Mobile phones in class: the next back to school accessory

As school districts across the country open their doors for the 2010-2011 school year, a remarkable shift in thought is taking place: cell phones, once regarded as distractions or liabilities are coming to be viewed as viable learning tools.

This fall, Wisconsin's Milwaukee Public School district will let students use their mobile phones in classrooms as long as it's for an approved educational purpose. 

Contrast this new rule change with the newly-revised policy in Lynchburg, Virginia, which now lets students keep their mobile phones on them at all times, but only if they are not used during instructional time.

Prince Georges County, Maryland is taking a similar approach for the 2010-2011 school year. The county's policy says "students are permitted to use cell phones and PEDs only during certain times. The use...should not interfere with teaching and learning during the school day."

While school districts throughout the U.S. are tinkering with their policies to figure out how to best include cell phones, few are as forward-thinking as Milwaukee.

"When students are at home, they're using social networking tools like Facebook and sharing services like YouTube..but they step into a classroom, and they're stepping back into 1950," said Vikram Savkar, Senior Vice President and Publishing Director at Nature Publishing. "That will change over time, it's inevitable. I think the question is how to work mobile devices into teaching and then jump on the opportunity [to use them]."

Savkar and Nature Publishing are pushing a new model for learning and collaboration with Scitable, a free Web-learning portal that publishes peer-reviewed journals and scientific research for free, and lets students communicate with educators and researchers in "Web 2.0" fashion.

This week, Scitable launched a mobile version of its service, which is truly jumping on the opportunity Savkar mentioned.

"M-learning is not a replacement for e-learning," Savkar told Betanews. "It supplements it. Behavior on mobile devices won't be a 1:1 match with our behavior on the Web; our engagement with our tasks and workflow in the future --whether that's in education or any field, really-- will be split across many devices. I don't think that in the future a student will learn on just a PC or just a smartphone, the combined behavior will add up to the total experience."

The problem up to now has been that smartphones are a double-edged sword. Students can use them as scientific calculators, dictionaries, research tools, and even word processors or devices to assemble and conduct presentations. But on the downside, they can be a tool to cheat on tests, an expensive liability if stolen or broken, and generally, a tool to distract students from the learning they should be doing.

"I think that we'll come to accept that there are existential problems with mobile devices," Savkar said. "Any college professor knows that they will have students falling asleep in their classes. Maybe today, instead of students sleeping in class, they're texting. But in the end, the same percent of students will be engaged, and the same will be goofing off. I don't think phones will change the proportion. The split will stay the same. The engaged students will use their phones properly. Keeping phones out of your class because 20% may use them to goof off is a serious error."

When mobile phones are regarded as learning devices on campus, their purpose subtly changes when students go off campus. Education becomes available 24 hours a day.
Though this sounds blissfully ideal, the teacher responsible for a large class full of students ceases to have time away from his pedagogical dais.

"Professors say they get hundreds and hundreds of emails from students every day, and at some point it becomes unmanageable. Faculty are looking for a way to streamline their communications with students so they can approach it in a more methodical way," Savkar said. "But when students turn to the Web for answers, I don't think they'll necessarily turn to their own instructor first."

This is one of the main benefits to a socially-enhanced learning site like Scitable. Rather than bog down their instructor with questions that may have already been answered in class, students can query other teachers who can answer it at any time.

"I think students are less afraid to pose 'dumb questions' to strangers," Savkar posited. "And less hesitant to post time-consuming questions to the masses. Teaching is irreplacable in creating the personalized learning experience; but questions are just widgets to the community. It's a new kind of questioning that isn't possible. You see a lot of Q&A sites out there...they're skimming at one level, but we're trying to bring researchers and scientists into the fold...the people you really have to ask for certain information."

As more school districts do as Milwaukee has done, and regard mobile phones as learning tools, it is critical to have high-quality material for those devices to access.

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