child using a mobile device for learning

Mobile Learning and Mobile Devices

Author: Eleazar Vasquez, Ph.D. and Sean Smith,

One of the possible silver linings of the pandemic has been the proliferation of available mobile devices (e.g., iPad, Chromebooks, and Smartphones) across our preK-12 learning environments.  Where once schools were considering whether to purchase mobile learning carts or add a computer lab, technology investments today find an overwhelming majority of preK-12 learners (some estimates suggest over 85%) with access to their own mobile learning device.  With increased investments, teachers and learners are increasingly relying on the device as a foundational element of instruction and subsequent learning.  Be it embedding all instructional material within a class learning management system (e.g., Google Classroom), conducting formative and summative assessments within content management systems (e.g., IXL), or sharing students’ grades (in most cases immediately) for student and home review (e.g., Power School), these technologies are altering the learning experience. With estimates suggesting continued investments in educational technology in the billions of dollars, mobile devices appear here to stay.  Over the next several years, bridging the digital divide should only improve, including for students identified with disabilities and the educators that serve them.

Growth in Mobile Devices

Interestingly, the tremendous growth in mobile devices is leading to two distinct camps or considerations for these devices, including a specific focus on smartphones and similar mobile devices.  As noted above, there is a group of teachers, educational leaders, and related stakeholders (e.g., parents) seeking to further integrate mobile devices and the accompanying digital solutions across classroom instruction and student learning. Likewise, there are growing calls from similar stakeholders to ban, or at least severely restrict, the access to and use of mobile devices including smartphones in preK-12 instruction.

Advocates and Digital Supports

Advocates for further integration highlight the embedded support devices offer to individualize further or personalize learning for all students, particularly those struggling and their peers with identified disabilities. Digital supports include text-to-speech, speech-to-text, word prediction, and similar tools increasingly available across mobile devices. Tools that can tailor content, instruction, and assessment to the increased variability found amongst today’s learners in offering just-in-time support, a level of independence, and tools to further empower learners.

Those suggesting banning mobile devices (e.g., smartphones) cite the need to give students a break from the constant demands of technology. Advocates are concerned about too much screen time and the negative effect this can have on a child’s mental health.  Efforts to restrict access are suggesting a control on when devices are used and/or limiting building internet access. Other schools have issued a ban on student smartphones and their use in schools. Many of these public school leaders assert that smartphones are a significant distraction to instruction and subsequent student learning. Arguing the need to improve student performance, address student regression (e.g., the impact of the pandemic), and enhance the overall student learning experience, schools across the country are creating and enforcing strict policies regarding access to and use of smartphones and mobile devices.

Growth in Devices

Policies to ban smartphones are leading to pushback from student and their parents.  Some districts are facing lawsuits from parents citing their child’s need to communicate as well as using tools they have become increasingly dependent upon to facilitate learning. With the growth in devices, increased access to these devices, the ubiquitous nature of their use across environments (e.g., home, school), and a growing dependence on what these devices mean to pre-K-12 learners, the issue of integration versus banning appears just beginning. And yet, banning devices that society is increasingly integrating into all facets of life (including learning) seems to be a temporary reaction and unsustainable with the continued growth in and use of mobile devices.

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