Mobile Learning | Viewpoint

Realizing Increased Student Achievement With Mobile Technologies: Here's the Plan

"Let's start at the very beginning; that's a very good place to start." Julie Andrews, Sound of Music

It seems appropriate that in our first column for T.H.E. Journal's K-12 Mobile Classroom Newsletter we should lay out the path to the Holy Grail of K-12: increased (if not dramatically increased) student achievement. While we might be wearing rose colored contact lenses, here's the trajectory that we see actually happening over the next few years that will get K-12 to the Holy Grail:

Step 1: Low-cost, Internet-connected, mobile devices are used, 1:1, as essential, not supplemental tools in the classroom. The empirical data (e.g., see Project RED) are clear: when computers are used as add-ons, as supplements, for an hour or so every other or even every day, increases in student achievement--like higher scores on standardized tests--are not observed. However, when computing devices are used across the subject areas, for substantial periods of time (say, 70 percent) and when the curriculum and the software support each other, then increases in student achievement are indeed observed.

Realistically, it is low-cost, internet-connected mobile computing devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets) that will enable each of the 55,000,000 K-12 school children in the U.S. to have his/her own truly personal computing device 24/7. Acer has recently announced the $99 7-inch Android tablet. It's easy to envision in the near term that, instead of a TI calculator on the must-bring-to-school-in-September paraphernalia list sent to parents in August, they are instead asked to purchase a mobile computing device that runs a TI calculator app--for the same money as that calculator.

Step 2: Curriculum developers provide teachers with lessons, assignments that exploit the affordances of the software that comes along with the lessons, assignments.  We need to move beyond pilot technology projects in schools. Pilots work because the early-adopting teachers--the artisan teachers-- in the pilots are tremendously talented and give tremendous amounts of time. Read my lips: that model is not sustainable; that model doesn't scale. If we want mobile technologies to be used as essential tools in the classroom, then teachers must be provided with the curriculum plus the software that they will be using in their classrooms.

The data also say:  using new technology to implement old processes leads to precious little gain in effectiveness/productivity. Thus, little benefit will be gained if we use the mobile devices to deliver the existing curriculum using the existing direct instruction pedagogy. The curriculum developers must provide lessons, assignments that enable all teachers--not just the artisan, early-adopting ones--to enact some form of learn-by-doing pedagogy, e.g., inquiry-learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning.

Why a learn-by-doing pedagogy? John Dewey in 1916 puts it quite succinctly:
 "… [teachers] give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking … learning naturally results."  

And mobile computing devices are the perfect--the essential--tool to enable pupils "to do" the learning activities prescribed in the curriculum.

Step 3: Teachers engage in professional development activities, e.g., school-based, weekly, teacher discussions, Internet-based PLNs (professional learning networks). Schools of education are still teaching teachers the old way; and, again, the data say that when teachers find themselves in a corner, they fall back on techniques that their teachers used. We can't expect teachers who are accustomed to direct instruction, paper-and-pencil curriculum to just immediately enact a learn-by-doing pedagogy  where each student has an Internet-connected, mobile device with a broad range of productivity apps (writing, animating, KWLing, spreadsheeting, timelining, messaging, etc.) plus domain specific apps (e.g., science graphing tools, science visualization tools)--24/7!

Just three steps to change K-12--but those three steps are anything but easy! That said, progress is being made. For example, in 2010, we predicted that by 2015 each and every student in K-12 would be using a mobile device, 24/7, for curricular purposes. In 2010 that prediction seemed far-fetched, but K-12 is on course for the technology to be in place. In future columns, we will dive into various elements of the above roadmap--and chart our progress towards K-12's Holy Grail!

About the Authors

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

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