Education in the age of mobilism (ISTE12 session)

Elliot Soloway and Cathleen Norris at ISTE12 in San Diego.


On Tuesday afternoon I attended the ISTE12 talk given by Elliot Soloway and Cathleen Norris titled “Education in the age of mobilism: The inevitable transformation of the K-12 classroom”. The following is my summary of what I learned during the talk of these pioneering experts in this field.

Elliot and Cathleen (and others from SIGML) define a mobile device as a cell phone, smart phone, or tablet but not a laptop. The latter is a transportable device but not a mobile device. They have a long-held belief that by 2015 every grade in every school in the US will be using mobile learning devices 24/7. Students and parents want this to happen, so it is going to happen. They know that this change will not be easy or fast, but they believe it will be a cheaper way to go than the current book, laptop, and computer-based track that we’re currently on.

Defining characteristics of the “Age of Mobilism” (which they strongly believe that we are in) are the following:

  • Connectedness: all the time, everywhere. It is not enough to say “anywhere at any time”
  • Affordable by everyone
  • Global: cross cultural, cross everything

They emphasized two pieces of data to support their contention. First, in 2012 there will be one cell phone for every single person on the planet. Second, 72% of Apple’s revenue now comes from the iPad and the iPhone. People aren’t going to carry laptops in the future. Why should they? Their smart phone (which is the only kind of phone that will exist) will have nearly as much computing power (because of the cloud) as their laptop.

What it takes to bring about change

The speakers pointed out that, while new technology has changed just about every industry it has come into contact with, it has had little effect on K-12 education (so far). Movies were originally resistant, too. They originally performed plays in a theater and included shots of the audience in the recording. It took quite a while for someone to figure out that they could perform for the camera alone, and that the audience was not needed for the recording.

It takes new technology plus new processes in order to bring about disruptive change. Thus, using the old pedagogy of a teacher standing in front of a class while talking or students doing “worksheets” in combination with a computer isn’t going to bring about that dramatic growth and change and improvement. You need to change your educational model to 1:1, individualized education that is enabled by the technology in order to get the gains you are looking for.

Deploying technology is hard

One of the hard things about deploying technology in a school is that scaling across lots of teachers is really hard. The success of the pilot project usually leads to unrealistic expectations because you expect the next round to be the same as the first. This doesn’t happen because the teachers involved in the pilot project are usually a different kind of person, or are invested in the project differently, than the people in the full roll-out. First, they do whatever it takes to make the technology and the class work. Second, these pilot teachers are “artisan teachers” who make it look easy. The challenge comes with you have to support everyday teachers, parents, and admins. It is not a challenge to support the kids; they are adaptive and will figure it out.

The artisan teachers, the ones working with the technology in the pilot, do a Learn by Doing pedagogy. They invoke a John Dewey quote (which they referred to multiple times in the talk):

They 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.

So, in the doing is the learning. Teachers should not focus on the end result of the activity to see if learning has occurred — they should think about encouraging activities that lead to learning in their very doing.

To actually scale up, two plans can be followed. The first, shallow scaling, involves rolling out the technology to everyone and making sure that everyone knows how to use the technology itself and then figuring out how to use it. The second involves figuring out the pedagogy first and rolling out the new pedagogy with the technology as an accompanying tool in order to implement it. As you might guess from how they name them, the speakers highly recommend the second approach because it ends up being more successful and being less frustrating for teachers.

The benefits of mobile technology

In order to bring about the benefits of mobile learning, teachers need to determine the activities that students can do with these devices that they could not do with a pencil and paper. They acknowledge that it is not always the case that the students could not do the activities with pencil and paper but that the mobile technologies simply make it so much easier to do something different.

They have found that mobile devices make it much easier to enact learning by doing. With the devices in their hands, the students have more responsibility for the doing while the teacher simultaneously has less responsibility. This raises a sense of ownership of the learning in the student.

They have also found the following benefits:

Students have direct and immediate access to information, events, locations, and data. This means that teachers no longer had to mediate the content. Students can get the information themselves.
Learning in context
Because of the previous point, assignments can be more complex and related to the real world, not separate in-class assignments divorced from reality.
Student groups, but also teachers along with his/her students, can discuss, collaborate, and work as a team. The technology helps teachers learn along with the kids.
All the time, everywhere learning
It is not enough to say “anytime, anywhere learning.” The learning can happen all the time and everywhere the student is. Stop thinking about learning in a classroom — think about learning as an integral part of life and living.

Teachers need to keep in mind that mobile devices are not just computers. These are better than laptops; they have accelerometers and GPS and will have soon temperature sensors and heart monitors. Because of the highly competitive industry and its relatively young age, both software and hardware offerings are rapidly evolving. It is time to get in right now, but realize that the tools will continue to get dramatically better and cheaper. But don’t wait because you need to start creating capabilities and expertise in this area.

A great offer

Through their Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, Soloway and Norris are making available at very low cost the software, hardware, and curriculum (for a few subjects and grades) in order to help schools kick-start this journey. This is, or will be, available for Windows, Android, and iOS platforms. They seemed genuinely excited about the opportunities that this would provide to teachers who don’t know where or how to start.

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