Mobile Learning and Digital Media in Education

I very much enjoyed reading the Mac Arthur Foundation’s online publication on Mobile Learning [1], an open access ebook. Although it was written a while ago, it is still very much current – which should make us think about how successful we have actually been so far in integrating mobile devices into education.

In the introduction, it is said that mobile devices can enable students to learn outside the classroom, so that they “become tools to enable or enhance encounters with real people and places.” (8) This is not something, critics of m-learning and mobile devices in the classroom tend to have in mind. As is written in The Magic of Going Mobile, “schools need to get beyond the technology cart – treating these tools as accessories that get wheeled in and wheeled out an hour later” (67).

The four core things to consider when thinking of mobile learning, place-based and personalized learning, social networking, and reaching disadvantaged youth, mentioned in Views from the Vanguard of Using Mobile Media for Learning, are the pillars on which we can build a new education system that is suitable to use digital media and mobile learning tools effectively. I completely agree with the point that while mobile devices are more and more accepted in classrooms, the pedagogy has not changed and thus a lot of their potential is lost. The most important advantage of mobile learning, in my opinion, is to enable personalized learning and thus adjust for natural differences between students’ abilities and learning speeds. Thinking about the way we teach kids, we are still stuck in the last century, grouping kids together by age, not by ability and forcing everyone to follow the same pace. Solloway in Amidst a Mobile Revolution in Schools hits the nail on the head when he is “petrified that we’ll apply new technology to old pedagogy” (53). The use of mobile devices in most schools at the moment is not about giving students agency and making them active learners, responsible for their own learning, but it is about making teaching easier for the teachers and keeping the kids quiet.

If we want to raise digitally literate, responsible citizen, who are comfortable in digital environments and who can deal with its challenges, then we need to make children actively engage with the tools and devices of the 21st century. A big problem I see when talking to my partner, who is a secondary school teacher, is that although schools have the will to address digital media, they don’t know how to do that and they need guidance from experts. Creating a digital media course is a good start, but it is not enough. The teacher has to be competent with the technology, the devices need to be modern and not restricted by account settings and licenses, and the outcomes have to clearly defined, so that they can be implemented.

As mentioned in Welcoming Mobile, it is important to update phone policies and filters to make sure the technology can be used without fear. While it is important to protect children from inappropriate content, it is important to accept the fact that we cannot protect children from everything and that in order to make them deal with online content responsibly, we need to given them responsibility in the first place. As Klein says, he makes sure the children won’t accidentally come across harmful content, but he cannot ensure that no child ever accesses that content (63). The school should be a safe place, where children can explore and ask questions and it is better to give the students guided access to online media in a safe setting, then ignore this responsibility and let them come across unsafe, harmful and upsetting content at home, where they might not know how to deal with it.

In order to enable teachers to help students develop responsible use of digital media, it is important that schools, teachers, parents and students work together to establish guidelines. Too much accountability creates fear on the side of the schools and they don’t dare to open to new ideas and methodologies. We can hold schools responsible for a fistfight on campus, but how do we deal with cyberbullying, sexting, or access to inappropriate content by students who found a way around the school filters? Heather Chaplin writes in Welcoming Mobile that a lot has changed and schools are changing their policies, which is a great step towards making education technology friendly. As Darlene Raking says in Welcoming Mobile:

“We’re teaching students how to operate in this new world. We wanted to change the wording in our guidelines because we don’t want students to accept them; we want students to be responsible for them.” (63)

Another important factor to consider when using mobile devices for learning is the quality of the content and knowing how to tell which application is suitable it which is not. Daniel Donahoo says that when we

“see terms like ‘educational or ‘learning’ […] we automatically assume that the tool or app we are considering must be of a greater value than an app that is ‘just a game.’ This is an incorrect assumption.” (48)

As with most things we can find online, it becomes more and more important to be thoughtful about the quality and accuracy of what we are using and develop techniques to determine whether or not this information or application is useful or not.

Finally, I was impressed with the account of Ramsey Musallam’s teaching in How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom, incorporating mobile devices and online learning seamlessly into the classroom and using it to improve the students’ learning experience as well as assist students with their individual needs and questions. Peer-instruction and inquiry-based learning go hand in hand with mobile devices and enable learners to be actively involved in their own learning.

Above all, it is important not to forget to pay attention to the social aspect of interacting in digital environment. James Sanders states beautifully that “[i]t’s our responsibility as educators to teach kids how to interact with the world,” and that “[t]hose interpersonal human conversations are incredibly valuable” (80).


[1] Ray, B., Jackson, S. and Cupaiuolo, C. (eds.). 2013. Mobile Learning – Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning. MacArthur Foundation.

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