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Friday, September 04, 2009

From 'digital disconnect' to mobile learning

The real disconnect is not the one between parents and kids (that I wrote about last week). "It's the gap between how students learn and how they live! They really want to end that divide," according to Project Tomorrow, the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that runs the annual nationwide Speak Up study.

And the disconnect is "alive and well ... and growing," was the finding of the latest Speak Up, which surveyed 281,500 students, 29,644 teachers, 3,114 administrators, 21,309 parents, and 4,379 schools in 868 districts in all 50 states and some in other English-speaking countries. "Students say they 'step back in time' when they enter the school building each morning - despite overwhelming agreement among parents, teachers and principals that the effective implementation of technology in schools is crucial to student success," Project Tomorrow says in its release of last fall's survey.

Cellphones everywhere
The Speak Up study found that about 77% of students in grades 9-12 have mobile phones (55% have access to laptops), indicating that leveraging that installed base by teaching with cellphones would be economical in terms of both time and money.

"Cell phones can be powerful computers. They can do just about everything laptops can do for a fraction of the price. And many students are bringing them to school anyway," says University of Michigan education professor Elliot Soloway.

Still, barriers to adoption remain, including adult biases against technology for "serious" use; a diversity of cellphone products in the marketplace; phones' physical features (screen size, battery life, etc.); and schools' fears about student distraction and lack of responsibility toward the equipment, according to the 2009 Joan Ganz Cooney Center study "Pockets of Potential" (here's my post on the report).

Responsible use the norm
About that last and crucial barrier, though, school districts that do incorporate cellphones and other handheld devices into classroom work find that student engagement and responsible use are actually the norm.

North Carolina math teacher Suzette Kliwer said her students are so eager to use phones in an educational setting that irresponsible use of them has not been a problem. She was one of several educators presenting their districts' experience in a recent Project Tomorrow Webinar on mobile learning. Jeff Billings, an Arizona school district's director of technology, echoed that: "When you engage students and put a pro who can guide them on the instruction piece, good things happen," he said.

How they're teaching with phones
"The mobile device is a case of digital tools at your disposal. It can provide an ultra-portable portfolio" of teacher's and students' work, said David Whyley of Learning2Go, the UK's four-year-old "largest collaborative mobile learning project," focusing on the British equivalent of grades K-6.

A recent story in USATODAY tells how Ohio students in grades 3-5 work with handheld devices. Using educational apps created by GoKnow!, a company co-founded by University of Michigan professor Elliot Soloway, they take and draw pictures, keep journals, write essays, work in spelling, and do math. "Students took the phones on a museum field trip where they took photos, uploaded them to a server where the teacher could view the assignment and wrote blurbs about what they saw," the article says.

Tech coordinator and middle school teacher Samantha Morra in New Jersey put together a program for classroom iPod Touches with which students store, produce, organize, share, and access media such as podcasts and videos, access sources on the Web, take quizzes, work with flashcards, and discuss and collaborate in different configurations of users: one on one with their teacher, in small groups, and as a class. "Students devour engaging, customized curricula when it’s delivered on the iPod. Phones are a familiar and essential part of their lives now, Morra emailed me.

How can ed add value to tech?
Which points to a question I think we all need to be asking: "It is not a question of whether these technologies add value somehow to education, but the reverse, can education add value to the communications and information technologies of our present day world, and its future?" That's from Ira Socol at Michigan State University, a comment he wrote in Saskatchewan tech educator Dean Shareski's blog, Think about how education has added value to the book! (See "School & social media: Uber big picture.")

Here's how students themselves told Project Tomorrow they want to use mobile devices to support learning: for communications (email teachers and classmates and access personal Web sites); collaborations (projects and calendars); creativity (create/share documents, videos, educational games); and productivity (research, downloads, and to get alerts and reminders).

Why mobile learning?
In its "Pockets of Potential" review of mobile learning projects in eight countries (schools in some countries are way ahead of this whole discussion), the Cooney Center lists "5 key opportunities in mobile learning." It...

1. Encourages “anywhere, anytime” learning - learning in a real-world context and bridging home, school and other environments.
2. Reaches underserved children - low-cost devices and tech many children already have, especially in disadvantaged communities & developing countries.
3. Improves 21st-century social interactions - fostering constructive and constructivist (collaborative) use
4. Fits with diverse learning environments - highly accessible communication and content-delivery devices
5. Enables personalized learning experiences for diverse student populations and learning styles.

Back in 2006, kicking off the multiyear, MacArthur Foundation-funded, $50 million Digital Youth Project, media professor Henry Jenkins wrote, "Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities." (my post on Jenkins's paper back then).

