Jun 25 2012

Strategies for Making the Most of Mobile Learning Tools in the Classroom

These best practices can help districts adapt to the influx of unconventional devices on their networks.

Bring your own device (BYOD) means a lot of different things in the context of an educational setting. When an educator says that his or her district has a BYOD program, it's important to clarify the type of program that's in place. Is its scope limited to notebook computers? Or does it include other types of mobile computing devices? Such ­differences can have a huge impact on how school leaders ­approach ­policies, classroom ­management and curriculum design.

In my view, the districts that are allowing web-enabled phones and game consoles are in the vanguard of the BYOD movement. That's because phones and gaming consoles require far more than a few tweaks to the funding and management models of traditional one-to-one programs. They introduce new operating systems, new software, and a massive cultural shift from the traditional classroom and the traditional ways in which these technologies are used.

BYOD was widely discussed at the 2012 Consortium for School Networking conference. One of the most impressive innovators in the mobile learning space is Felicia Owen, a math teacher at Lavaca (Ark.) High School, who was ­honored at the ­conference as one of the National School Boards Association's "20 to Watch" ­educational technology leaders for 2011–2012. She also was a major contributor in ­devising these strategies for ­making mobility work in the classroom.

Lay the ­Foundation

A mobile device program needs a robust wireless network. Most handheld devices have weak wireless antennas and can drop off networks quite easily. As a result, manufacturers have ­developed robust wireless access points and management systems to meet the demands of hundreds and even thousands of student-owned devices. Given how quickly technology evolves, even networks with equipment that's less than 5 years old may lack the reach and sensitivity needed to handle the strain so many devices can impose.

Strong user policies and board support also are required. The Lavaca School District board, for example, explicitly states that it will allow ­students to use Facebook in class because it facilitates efficient student interaction. Although the Missouri legislature's initial ban on Facebook and other digital communication ­between teachers and students was later overturned, it fostered ongoing uncertainty in the K–12 community about Facebook's value in the teaching and learning process. Board-approved policies concerning the use of all ­social media can provide teachers with a sense of security as they seek to develop appropriate uses for these tools in the classroom.

Set Expectations

One of the biggest challenges teachers must overcome when developing a BYOD program is figuring out how to bridge the gap between how mobile devices are typically used and how classroom learning is typically ­designed. It's important for students to understand that device use is for learning and not for replying to texts.

The best way for districts to achieve this is to make teachers highly mobile. Traditional classroom management software isn't easily installed on mobile devices, so teachers need to be encouraged to move freely around their classrooms. That way, they can monitor what students are doing and ensure that mobile devices are being used only when students have meaningful, class-driven work to do.

Assign Specific Tasks

One of the ways to help students use their mobile devices appropriately is to assign meaningful work at the outset of a class period.

Lavaca's Owen, for example, ­regularly presents a problem for students to work on as soon as they enter the classroom each day. Students do this "bell work" as she takes attendance. When students find an answer to the problem, they text it, along with supporting evidence, to Owen's e-mail address. To ease the management burden a flood of daily texts from students can create, she set up her account to automatically sort these messages into corresponding folders for each class section. That way, she's encouraging students to use texting in ways that support learning without overwhelming her inbox.

Another way Owen keeps students focused is by posting specific questions on her class Facebook page for them to answer. She also allows students to read each other's responses and assist peers as needed.

Find the Right Tool

Mobile phones and game consoles have come a long way, but they still lack the functionality of a notebook. Indeed, some assignments simply don't work as well on a handheld device as they do on a computer.

Owen found that logical questions work better than computational ones. The computational questions are simply too difficult to express in text form, she says, and are best presented on paper or via an inter­active whiteboard or tablet PC.

It's also important to remember that phone and gaming console functionality can vary widely. As such, effectively integrating these tools into the teaching and learning experience often requires appealing to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, that means breaking students into small groups so they can share more powerful devices. What's most ­important, she insists, is finding ways to advance the ­desired learning ­outcome rather than simply finding ways for students to use the devices.

Be Flexible

Mobile computing devices change all the time, and it can be hard to keep up. Educators shouldn't be afraid to ask students for new ideas about how to best meet learning objectives. That may mean adapting to new tools or taking advantage of additional features on existing tools.

Tools such as Socrative, for ­example, have made it easier to turn students' phones into classroom "clickers." Facebook "Like" pages often facilitate more effective class discussions than Facebook "Groups" because of the "Insight" statistics they generate. (Such statistics can help teachers track how often students visit, how far their messages reach and who else is following the discussion.) Owen says she's always looking for the "next new thing" to engage students.

The Bottom Line

What, exactly, are students doing on their phones? And how can that be converted into meaningful learning? These questions aren't as backward as they might seem.

Owen recently told me the story of a student who is repeating geometry. The student passed the course this year, as did others who had previously struggled. When asked how having the ability to use her mobile device in class had affected her learning experience, the student said that she was no longer focusing on texts and Facebook status updates from friends throughout the day. The reason: She was too busy using SMS and Facebook on her phone for classwork.

<p>C Squared Studios/Getty Images</p>

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