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Expert Interview: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center on Mobile Learning

Topics:   EdTech
Audrey Stokes | March 21, 2011

In January, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop released Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning, an interesting new report that explores the role of mobile technologies in the lives of young people.  In this Expert Interview, Common Sense Schools sat down with study director Carly Shuler and center executive director Michael Levine to discuss the study and find out what these new findings mean for educators, parents, and young people in the 21st century.

Common Sense Schools: Your research is some of the first to look at how young people are using mobile technology and what this means for their development — and to the adults in their lives. What were the key questions or issues you wanted to address with this research?

Carly Shuler, Ed.M.: The mission of the Cooney Center is to capitalize on new and emerging forms of media and technology to advance children’s learning. Given the increasing prevalence of mobile devices in children’s lives, we wanted to first of all understand how, if at all, these technologies are currently being used for learning. Second, we sought to identify the key opportunities and challenges in using these devices for education. And, finally, we outlined a strategy for capitalizing on these devices to advance children’s learning.

CSS: So what do you think parents need to know about the impact that cell phones are having on kids’ lives and about the potential they have for kids?

Michael H. Levine, Ph.D.: Parents realize that kids are not only using digital media such as cell phones and iPods for hours every day, they are wearing these devices. These devices are as much a part of children’s lives as their clothes.

Shuler: Children and their parents and educators aren’t really tapping into these devices for educational purposes in general — there’s a lot of opportunity here. For example, Sesame Workshop recently launched a podcast series on iTunes called “What’s the Word on the Street.” The series consists of short podcasts that the child can watch to learn a specific word. It was the number-one podcast on iTunes for quite a while, so it’s a really good example of how a simple medium and a simple technology can be used for education.

CSS: So what are the main opportunities that your report found for mobile learning?

Shuler: I think that parents and educators both might be surprised that they go beyond the obvious. First, these devices are mobile and allow the parent or teacher to encourage anywhere, anytime learning. This encourages learning in a real-world context and also helps bridge the gap between what’s going on in school and what’s going on out of school.

The second opportunity is that these devices allow educators to reach underserved children who are geographically or economically disadvantaged. This is because they are relatively low cost, and they can really help to expand digital equity. The paper cites some really neat examples of things happening, particularly in developing countries, that demonstrate this potential.

The third is that these devices can encourage 21st-century skills like communication and collaboration. It’s a little counterintuitive, because some people think of mobile learning as something that a child does alone or with a screen, but actually many of the projects that use these devices find that students are more likely to focus on each other rather than the technology.

Next, teachers and researchers have found that these technologies fit more easily into classroom learning environments than computers or larger technologies — which can require either going to a computer lab or bring challenges like broadband speed that can be hard to overcome. So while mobile technologies bring their own set of challenges, they can be easier to use.

The last one is that these technologies can enable a personalized learning experience. There’s a nice example in the report from Sesame Workshop called iRead, where each student is evaluated on the Dibble Reading Assessment and gets a personalized “playlist” of content that targets their individual reading challenges.

CSS: Your report also looks at some of the challenges presented by mobile learning, such as access issues, cultural attitudes, lack of research or understanding, or negative aspects that educators have experienced. So what are your recommendations — for educators, policy leaders, parents, and kids — to overcome those challenges to get to the opportunities and make the most of mobile technologies?

Shuler: We’re recommending a multi-step process toward implementing mobile learning. It’s not something that you can snap your fingers and say “OK, kids have these devices, now let’s make them educational.”

Levine: It’s a national plan and something that will take policy, industry, and research leadership to get there. As a starting point, we think that President Obama and his administration should place priority on a new digital learning initiative as part of their education and economic renewal plans. This initiative could start out with a White House conference on the future of learning and build support for new investments in R&D funding for new digital innovation.

Shuler: The first thing we need to do is learn more. We need to understand mobile learning as a unique element of education reform. Second step is to develop new products — obviously learners and teachers and parents can’t take advantage of mobile learning until they have the right products to do so.

Third step is to promote. The public needs to be engaged in understanding that these devices can be used for learning. We spoke to people who work with teachers, and the number-one reason that most teachers give for why they don’t see the potential for learning in mobile devices is just that they haven’t seen them in the classroom. It’s not that they’re not open to them, it’s just that they don’t know how they’d be used.

Levine: At this point, teachers are very concerned — and they’re right to be — about the disruptiveness of cell phones. But if you begin, fairly early on in the student’s career, to change the norms — to introduce the cell phone, iPod, or iTouch, or a game platform that’s mobile — into the mix of activities that the children are doing either during their regular school day or in after-school programs, then you begin to bring about new expectations. Children begin to think about these devices in a way that there’s both a learning purpose and as a social-communication purpose.

Teachers cannot teach what they themselves haven’t been taught to understand. One way we think to break that jam is to create a Digital Teacher Corps. We would prepare new teachers at schools of education with different coursework, and, once they reach the classroom, would support them with on-site support to aid in digital tech integration. And, of course, we would need to focus on a way that they could practice and perfect their craft over a period of time. We think this corps could be an exciting national initiative — akin to models like Teach for America.

