own pace and at any time. But intentional strategy is the key to channel the technology toward the wished-for results.

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions throughout Your Life.

Heather Staker is a senior education research fellow at Innosight Institute.