Smartphones in the classroom 1: A new educational tool

“Now children, close your textbooks and take out your cell phones.”

Such an utterance would have been preposterous when I was a high school student – and mind you, this was the late nineties/early two-thousands. But of course, ten years ago cell phones were not the touch-screened, Internet-connected, sensor-packed devices that we carry nowadays. With such characteristics, the smartphone opens up a wealth of possibilities teachers wouldn’t have dreamed a decade back.

The use of the smartphone as a pedagogical tool is a great example of “mobile learning” –  “m-learning” for short – defined by Crompton, Muilenburg and Berge as “learning across multiple contexts, through social and content interactions, using personal electronic devices”. As a former French teacher, I find this field fascinating, and though of recent development, the literature on the topic is vast – I’ve included links to some noteworthy articles and reports if you want to have a further read.

The educational uses of the smartphone have caught the attention of teachers, tech developers and policy makers alike. A formidable teacher initiative is the “iStage 2- Smartphones in Science Teaching” brochure, authored by 20 educators from 14 different countries at Science on Stage, a European non-profit organisation. It is a glossy, carefully put together, booklet featuring 11 original science projects – in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and ICT, where the smartphone stars as a measuring tool to explore the world. The activities range from the calculation of the distance to the moon and the measurement of the terrestrial magnetic field, to the analysis of instruments’ sound waves and the effect noise pollution has on birdsong. The main tool employed to conduct all these experiments: the smartphone – and an ensemble of very cool apps, for the most part free, that tap into the sensors and advanced operating systems of these devices.


An awesome work by Science on Stage teachers

If smartphones can play a major role in teaching and learning, it’s partly down to the work of the savvy programmers who create the apps that make this possible. Both Google Play and the App Store have dedicated “Education” sections  – apps to practice spelling, revise maths formulas, learn the basics of a language, test your geographical knowledge… even to manage a noisy classroom. However these are by no means all the applications – nor necessarily the best-suited – an educator can use to enrich her or his students’ learning experiences. Let’s consider, for example, the instruction on a foreign language in an exolingual learning context – that is, where the target language is only present in the classroom. The access to contextualised, authentic material can be hard to come by in these cases – and it can be quite dreadful to teach some topics, such as “giving directions” or “eating out”, using fictional maps and made-up menus. Here the smartphone could come in very handy indeed. Possible in-class group activities for French learners include discussing how to move around Paris using the RATP app, deciding where and what to dine with LeFooding or planning an outing to the cinema based on AlloCiné’s film reviews. Other interesting examples of this kind of “app repurposing” for educational means are described by language instructors Edwige Simon and Courtney Fell.

Choosing a restaurant en français to practice your vocab

Choosing a restaurant en français to practice your vocab

Beyond the individual efforts of teachers engaged with this new technology (we’ll get to know a few of them in our next blogpost), some public organisms and private institutions have encouraged the educational uses of the smartphone. A series of insightful reports published by UNESCO between 2012 and 2014 give account of different government-sponsored and privately-funded mobile phone learning initiatives around the world, focusing particularly “in communities where educational opportunities are scarce”. A fascinating case study is that of mobile reading: a 2014 UNESCO survey shows how a non-profit organisation’s app, Worldreader Mobile, has increased reading habits in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. On a different front, schools in the United States and Spain have promoted the incorporation of cell phones in the curriculum, either issuing devices to the students or allowing them to use their own. Among such undertakings, a very promising one is the mSchools programme launched in Catalan high schools, featuring app development elective courses and awards to innovative student-led projects.

Worldreader Mobile: reading without books

Worldreader Mobile: reading without books

Of course, in welcoming the smartphone to the classroom there are challenges to be faced, including:

  • financial limitations – students or schools cannot necessarily afford the purchase of these devices.
  • technological obstacles – teachers might not have the training required to use them with their students.
  • privacy and security issues – worries about the kind of information the kids would be accessing and sharing.
  • pedagogical concerns – educators might be wary that their students will get easily distracted.

These difficulties, however, can and are being tackled. Initiatives to incorporate the smartphone in the classroom are often funded by private capital – GSMA, for instance, is one of mSchools main partners, and Worldreader counts billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos among their donors. A series of teacher training workshops are part of the Science on Stage initiative we mentioned earlier. Privacy and security issues might be solved with a model like the one promoted by Divide (now part of Google) – an app meant to separate personal and business data on devices used in the workplace. As for students getting distracted by their cellphones, in the words of Information Systems professor and technology advocate Enrique Dans, can they not get equally distracted doodling on their notebooks or looking out the window?

It’s then a question of using this new technology wisely, and we believe that in repurposing the smartphone as an educational tool there’s more to be gained than to be lost. We’ll be discussing this in the next blogpost of the series, “Smartphones in the classroom 2: Teaching Physics”. So stay tuned!

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