Why Smartphone Use Helps Develop 21st Century Skills in Higher Education

03/01/2015 01:20 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

As I lay by the pool, contemplating how to structure this article on the uses of technology in education, I am rudely awoken from my reverie by a group of yammering high school students hunched over their iPhones.

Having lost my train of thought, I decide instead to go investigate which teen heartthrob is on their mind, and discretely inch my sun recliner closer. I am, however, shocked to find that the topic of their interest is ozone depletion, not One Direction.

In fact, the group have efficiently split up their project tasks, with two of them reading out research material off an app, while the third expertly relays said information to group members elsewhere via WhatsApp and coordinates their next steps.

Clearly the process of doing high school homework has changed drastically in the mere five years since I graduated. Education today is a rapidly evolving field in which students, institutions, administrators and research alike are critically challenging what it means to learn, how to assess their growth in learning and thus what their role is in the process.

In an era where we are continuously exposed to novel technologies, we are being pushed to incorporate these advanced tools into our learning processes, which as a whole is taking education in an exciting new direction. This begs the question -- what exactly are these tools bringing to our learning outcomes? What are the 21st century skills needed in this new learning environment, and how can mobile technology help us get there?

21st Century Skills 101
In the relevant literature, across various sources, there seems to be a consensus on what exactly these skills entail. Learning and innovation play a huge part. Today's students are expected to be critical thinkers who collaborate and effectively communicate in order to solve problems through creativity and innovation. Digital literacy is a must in all areas from Microsoft Office usage to social media. Last, but not least, career and life skills constitute an increasingly important part. On top of the obvious development of leadership skills and a sense of responsibility, one must also be willing to take initiative, be productive, but also accountable to themselves.

Knowing what these skills are in itself is not enough. In order to imbue these skills in students today, they must be implemented into educational curricula. In order for this to happen, we must have a better understanding of what kind of learning environments best support these 21st century skills.

Lesson 2: Learning Environments
One of the most effective approaches is through a student-centered learning environment. This is essentially the complete opposite of the traditional lecture-style approach where the main source of information comes from being talked at by teachers, while the students are expected to absorb all the knowledge, like sponges.

The modern approach sees the students at the center, as the builders of their own knowledge, while the teachers act as guides and help facilitate said knowledge building. Rather than being spoon-fed the answers, this approach requires students to be active, aware and engaged.

Add In Some Mobile...
Thus is follows that mobile technology (referring to both mobile apps and the internet) is an ideal tool to help support individualized, hands-on student-centered learning environments. The internet is able to provide access to vast and immediate information, while educational mobile apps provide learning tools and organizational platforms which enable students to be the agents of their own learning.

One of the greatest advantages to mobile technology is that it offers anytime, anywhere access to exactly what is needed, when it is needed. This can be particularly beneficial in tertiary education, where large, lecture hall type courses cater to the needs of the class as a whole, but do not readily support individualized learning for those students who learn at different paces, or through different means.

... And What Do You Get?
Used correctly, mobile can be used to support a plethora of 21st century skills. And no, stalking your exes and crushes on Facebook does not count. Rather, students who use their phones to access relevant information to their learning tasks practice initiative and self-direction. Taken a step further, their ability to assess whether or not the information constitutes a credible source applicable to their learning goal shows the practice of information literacy skills.

There also exist educational mobile apps that are particularly conducive to student-centered learning, which are aimed at helping students self-regulate their own learning. Basically, this means that students are able to consciously take strategic action to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning tasks.

Apps that enable time management (e.g. online calendars), self-evaluation (e.g. calorie tracking) and communication (e.g. a campus wall feed) are especially beneficial in supporting goal setting, self-monitoring and help seeking. Self-regulation in itself is a valuable tool with lifetime value that aids with problem solving, taking initiative and planning, adapting to situations and thinking critically.

Simply put self-regulation is a skill that takes everyday students and turns them into 21st century ninjas.

Where To Go From Here?
Sitting at the Starbucks opposite the NYU campus finishing up this article, I decide to end how I began, by discretely (I hope) observing how the students around me are using mobile to support their education. Again, students hunched over their phones surround me. While I'm sure that many are on Facebook, there are also a significant number reading articles and taking notes from their phones.

As a student-centered learning platform, mobile helps schools bridge the gap between how students live and learn. Mobile allows for a level playing ground where students can access the same information as their peers, with the added benefit of providing an authentic, real-world learning environment, based around their learning needs.

The future of mobile use in education promises apps specifically designed to support 21st century skills like self-regulation, which set a foundation for growth and development throughout a lifetime.