Expert Perspective | Feature

How Mobile Technology Is Creating Today's Active Learner

Today's students learn the way they live: in communities connected by mobile technology.

This article, with an exclusive video, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition.

The term "digital native" first came into use at the beginning of the millennium. It has become a useful expression to explain the differences between children who grew up during the digital technology era and the rest of us, whose habits of living and learning were formed before the ubiquity of these very personal technologies.

A dozen years later, it's time to revisit the term and bring our thinking closer to the ever-evolving reality of children's mobile, digital, and social learning and lives. According to a study commissioned by security company AVG, 92 percent of American children have an online presence by the age of 2. A better term to describe today's students might be "active learner."

Active learners expect technology to enhance and extend teaching and learning, not just offer the same educational experience with a new look and feel. They don't expect to sit in the same place and make use of the same learning objects--textbooks, paper, and pens--as students did five, 10, or 20 years ago. In fact, they probably don't want to sit down at all to learn.

Active learners are also 24/7 consumers of education who thrive on immediacy and continuity, requiring their school to keep up with them. Enabled and empowered by technology, they demand that the tools they live by--smartphones, social media, digital content and calendars--be incorporated into their education. And schools are doing just that: Experts have projected that by 2019, half of all high school courses will be held online.

How Active Learners Learn
The way that active learners socialize, adapt, connect, and grow is now the way that they learn. Accustomed to being part of a connected community, active learners want to interact with their instructor and learn from their friends. And as active learners age, they want to keep learning. This is why nearly half of adults are now enrolled in adult education programs.

A lot of the innovative institutions I work with recognize that active learners aren't a challenge to overcome, and that technology isn't just a box to check. Active learners provide an opportunity to use technology to build a better education experience. Here are some examples of effective school practices that that successfully leverage technology to support the active learner.

Active Learning in Action
The rise in popularity of smartphones has transformed how children access and interact with information, and has dramatically changed the student experience. According to a study from Flurry, students now spend 9 percent more time using apps than the internet. This shift makes it harder for schools to connect with students through traditional means. In response, many schools are using mobile learning to bridge the gap between the way students live and the way they learn.

To this end, St. Hilda's School, an all-girls day and boarding school in Queensland, Australia, is setting the bar for K-12 schools worldwide. By using an integrated set of mobile learning tools and reaching learners where they're already connecting, St. Hilda's is dramatically increasing student engagement. Using their mobile devices, students are collaborating and sharing with one another and their instructors socially, 24/7. Coursework and homework is available online for students who may have to miss class, so the confines of the classroom don't apply to the student's active lifestyle.

St. Hilda's also offers iStHildas, a mobile app that allows the St. Hilda's School community to stay connected wherever they are. The app offers mobile access to campus maps, photo galleries, curriculum information, event calendars, school news, and sports schedules. So far, results have been promising. The mobile integration prompted a 550 percent increase in daily page views of the school's learning management system, and in 2011, St. Hilda's printed 1 million fewer sheets of paper.   

Another key factor in success for the active learner is parental involvement, and school officials at Palm Beach County School District in Palm Springs, FL, agree. PBCSD connects with roughly 500,000 students and adults throughout the district using a web-based technology solution specifically for K-12 schools. For parents of active learners, the technology provides a deeper connection with teachers to help parents keep up with their children.

On a weekly basis, PBCSD parents receive e-mails from teachers alerting them of new content posted online. Access to a real-time tool to manage students' schedules, review homework instructions, and check grades means parents can address problems earlier in the school year. Students can also use the real-time tool from home, a library, or a parent's workplace--wherever there's an internet connection. The result is a more confident student who is not limited by the classroom.

North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS), centered in Raleigh, NC, works with more than 45,000 active learners throughout the state who connect with each other and instructors online. Teachers lead interactive classes using collaborative engagement tools and have eliminated the barriers of traditional class time.

To help active learners at all levels, NCVPS has adopted an education platform that engages students outside classroom walls with video, chat, presentation, and audio tools. During online office hours, instructors connect with students socially and communicate over instant messaging to provide immediate feedback regardless of the time of day.

This year, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) named NCVPS instructor Leslie Fetzer as the National Online Teacher of the Year. Specifically, SREB and iNACOL recognized Fetzer's work with students who have learning disabilities, which demonstrated how they can succeed with personalized, differentiated online instruction. 

Fetzer is leading the development of the NCVPS Occupational Course of Study Blended Learning Program courses for students with disabilities, which pairs online teachers certified in academic content areas with a special education teacher in a student's classroom. This nuanced approach allows students with disabilities (ranging from behavioral and learning disabilities to hearing and visual impairment) to learn the same curriculum as other students, breaking down barriers and bringing together active learners. 

These stories are just a few examples of effective practices for the active learner. Educators at these schools know that just going online is not enough. Truly effective programs leverage technology like learning management systems, mobile applications, and virtual classrooms to bring real-life examples into the classroom, to extend learning beyond the school day, and to provide collaborative, social experiences. By embracing the tools that active learners use in their own connected communities, schools can create a quality student experience that engages learners and enables their success.

About the Author

Sanjeev Ahuja is vice president of K-12 for Blackboard.