Related links

  •, a site by author and learning technologies doctoral student Liz Kolb at the University of Michigan – her book is Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education
  •, created by mobile learning consultant Judy Brown, formerly of the University of Wisconsin
  • Project K-Nect - a Qualcomm-funded program being implemented in some North Carolina public schools as "a supplemental resource for secondary at-risk students to focus on increasing their math skills through the use of smartphones" (here's the students' blog)
  • "Where phones in class are ok" at Inside Higher Ed
  • "Learning curve: Cellphone as teacher" in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • "WCSA Mobile Learning K-12," a presentation by Judy Brown in SlideShare
  • For an online-safety perspective on the gap between young people's formal and informal learning with digital meeting, see "Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth."
  • Project Tomorrow wasn't the first research group to flag the digital disconnect. As I mentioned last week, Pew/Internet first wrote about in a 2002 report.
  • This past summer, Tech & Learning published retailer Wirefly's "Top 10 cellphones for students," looking at affordability, popularity and functionality.

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  • Sexting: The peer pressure factor

    This scenario – true story in Arizona, actually – is probably not uncommon, so good for parent-child discussion. A 13-year-old student's cellphone gets confiscated because she's caught using it in class. Her mom shortly gets a call from the school police officer saying the phone has the nude photo of a boy on it. The phone is returned to the mom, who then finds text messages from the boy on it "asking her daughter to send him nude pictures of herself. She had refused, but he was persistent: 'I sent you one. Don't you like me?'" This was a boy she did like, her mother told the Arizona Republic, wondering how long it would've been before she gave in. It's a volatile mix: kids' normal desire to be liked and accepted, as this mom put it, peer pressure, and digital media. That's dicey enough, but add child-pornography laws into the mix, with arrests and charges for production and distribution, and the impact of adolescent behavior can be earth-shattering for kids and their families. In another story in the same article, a 12-year-old student "faced criminal charges after she snapped a lewd photo of herself using a classmate's cellphone and sent the image to other students as a prank." Fortunately, she was suspended from school, not prosecuted. Gina Durbin, director of student-support services in the Cave Creek Unified School District, suggests to parents that they "tell their children to lock their phones when not in use and not to loan them to anyone." Good advice. At least that lowers the chances of getting blamed for someone else's sexting prank.

    In related news, two 13-year-old boys in Tucson face charges of "use of a telephone to offend, harass or intimidate" for passing around a nude photo of a 13-year-old girl with their cellphones, the Arizona Daily Star reports. They're misdemeanor charges "because in all likelihood, the teens were not aware of the implications of their actions, officials said."

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    Thursday, September 03, 2009

    Calling all student videographers!

    The buzz has already started for President Obama's announcement of the "I Am What I Learn" video contest. I saw a couple of my favorite educators tweeting about it just now and want you to know too: "On September 8, the US Department of Education will ask students to respond to the President’s Back to School challenge by creating videos, up to two minutes in length, describing the steps they will take to improve their education and the role education will play in fulfilling their dreams," the DOE says on its placeholder page. Here's the White House's info page. Hmm, will schools will have to stop blocking YouTube now? For great examples of already-completed student video projects, see "Young practitioners of social-media literacy" (doing homework the dog just can't eat!).

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    Violating our kids' privacy

    Kids aren't the only people who need to think before they post, but the latter half of that sentence is an oversimplification, of course. New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin brings new meaning to the phrase "Protecting Your Child's Privacy" in her Motherlode column this week. Where's the line between "exploiting [a child's] pain" – as one teenage subject of his parent's published memoir put it – and blogging about your parental struggles (or joys) with that child in the public blogosphere? Belkin asks: "At what point do parents lose their right to their children’s tales? When do things stop being something that happened to 'me' and start being something that happened to 'them,' and therefore not 'mine' to tell?" There is no blanket answer to those questions, partly because the answers are highly individual and the surrounding conditions change (kids grow up; they can become mortified teenagers). Also, as Belkin points out, the questions didn't first arise with blogs and social network sites – or even the Web or newsgroups or email. At the core of Belkin's post is the story of a mom who felt she had to un-adopt a child after 18 months and wrote about it. Some detractors "scoured everything she has written in the past, finding a post that used the boy’s real name and country of origin, and circulating it around the Internet" and then, after the mom deleted as many references as she could think of, they "found old cached versions," Belkin writes. The questions are age-old, but there are some differences now: e.g., the Web as both permanent, public, searchable archive and - sometimes - amplifier (see also "The Net effect" and "Online privacy: Photos out of control").

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    Videogames' mental-health benefits researched

    The Washington Post leads its article with the story about a longtime depression patient who plays videogames for relief when she can't sleep. She liked the game Bejeweled so much that she called its makers, PopCap Games. They were surprised about the benefits she cited and decided to fund some research, being done at the psychophysiology lab and biofeedback clinic at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., some of which has been published in the Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine. Researchers are looking into "the idea that depression and other disorders - as well as everyday stress and worry - involve systematic patterns of thought and self-doubt, and that games can distract people and put them in a different mental zone. You don't have to play with a computer or an Xbox 360 to notice the effect: Anyone who has used a crossword puzzle or Sudoku game to decompress after a difficult day recognizes the idea." They're looking at benefits not only for depression sufferers but also people in high-stress (and sustained stress) occupations such as soldiers, correctional officers, and hospital staff - people always on the alert who find it difficult to "switch off." [See also "The power of play" and "Play, Part 2."]

