Picture this scenario: a class group is at a museum. Boys and girls are surrounded by stunning artwork and should be excited for the opportunity to spend the day outside school… and yet, every single one of them is bent over a mobile device, staring at a screen rather than at the paintings on the walls.
To some, this is a disheartening scene. Clearly, they must be disinterested, lost in their virtual world, addicted to their smartphones and missing out on a golden opportunity to learn.
But what if this is an example of mobile learning? In today’s classrooms, such scenes are not imaginary, but a very real and potentially beneficial method. With so much information at our fingertips, it may be that our students are not ignoring their teacher in favour of posting social media updates: in fact, they may be learning additional facts on the go, without needing to resort to textbooks, and enjoying an augmented experience that does not detract from their school trip but adds a new layer to their education.
Like any innovation, mobile learning is very controversial, with one side extolling its virtues and the other believing it to be detrimental to education.
There is no doubt that the use of mobile devices in a school setting has both positives and negatives: it is the teachers’ duty to encourage a responsible use of laptops, tablets and smartphones. The possibility of addiction to technology should not be taken lightly, and one of the arguments brought to the table by opponents of mobile learning is that children and teenagers already spend too much time on their devices and more screen time during school hours may be unhealthy. Detractors also fear the loss of abilities unrelated to the digital world, such as the fine motor skills required to complete arts and crafts projects or even take notes by hand, which has proven more effective than typing for memorisation, and the decline of students’ attention span in the presence of devices that promote multitasking instead of prolonged focus on a single activity.
However, when the teacher acts as a regulating presence that ensures a positive integration of mobile devices into the school day, both in terms of time and usage, the benefits of mobile learning begin to emerge.
When all students have equal access to mobile devices – for example, by assigning a tablet or laptop to each – mobile learning levels the playing field from more than one standpoint: it grants access to information and development of digital skills to students whose families are struggling financially and would not otherwise be able to provide them with the same advantages as their peers, and thanks to software tailored to the needs of students with disabilities, education technology can also compensate for deficiencies in ways textbooks cannot, reinforcing the message that even students with economic or physical disadvantages can succeed in life.
Moreover, with the growing importance of such devices in any workplace, mobile learning makes the classroom experience closer to the ‘real world’ that awaits students after school, where they will be expected to be proficient in the use of technology: an outdated teaching method that refuses to introduce EdTech in the lesson plans no longer produces well-rounded young people who are truly prepared for their jobs.
But even limiting our perspective to the present instead of looking to the future, mobile learning has a significant impact on school itself: mobile devices can be used to administer and evaluate tests instantly, providing individual feedback on each student’s strengths and weaknesses; educational apps create an interactive, multimedia experience that is more suited to the dynamic learning style of digital natives; perhaps most importantly, mobile learning extends education from the classroom to the entire world.
Like the boys and girls at the museum, students who engage in mobile learning can broaden their knowledge of whatever catches their interest and come away with the notion that learning is not limited to school and can happen anywhere, anytime: a valuable message for their later lives that promotes a thirst for knowledge that does not end with graduation.
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