A Conversation with Julie Evans

Mobile Learning: Now In the Hands of Teenagers

Online learning. Yes! Flipped learning, personalized learning. Yes, yes! Mobile LearningMobile learning. Huh? You remember mobile learning, right? No, not right. Isn’t mobile learning a thing of the past?

Sigh. It’s the way of the world. Ideas come in; swirl around; and are replaced by other ideas. You think personalized learning is here to stay? Patience, patience. It too will be replaced. (Actually, personalized learning – the kind where machine learning feeds students their next bite of information — is actually personalized instruction. But that’s a blog for another time; stay tuned.)

(Note: In the following, quotes surround comments made to us by Dr. Julie Evans, CEO — and Diva Extraordinaire — of Project Tomorrow.)

But here’s the thing: while educators may well have forgotten about mobile learning, the youth of today — the 12- to 17-year-olds — haven’t. Indeed, these teenagers are using their smartphones — which they call phones, not smartphones — for substantive learning outside the classroom. Get ready for this percentage: according to Evans:

  • "… 58% of students in grades 6-8 and 54% of students in grades 9-12 say that they use technology more outside of school for learning than they do in school."

And what do these teens do outside of school with their (smart)phones? Evans has identified four core activities:

  • "Self-remediation:  interest in self-improvement in an academic subject
  • Skill development:  desire to learn skills they consider important for future success but not necessarily taught in school
  • Curiosity:  inquisitiveness about an academic subject or learning more about something discussed or learned in school
  • Career development:  exploring various career fields or future educational opportunities to assess personal fit."

For example, teens will listen to TED talks, review websites that pique their interest, play online games and simulations, ask questions of experts, use social media to search out others who share their same interests. Yes, the teens are streaming music and video, and yes they are participating in social media sites, but they are spending serious time learning too.

So, how many students have smartphones and are engaging in the above sorts of activities?

  • As of 2016: 78% of those between the ages of 12-17 have smartphones.
  • As of December 2016: As a point of comparison, 81% of adults in the U.S. own smartphones.
  • As of May 2016: "The average age for a child getting their first smartphone is now 10.3 years."

And, this observation from a recent (November 2017) Ericsson Mobile Report says it all, actually: "Born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, millennials have grown up in the age of the internet and mobile communications. This age group is not only leading the way in terms of the adoption of digital devices but also will most likely set the demands on future digital networks and services due to its technical knowledge and skills, as well as its high expectation level." The Ericsson report, by the way, brings together data from all over the planet!

Why isn’t mobile learning happening inside the classroom? Again, Evans has some illuminating data.

  • While 71% of school administrators surveyed feel that technology can lead to student success, only 43% of classroom teachers feel the same way.
  • Only 15% of the teachers feel that technology is the cause of higher proficiency on tests.
  • And, only 33% feel that "students’ enhanced abilities to understand difficult concepts, apply knowledge to practical problems, develop workplace skills or take ownership of learning" is due to using classroom technology. 

Teachers want to do right by their students; if they don’t believe that an instructional practice works, then there is no way that practice will get through door.

Ironically, of course, there is plenty of research (e.g., Zheng, Project RED) that says technology can in fact lead to improved student achievement. As only some of that research appears in teacher-accessible venues, teachers may well not be aware of such evidence. But, will empirical evidence change teachers’ belief about the lack of value of technology?  Good question! Evans observes: "… more work is needed at both the school, district and governance levels to address how to best support teachers … to meaningfully evaluate the impact of mobile devices in the classroom."

While schools are pushing to go 1-to-1 — one computer for each student, teens have moved past that. Evans argues that the teens are 1-to-many — each student uses a number of devices, where the choice of device is based on the task at hand:

  • "Students realize that their ideal learning environment should not be bounded by the limitations of one device per student, but rather that ideal environment should support devices based upon what features and functions is best to meet the needs of a particular task… Just as within their personal lives, students want to use the right tool for the right task to increase the efficiency of their work."

Evans feels that the young learners using mobile devices are developing a view that "learning should be socially-based, un-tethered and digitally rich."

  • Socially based: As Dewey argued, education is a social process, education is about dialogue, not monologue. Plato’s Socratic Method is a form of “cooperative argumentative dialogue.” The teens are using their mobile devices, at least outside of school, in just such conversations.
  • Un-tethered: Evans means this term both literally and figuratively.  Literally in that wireless connectivity links the learners via their mobile devices, and figuratively, in that mobile learners do not feel constrained to follow just what the teacher lays out, but rather, mobile learners can, via the mobile devices in the palms of their hands, follow their own muses, letting curiosity drive their explorations.
  • Digitally rich: In the pre-Internet days, access to information meant trooping off to the library – when it was open, and learning the ins-and-outs of the card-catalog and the Dewey-Decimal system. In the Age of Mobility, however, students have Google instantly at their fingertips, 24/7. The analog world has value, no question; but the digital world — well, it’s breath-taking — and the teens "get it!"

To sum up, Evans makes this observation:

  • "The examination of how students are empowering a new vision for learning through their self-directed mobile experiences beyond the sponsorship or facilitation of their teachers has the potential to provide significant new insights into what could be possible in America’s classrooms.  Appreciation of these insights requires that students are respected and listened to not just because of their status as technology savants, but as essential stewards of their own learning innovations."

Now do you remember mobile learning? Perhaps it is good, at least temporarily, that mobile learning is flying along below the "educational technology radar."  As Evans has observed, the teens have been developing their mobile learning "chops" — their expertise at "socially-based, un-tethered, digitally rich learning." Patience: Teachers want to do right by their students — so teachers will come to see the value of mobile learning and they will absolutely embrace it!