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What's missing from mobile learning

By Nicole Krueger
July 15, 2017
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They had the infrastructure: a schoolwide Wi-Fi network backed by robust high-speed broadband. They had the devices: 1:1 iPads for seventh-grade students. They even had an evaluation process to ensure their investment paid off in student achievement.

By all measures, the rollout of Barnstable Intermediate School’s mobile learning program was a success. Still, something was missing.

“We didn’t always have time for discussion,” said Bethann Orr, director of technology for Barnstable Public Schools in Massachusetts. “Teachers tried what they did, and some things worked and some didn’t. We didn’t have a cohesive group. Without that structure, I think we struggled for a while.

“It was kind of hit or miss when we found somebody doing good stuff and when we found somebody who needed areas of support.”

To bolster the next phase of the district’s mobile learning initiative — expansion into the eighth grade — Orr gathered a group of teachers and signed up for ISTE’s rigorous Verizon Mobile Learning Academy (VMLA). During the 10-week online course, teachers had the chance to explore not only what to do with mobile technology in class, but how to adjust their teaching methods to allow anytime, anywhere learning.

“VMLA helped me provide a solid foundation for these teachers to get the technology and walk in and be shining stars and models for the rest of the teachers in the entire school,” she said. “Other teachers are now working with curriculum coordinators, doing classroom observations and focusing on the work the students are doing, not necessarily what the teachers are doing.”

Changing the face of teaching

Any mobile learning initiative worth its salt aims to improve student outcomes — and that’s more likely to happen when teachers fundamentally change their instructional strategies to capitalize on mobile capabilities, researchers say.

In other words, it takes a big paradigm shift to make mobile learning work. 

“Teachers need help in making that transition from the traditional role of teacher to understanding that now they’re going to be more of a facilitator who is differentiating instruction so students can be fired up by their passions and move through a content in more of a real-life situation, rather than what we see now,” Orr said.

It’s a shift that requires teachers to release the instructional reins, allowing students to drive their own learning — and often to become comfortable with students knowing more than them about the devices.

“VMLA allowed us to stop and just discuss what is so important in the transition from the old model of the classroom to the new model of the classroom — having a ubiquitous tool, having anytime, anywhere access to creation, global communication, collaboration. We were able to have the conversation with teachers to say, ‘Let go and let your students investigate and create.’ ”

Structuring mobile learning

In hindsight, one of the Barnstable’s biggest struggles during the seventh grade rollout was the lack of a cohesive learning management system (LMS) to help teachers and curriculum coordinators digitize their curriculum.

“That was a huge lesson for me. You’ve got to have the structure. You’ve got to prepare the teachers, have support and get the technology into their hands so they can experience it,” Orr said.

Another struggle came from putting mobile learning in the hands of teachers who had never actually seen it in action. Without having experienced what their students were supposed to experience, many teachers simply used the mobile technology as a substitute for other tools.

By taking the VMLA course together, Barnstable’s eighth-grade teachers were able to not only see mobile learning in action but to experience it for themselves.

 “It’s really not about the device, it’s what’s happening in classroom: empowering students, utilizing their passion, being able to differentiate instruction, using technology to create,” Orr said.

“This is going to excite the teachers, and they’re not going to stand for the old-fashioned way of teaching anymore.”

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Dec. 12, 2014. 

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