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    Wednesday, September 02, 2009

    A different sort of back-to-school tip: Kindness

    Kindness and mindfulness, really. Those two approaches to the Internet as well as life are both attractive and protective. "Attractive to others, maybe, but protective?" your kids might ask. Yes. Because aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor's risk of being victimized, researchers have found (see Archives of Pediatrics). Mindfulness covers both alertness and critical thinking - about what's going out via connected devices as much as what's coming in, whether to/from peers, advertisers, or strangers, as well as about how much and how we're involved in it all. Hemanshu Nigam, a dad and MySpace and News Corp's chief security officer, wrote about the kindness part this week, zooming in some important "how-tos" for social networkers: how to "post with respect, comment with kindness, and update with empathy." Help your kids remember how protective – of them, their friends, and their online experience – this approach is.

    As for how we approach the online experience (as well as online friends), the other day I wrote about the 24/7 connection to friends and the drama that both the collective and the constant connection (texting, updating, commenting, chatting, etc.) seem to generate and perpetuate (see No. 2 in this post). If the scene is important to them (and it probably is) and they feel the need to stay very engaged, then here's one way to think about it from youth adviser Annie Fox, which also picks up on the kindness issue: "Don't Add to the Garbage." MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle wrote: "Tethered life is complex; it is helpful to measure our thrilling new networks against what they may be doing to us as people" (see her article "Can You Hear Me Now?" in Forbes last year.

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    Fleeing Facebook?

    Bear with me, because this is a long sentence, but: It stands to reason that, if your social life is represented online and that online representation is hosted by a corporation, then it follows that there'd be a certain "commercialization and corporate regulation of [the part of your] personal and social life" that's represented in its site. Don't you think? Why am I bringing this up? Because New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan in the Times Magazine reports that she "asked around"; found that "a small but noticeable group [of users] are fleeing" Facebook; one of the more ostentatious fleers is Leif Harmsen; and his biggest beef is that "commercialization and corporate regulation" of one's social life that social networking represents. Heffernan writes about waves of Facebook disillusionment, the third one being made up of people "bored with it, obscurely sore or just somehow creeped out - though the numbers don't exactly indicate a large exodus (nearly 88 million US visitors in July, she cites comScore as finding). I think these people she's referring to are all Gen X-ers and Baby boomers. It does feel a little voyeuristic or a bit much, maybe, if you 1) did not grow up with social media necessarily hosted by social-media companies and 2) don't have real reasons for social networking, such as keeping up with distant friends, playing online games with distant friends, finding long-lost friends, managing an alumni association, monitoring your kids' social lives, marketing your cause or business, or professional networking. I'm not saying youth all have specific purposes in using social sites, but adults seem to need purposes for them to feel useful - because they "got along just fine without them before." See what I mean?


    Tuesday, September 01, 2009

    Real questions for a search engine

    This stopped me in my tracks: The No. 1 question kids ask at is "What is love?" Ask reports. I was glad to find, upon doing that search myself in the children's edition of this natural-language search engine, this first result: "The definition of love is a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness..." from the American Heritage Dictionary. (The No. 2 question kids ask? "Where can I find ideas for a science project?") The No. 1 parenting question at could almost be considered a flipside of kids' top one: "How can I help my child deal with a bully?" The rest of the parental Top 5 are “How can I help my child like school?”, “How do I keep my child safe on the Internet?”, “How should my child deal with peer pressure?", and “What immunizations will my child need for school?”, respectively. If, instead of just clicking on "Search" on the home page, you click on "Lots of Answers" above it, you apparently get a slightly different set of results - based more on authority than popularity (Ask's people say its algorithms look for sources such as "education sites, accredited institutions, newspapers, etc." and "relevancy to the question").

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    Monday, August 31, 2009

    Starring students: Real-world projects in virtual world

    Wonder how and what students are taught in virtual worlds? Watch this video (13:46) at Teachers TV, a professional development site in the UK (which has similar videos on blogs, cellphones, and podcasting in the classroom here). You'll see how middle-school student Daniel made the case for and, "in a couple of weeks," built an exhibition of the history of steam engines in Second Life, his teacher said, and how a group of students were asked to help turn a crumbling historic jetty on the North Sea coast into a tourism destination by building and restoring it virtually, again in Second Life. "Where else on Earth could you give a bunch of youngsters the space to build Skinningrove Jetty with some stairs going up to it out into the sea?" asks one of the teachers involved. Another said, "We have some students who are very confident working by themselves but they're not so good in a group.... One of the brightest students we have tends to hide his work from the others because he doesn't want them to be copying it, whereas now he's taking more of a sharing role...." Here's more on the Schome Project for 21st-century learning, whose island in the virtual world provides space for these student engineering and building projects.

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