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The Mobile Influence on Education

As technology has improved and become more affordable, schools have incorporated video equipment, computers and other electronics into classrooms in order to make learning more engaging. More recently, educators and researchers alike have looked into the effectiveness of mobile technology in schools. Mobile devices are projected to outnumber humans by the end of 2013, according to the Guardian, and many wonder about the benefits of leveraging tablets and smartphones in classroom lessons.

Education Teaching

The New York Times recently focused on the integration of mobile technology at Woodside High School in Woodside, Calif. Commenting on the use of mobile technology in classrooms, Principal David Reilly said, "I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games. To a degree, I'm using technology to do it."

While some voice concerns about the distraction such devices could pose, researchers are finding that tablets and smartphones may prove to be surprisingly useful learning tools at multiple grade levels.

Mobile Technology in Early Education & Special Needs Classrooms

Since younger children enjoy interactive games, learning applications on smartphones or tablets may be especially enjoyable and effective. A video from Eastern Howard Elementary in Greentown, Ind., shows that mobile technology in the classroom helped with classroom management by allowing a single teacher with a larger class to keep students engaged -- even when that instructor did not have time for individual attention. Students working with these devices were also able to use the same device for multiple learning games that tested in subjects including math, reading comprehension and science, making the tablet especially cost-effective.

Special needs teachers at the same school were able to use tablets to make lessons more engaging for students with learning disabilities. Not only were these students able to remain interested in a learning game, but because the game was interactive, the teachers were able to more easily (and visually) track the students' progress and understanding of a certain subject.

Applications of smartphones and tablets for special needs students have received growing attention, in other countries as well. A 2012 study from Spain, "Mobile learning technology based on iOS devices to support students with special education needs," observed 39 students in an early education, special needs class. The researchers developed a mobile platform called Picaa, with four kinds of educational activities to be personalized by educators. The study found that students who used the mobile platform showed improvement in developing basic learning skills.

Mobile Technology for High School and Middle School Students

Smartphone and tablet use in middle school and high school settings may also offer options for learning. One Verizon study surveyed mobile device use for grades 6, 7 and 8. For students who used laptops or tablets in class to learn about math or science, nearly 67 percent said that using the devices made them want to learn more. Additionally, 61 percent of students surveyed said using mobile technology in the classroom made them feel "smart," while 54 percent said it made them feel "excited." Student response to mobile technology in the classroom has been positive in these studies, and teachers hoping to increase student engagement in learning activities may explore the use of smartphones and tablets.

However, teachers of middle and high school students also have to be careful that their students do not misuse technology. Many schools have policies on acceptable Internet use, including prohibitions on posting explicit material or degrading peers through cyber-bullying. Combating these behaviors has become an important focus in training instructors how to implement technology in high school classrooms.

College Students and Mobile Apps

A 2011 EDUCAUSE report reveals that mobile technology is becoming more common at colleges and universities. EDUCAUSE notes that for college-aged (18-24) individuals, ownership of mobile devices increased from 1.2 percent in 2005 to 62.7 percent in 2010.

Given the prevalence of recreational mobile technology for those of college age, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) researchers examined the use of mobile tech in the classroom over the course of one semester. Of the 209 students participating, all were exposed to an iPad 1-7 times. The integration of mobile technology had mostly positive results in this study, "iLearning: the future of higher education? Student perceptions on learning with mobile tablets," published in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Much like tablet use in early education, iPads or other tablets in college-level classrooms allow the use of the same device for multiple fields of study. For example, music majors can benefit from the tablet's auditory properties and music apps, while biology or anatomy students can use it to measure things like heart rate. Apps on tablets or smartphones also can match students learning styles to instructional methods. Finally, while teachers and administrators in early education may worry that mobile technology could detract from student engagement and collaboration, this study argues that mobile technology invites collaborative effort.

Caveats on Using Tech in Classrooms

Mobile technology is not without its drawbacks, despite its relative affordability as a classroom tool and the opportunity to incorporate different learning styles for both older and younger students. Researchers in the IUPUI "iLearning" study note that incorporating technology for college-aged children may put lower-income students at risk. Researchers cite the perceived "app gap" as evidence: lower-income students have over 50 percent less experience using mobile technology compared with higher-income students. Thus, some students may have feelings of frustration or isolation during these learning activities, as may students who are non-technical in general.

Early-education teachers and administrators may face similar problems incorporating mobile technology with learning activities for students in all income brackets. The IUPUI researchers caution that only 2 percent of lower-income children have access to a tablet at home.

Mobile technology may enable student engagement even when the teacher is unable to have one-on-one instruction time. However, instructors need to more closely monitor engagement and collaboration to make sure that students are sharing the devices, and more importantly, that they are sharing ideas with other students.

The Future of Mobile Technology in the Classroom

Mobile devices are not going away. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center surveyed Advanced Placement and National Writing Project instructors in secondary schools, revealing that 73 percent of the teachers and/or their students used cell phones in class or to complete assignments. In these classes, over three-quarters of students also made use of electronic devices to access or submit assignments online.

Mobile technology is not found in all classrooms, and researchers, educators and students may not yet be fully aware of its effectiveness or risks. Both teachers and students can most likely benefit from one of the biggest strengths of mobile technology for learning, the tailor-made applications for students with different learning styles, whether in early education, higher education or special needs classes. The study out of Spain highlighted this benefit, explaining that "customizable applications help mold the learning process to students' impairments." While the researchers in this study worked specifically with special needs students, both younger and older students in traditional classrooms may also benefit from personalized learning.

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