Pockets of PotentialThe education trust set up by the TV program that set a new benchmark in children’s television – Sesame Street – is backing handheld learning in a big way. A new report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, New York, is calling on the White House to set up an initiative on digital learning to audit current investments and create “a digital investment fund to accelerate education reform and promote mobile innovation to help benefit the economy”.

The report, “Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning”, by Carly Shuler, is unequivocal about the importance of handheld devices for learning. It says that ignoring the potential of iPods, mobile phones and portable gaming platforms for exciting learning will further widen the gap between what children do inside and outside school and, more important, prevent them from getting the educational opportunities and success they “need and deserve”.

The executive summary concludes: “Mobile devices are an integral part of children’s lives and they are here to stay. The social and cultural phenomena, market opportunity, and, most importantly, the “pockets of educational potential” documented in this report must not be dismissed.

“Our national debate must shift from whether to use these devices to support learning, to understanding how and when they might best be used. Just as Sesame Street introduced generations of children and their families to the potential of television as an educational medium two generations ago, today’s children will benefit if mobile becomes a force for learning and discovery in the next decade."

Research based on more than 25 handheld projects worldwide

The richly detailed report’s findings are based on the results from more than 25 handheld learning projects worldwide designed to explore whether mobile technologies intensify children’s learning. The devices used varied from the basic to those developed specifically for education and subjects studied included mathematics, science and languages. Also scrutinised was their impact on collaboration and student’s critical thinking skills inside and out of school.

Preliminary reports on projects using mobile phones to deliver distance learning to nomadic pupils in rural Arica suggested increased literacy levels. And the 11 to 12-year-old Scottish students involved in the Dr. Kawashima’s Nintendo DS Brain Training study to boost mathematic ability (led by Derek Robertson) showed positive results - so too did the South African MOBI project and Kenya’s School Empowerment scheme where mobile technologies were totally responsible for providing mathematics lessons to students and training and resources for primary school teachers in remote areas.

Pockets of PotentialBut there are challenges too. According to the researchers, while this diversity of devices opens up opportunities it also “reveals tensions in the field of mobile learning, with consequent trade-offs on issues such as distribution versus innovation and mass market versus education-specific”. Their ubiquity and low cost has also created an accidental reversal of roles between developing and developed nations. “Mobile education offers an interesting case for cross-national learning and collaboration," says the report. "Developed nations have the opportunity to learn from developing countries, where program developers have little or no track record of e-learning to contend with and are skipping immediately to mobile technologies because of their low cost and ubiquity. In addition, some European and Asian countries have large-scale, government funded mobile learning initiatives.”

The report highlights five key improvements offered by mobile learning:

  • "Encourage “anywhere, anytime” learning. Mobile devices allow students to gather, access, and process information outside the classroom. They can encourage learning in a real-world context, and help bridge school, afterschool, and home environments.
  • "Reach underserved children. Because of their relatively low cost and accessibility in low-income communities, handheld devices can help advance digital equity, reaching and inspiring populations “at the edges” — children from economically disadvantaged communities and those from developing countries.
  • "Improve 21st-century social interactions. Mobile technologies have the power to promote and foster collaboration and communication, which are deemed essential for 21st-century success.
  • "Fit with learning environments. Mobile devices can help overcome many of the challenges associated with larger technologies, as they fit more naturally within various learning environments.
  • "Enable a personalized learning experience. Not all children are alike; instruction should be adaptable to individual and diverse learners. There are significant opportunities for genuinely supporting differentiated, autonomous, and individualized learning through mobile devices."

"Pockets of Potential" acknowledges that before we can see the real potential of mobile technologies a number of challenges have to be addressed, many of them technological, like keyboard and screen sizes. But the most significant challenge is to the culture of educational institutions. A 2008 study carried out by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Common Sense Media and Insight Research Group highlighted the scepticism of parents and teachers about "the educational value of mobile technologies".

"The study found that teachers see the internet, computer programs and CD-Roms as having more educational potential than mobile forms of digital media," says "Pockets of Potential. "Furthermore, more than half of teachers see MP3 players solely as entertainment devices (54 percent) and feel they have no place in school (69 percent), and almost all teachers (85 percent) see cell [mobile] phones as distractions, with 64 percent agreeing they have no place in school." It seems that school culture may be as much the problem as the solution.

More information

“Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning”, by Carly Shuler, is published by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, New York. Hard copies available ($15 each, discount for bulk purchase) from Publications Department, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Sesame Workshop, One Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY 10023
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