Cellphones could help learning

You know the routine — put down your notebook, pen, coffee cup and check your text messages before putting your cellphone away. You wouldn’t want to be distracted during the lecture, would you? It seems however, that some educators are discovering the benefits of keeping phones in the classroom.

With the majority of the population now owning a cellular phone, being connected has become less a novelty and more a fact of life. It’s no surprise then that educators are excited at the possibilities of having access to endless amounts of information at a moment’s notice.
That is, if students can stop texting long enough to pay attention.

Just how prevalent are cell phones? A recent Techvibes.com article reported that “About 70 per cent of Canadians (aged 16-60) own a mobile phone.” Many of those cellphones already have wireless internet capabilities, and industry researcher Strategy Analytics projects “that total North American smart phone sales will surge to 70.3 million units in 2012,” meaning we are about to enter the most connected age yet.

So far the biggest adopters of cellphone-based education have been post-secondary institutions, with Abilene Christian University planning to hand out 3G iPhones to two-thirds of its freshmen. The devices, according to Businessweek.com, will be used “to brainstorm ideas, [ . . . ] get virtual handouts and podcasts during class [and] instructors will use them for such tasks as monitoring attendance.”

The University of Maryland is currently working on a mobile portal which would allow students to register classes from their cellphones, as well as find out other information.

Instant Internet access is of course the main benefit of allowing cellphones in a classroom. A quick Google.com search can replace the need to reference an equation sheet or a dictionary. More interesting however, is the growing market in educational software.

Apple already has a handful of educational applications in their stores, offering a range of diverse titles. Offerings include Open Culture, a program which lets users access educational media, texts and podcasts or AskPhilosophers, which as its name implies, allows you to, well, ask philosophers.

HP has gone a different route, and is currently working on an ambitious project called Mediascape, which is “a set of tools teachers can use to build cellphone games for classroom use” according to MSNBC.com. A game called Savannah has already been released on the platform. In the game “students play lions and gazelles whose geographic locations are tracked via cell phones. Whenever a “lion” finds a “gazelle,” the virtual gazelle gets eaten. But if the lions eat all the gazelles, they end up dying of hunger.” The game is intended to teach population dynamics and ecosystem stability, encouraging students to come to their own realizations about the material instead of relying on rote memorization.

HP isn’t the only one making progress though. Earlier this year, Qualcomm handed out HTC phones to students and found that by the end “the kids were spending more than an hour a day on the phones learning math, getting help on Algebra.com, and texting homework questions to friends.”

Before getting excited, it’s worthwhile to remember that cellphones are still frowned upon in the classroom, if not outright banned. Some U of M instructors have even banned personal data assistants and laptops in the classroom, demonstrating that some educators, and people in general, are still wary of the benefits of cellphone-based education. To those people, Marc Prensky writes in a blog post on The Innovative Educator, “Essentially small computers, cellphones can support language lessons, display animations of medical and chemical processes, be used for polling and testing [and] serve as the gateway to larger learning resources.”

With the ability to access information anywhere, anytime, schools must adapt their curriculum to keep up with the students. The future of learning might not include the memorization of equations and names, but rather the knowledge and skill to find the answers in the vast repository of information that is the Internet.