The big takeaway for educators from this report is that digital technologies are here to stay, and it’s time to shift gears from a model of educational instruction that adds technology here and there to a model of educational delivery that integrates technology, where it works best, into every aspect of the teaching and learning that’s going on in the classroom.

CSS: What do you see as the timeline for making this happen? What happens now, what happens a year from now or five years from now? And how long will it take to build this system you’re recommending?

Levine: This is a hard question to answer because educational technologies have a disappointing track record of failing to accelerate educational progress. We’ve spent 30 years in education reform making slow progress, but we’ve barely scratched the surface in using educational technology to accelerate kids’ learning. In today’s global age and economic situation, we need to innovate to jump start the learning and the economic enterprise. Over the next five years, digital technologies — given the tremendous research that’s been done to expand their power — have real potential to transform the learning paradigm.

Shuler: I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next five years, or even the next three years, almost all children have some sort of mobile technology that they’re carrying around in their pocket, be it some sort of cell phone, iPod, or gaming system. And what’s important to remember is that a device itself is not educational — it’s what we do with it. Kids are carrying around these very powerful little tools in their pockets, so if we start to shift our perception in how we look at them, then maybe we’ll see advancement a little more rapidly than we might otherwise.

Levine: It’s just a question of how we’re going to use mobile devices so that teachers will be able to accelerate student motivation and collaboration and transform the learning experience into a richer, more collaborative, and interactive one to help children gain the skills that employers are demanding today.

CSS: That said, what do you think the average classroom teacher or technology coordinator, media specialist, or librarian can start doing now to better understand these technologies?

Levine: The first thing that teachers, technology coordinators, and principals need to do is recognize the experiences that most children are having with digital media outside the classroom. How ubiquitous are these devices in the lives of the children they serve? The second thing is to practice and get much more adept at using these devices themselves.

Shuler: Our report has an appendix of over 30 examples of mobile learning from around the world, and I would encourage teachers to look at these innovative examples to see if there’s anything that they think would work in their classrooms. Some of these examples are really beautiful, and a teacher reading them could say “wow, how can I make that work for my kids?”

Levine: Teachers need to begin to integrate media literacy programs into their classrooms, and one good way to do that is to begin to show children and colleagues what these digital devices look like, what they’re capable of doing, and how they can be embedded in the curriculum.

CSS: So that answers how to get teachers on board, but what about parents? Common Sense and Cooney partnered last summer on a study that found a resistance from parents to cell phones as learning tools. Do you think this trend will persist, how do you think it could be overcome, and who do you think are the best people to bring parents into the conversation?

Levine: I think that educators are the best agents for change among parents. In this regard, I think that parents are following educators’ cues, and educators have been resistant, in particular, to mobile phones. If parents are going to be engaged, they’re going to need to see exciting examples, such as the ones cited in our report.

Shuler: Parents also need to start looking to the commercial market — to organizations like Sesame Workshop and others — that provide educational content and ideas. I think that the industry is starting to provide content for parents to download onto their mobile devices, and if you look, you can find them. There’s an educational section on iTunes, and there are educational games coming out for the DS.

CSS: So let’s imagine we’re five years from now, in a classroom somewhere in an ideal world. How is the teacher using mobile technologies to communicate with her students and their families?

Levine: I’d like to think about a fourth grade classroom in the inner city that has very high quality teachers, including those who have gone through training as part of a new Digital Teacher Corps. They’re using handheld devices to work with their struggling readers to make sure that they get the types of downloadable videos that they can bring home on their mobile devices to practice their reading, comprehension, and vocabulary skills. They’re working side by side with other children to do some partner reading exercises, holding one or two smart phones where they can download any number of books and, together, speak the words that are coming across their smart touch screens. And they’re able to send a note to their parents or caregivers via text messaging. The teacher will have a special diagnostic program on her handheld device which at any moment will be able to show how much progress a child is making, so the children themselves and the adults at home can see how much they’re learning — anyplace, anytime.

Shuler: You can walk into almost any public space right now and think “hey, we’re in the 21st century.” But in a lot of cases, you can walk into a classroom today and not know if it’s 1960 or 2010. My hope for five years from now is to be able to walk into a classroom and know it’s a 21st-century classroom. The kids are using their 21st-century devices — the devices that they love — and they’re using them for good, for education, and for their healthy development. I think that would be a real advancement.

Levine: I think that last point is so fundamental. Will kids tomorrow be bored to tears in school, or will they be engaged because we’re trying to extend their familiarity and comfort with what is, for them, their paper and pencil? Digital media isn’t going to transform the classroom tomorrow, necessarily, and mobile technologies obviously still have a way to go, but what we need to practice over the next three to five years is our imagination. We need to think more clearly and with more vision about how the classroom of the 21st century has finally arrived.

Digital media is here to stay, we have to make sure that it’s here to help — not hinder — the educational experiences of all of our children.