Being Mobile | Blog

Mobile Devices Are K-12's Pearl Harbor

We have said this many times — and been taken to the wood shed for saying it — but we absolutely are convinced of its veracity: To a first approximation, the impact of computing technologies on K-12 education in the United States has been zero.

The classroom still looks the way it has looked: desks facing the front of the room where the teacher stands and tells learners stuff. On those desks is dead-tree technology. Laptops?  As Winne Hu noted in her New York Times article: Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops.

OK, OK ... in YOUR school — in pockets around the country — we have seen impacts. But for the vast majority of the 7.4 million teachers, their teaching practices have not changed significantly due to the use of computer technology. And if teachers’ practices haven’t changed, then their students’ learning practices haven’t changed.

Our comment is not a value judgment: we are not blaming anyone for this situation. Let’s say that again using capital letters for emphasis: WE ARE NOT BLAMING ANYONE — ESPECIALLY NOT THE TEACHERS.

The reason for the lack of impact is actually quite simple: Access — well, lack of access, actually. Computing devices have competed with textbooks and other materials and while we have carts and labs and 1-to-1 laptop projects, access still has been limited. And how many school networks are robust enough to provide what industry requires — 99.999 percent uptime.  

With limited access to computing devices connected by flaky, networks there has been precious little incentive for book publishers to rewrite curriculum to include computers. So, schools brought computers into the school and asked the teachers to “figure it out.”  Since teachers are professionals they did the best they could; they joined professional organizations (e.g., ISTE), they attended professional development workshops, and they purchased supplemental materials that showed how to add a dash of computers to their classroom activities.

And, for the last 40 or so years, K–12 has stumbled along with computers.  But, as the New York Times’ journalist Matt Richtel and colleagues have so frequently and pleasantly pointed out: To a first approximation, the impact of computing technologies on K–12 education in the United States has been zero.

But, just as Pearl Harbor caused the country to act for the simple reason that it could not be ignored by the powers that be, K–12 is experiencing, right this minute, its Pearl Harbor. The Big Disruption. So, unlike all the other times that K–12 has ignored technology, justifiably one might even argue, this time, K-12 can’t ignore technology; K–12 will change this time because of to technology.  

And, contrary to what some noted futurists have argued, the Big Disruption is NOT “online education” per se. Yes, the Internet is part of the Big Disruption. But, after all, the Internet is just a roadway; if there are no cars on a roadway, the roadway will just sit there. Mobile devices are the cars for the Internet roadway. Mobile devices — those low-cost, Internet-connected, handheld, slabs of glass, plastic and metal — are the Big Disrupters that will cause the transformation, the upheaval of K–12.  

Why? Again: Access — but this time, NOT lack of it!

In 20092011, we predicted that by 2015 every student in every grade in every school in the U.S. would be using a mobile learning device 24/7. In 2009-2011, that prediction was not met with much enthusiasm.

As we head into 2014, that prediction is looking amazingly prescient.

In 2015, every learner will take out of their pocket an Internet-connected computing device with the computing zorch of a laptop computer, lay it on their desk, and look up, expectantly, at the teacher.

Ban mobile devices from classrooms? We banned books; in the end, that didn’t stop folks; if anything the banning just increased the interest in the forbidden books.

Kids bringing their own mobile devices to school is the catalyst for the most profound change in K–12 in the history of K–12.

Acknowledgment:  Ideas brew for a while and then something happens and they spew forth. The specific something underlying this latest spewing (aka this blog post) were the conversations we had at the third EDUsummIT Conference (Oct. 1–2, 2013) in Washington, D.C. — your tax dollars NOT at work. We had talked with academics, policy makers, funders, etc. from the United States but most from outside the country. And, ES had an absolutely chance and intense conversation with Dr. Jorg Drager, Bertelsmann Foundation. Of course, the bad ideas are ours while we thank our colleagues — and Jorg — for the good ideas.

About the Authors

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

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