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Learning Digitally: The Case for Mobile Learning

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Personal computing has advanced more rapidly in the past eight to 10 years than it ever had before, drastically altering the landscape with regard to how we accomplish our everyday tasks. In recent years, there has been a major trend in personalization, and tech companies have responded by rolling out products and innovations allowing the needs of the individual to trump those of the group as a whole. However, as is often the case -- particularly with very large institution such as education -- systematic changes can take some time to take hold. Large, tradition-based organizations often want to be sure that radically new approaches are ironclad before implementing them, and there can be a litany of other reasons why delays occur. Project Tomorrow, a national educational nonprofit organization that supports the cutting-edge development of math, science, and technology to prepare America's students for the future, has been deploying its Speak Up surveys over the last several years to track the development of technology and how it can be utilized to help students, and the results from the latest Speak Up survey are certainly a revelation, if not really surprising. That which is trending outside the educational system mirrors what students would like to see happening inside their classrooms.

The buzzword this year is personalization. It isn't enough to just have an iPad anymore -- it has to be customized to reflect its owner's personality. Likewise, educationally, students who responded to the survey say that in their ideal classroom, they would ideally have access to any number of different interactive technological tools to accomplish the task at hand. Of the more than 400,000 students who responded to the Speak Up survey, over half are tapping into mobile devices at home when doing their homework; however, roughly the same number of students responded that they are not permitted to utilize their personal mobile devices at school. Of the middle school students who responded (grades 6-8), 52 percent replied they would benefit from the use of a tablet (iPad and the like) at school; 49 percent would utilize a mobile device to collaborate with classmates; and 33 percent would use mobile technology to record video footage of the teacher's in-class lesson as a reference for homework and studying. If more students were allowed to use their personal mobile devices in school -- or at least a school-owned device that replicated their personal devices -- it is likely that even more students would choose to use them for school at home. Consequently, they would be much more efficient and effective inside the classroom if the same or similar tools were to be made available to them.

In the current academic landscape, students look around at mostly antiquated teaching methods and curriculum, wondering why education can't catch up with the rest of the world. The latest Speak Up survey reveals that there is an increasing expectation among students that learning should become more personalized, and they are not able to access the websites they need in school for academic purposes -- 49 percent of middle school and 59 percent of high school students said websites needed for learning are blocked. Additionally, current, non-digital methods of teaching are failing to engage students at a core level, and we see America as a whole falling in comparison to other countries that make funding and upgrading teaching methods a priority.

Students see a perceived lack of interest in changing what they feel is a flawed system, and if that persists then they will continue to put forth a lackluster effort in return. Technology has developed to the point where people in general, and students in particular, expect to be engaged by their surroundings -- for students now, that is all they have known their entire lives. What exists in most schools -- particularly public schools -- is a one-size-fits-all curriculum that students either fit into, or they don't.

However, the technology is available to allow for a more personalized approach to learning that the study shows would be widely embraced by students. And it's becoming more and more affordable as well, though one might contend that the ability to reach a student and to see that light bulb go on is priceless. In the current framework, many parents are faced with the choice to find additional help for their children through extra time spent after class with teachers, or even costly private tutoring sessions to get that personalized learning. The technology that is available could alleviate that necessity, allowing students to find the extra help they need through technology. Often, students who do need extra help are afraid to ask for it, because they believe it's a sign of weakness; technology eliminates this step by giving students access to the personalized learning they need without having to necessarily ask for it. They can also easily connect with classmates and their teachers digitally to get the help they need at the moment they need it.

There is no doubt that people depend on the educational system to provide a platform for learning and a springboard to success -- as nearly three-quarters of parents agreed that education is most important because it has the capability to provide young people with the skills to be successful in the future. For a long time in the United States, access to education has been relatively unequal -- technology, however, is the great equalizer. Technology puts information at the fingertips of every student, and it allows for the individualized, personalized learning experience that students crave. And perhaps most importantly of all, technology does not discriminate. It puts every student on a level playing field, and it gives them a chance to compete now and in the future.

The Speak Up National Research Project is all about sparking discussion. Change takes time. We now have several years' worth of data that suggests that there is reason to take a serious look at making mobile devices that students use on a daily basis for their personal lives available for educational purposes. The data shows that students and their parents are on board with introducing mobile devices for use at school and at home as a regular part of the curriculum. Mobile devices are already a regular part of most students' lives -- it's time to make education a part of that, instead of apart from it.

The latest research clearly shows that the time to embrace mobile technology for the benefit of education is already upon us, and considering the direction American students' test scores are heading in relation to the rest of the world, there is no time like the present to deploy the high-tech tools that students and their parents crave. The hardware and software needed to usher in the change is available; what we need now is the full buy-in from the school districts, administrators, and teachers who would be largely responsible for developing and implementing the curriculum around the new technology. That certainly is no small task, but knowing how much of a boost it can give to our students, it's an investment that must be given serious consideration.