Don't believe the hype. Half the world's people don't have mobiles, and 774m are illiterate. Opportunity?
Cramlington tabletCramlington school has a successful tablet schemeIf mobile technology is so good for schools, why the horror tales of mass iPad purchases without wifi networks to support them? Or headlines like this: "LAUSD report faults iPad bidding"?

Is it because the technology has led the learning? Hard sell and hype from big business? A free-to-join webinar next Tuesday (October 14, 3pm) gives educators a forum to share their insights and opinions. It builds on the recent Eduication Fast Forward 11 debate "Mobile learning for the masses?" Register here.

The format for this event is based on Webex so that participants can listen in and post questions and comments. It will also be active across Twitter with the #EFF11 hashtag. The host will be US educator Steven Anderson, who tweets as @web20classroom. He will be asking questions about mobile learning to mobile learning expert Adrian Godfrey from the mobile operators' organisation, the GSMA (@GSMA_mEducation) and EFF co-founder Gavin Dykes (@Gavindk pictured below), a UK educator who advises schools and authorities worldwide.

REPORT OF ORIGINAL EFF11 DEBATE It was Adrian Godfrey, director of mLearning ecosystems with the GSMA, who had furnished the mobile statistics for the recent EFF!! debate (the education ones came from Unesco's David Atchoarena, director of the division for policies and lifelong learning systems). Despite press reports of there now being more mobile phones on earth than people, the truth behind the media mythology was far more challenging, he said.

Half the world doesn't have a SIM card yet

He saiGavin DykesEducator and Education Fast Forward co-founder Gavin Dykesd the “real story” was revealed by looking into unique mobile subscribers. The current 3 billion or so unique users represented around 47 per cent of the world population, which means that half the world doesn’t have a SIM card yet.

He found it disturbing that the compound annual growth to 2020 was estimated as only 3.5 per cent, “not a massively encouraging statistic” despite the fact that network operators continued to move in parts of the world previously difficult to penetrate, However, 4G networks had doubled in the past four years, and the world’s 256 mobile networks (2013) are expected to more than double to 500 by 2017.    

In countries awash with mobile phones, computers, tablets and the internet, the only mystery about educational technology has been why schools have been so slow to change. As EFF11 keynote speaker Professor Miguel Nussbaum put it: “Technology has changed our lives, however, we all know that tech has not changed education.”

He should know. As professor of computer science at the Catholic University of Chile and board member of the National Agency for the Quality of Education, he has been at the forefront of educational research into the use of portable technology through a range of projects including the Chilean handheld project Eduinnova.

His research goes back to working with handheld technologies like the Nintendo Gameboy back in 1995 through Pocket PCs to netbooks (a ‘hindrance’ to transparency) to the ideal tool for collaboration, tablets. He also experienced success working with children sharing control of a single computer through the use of multiple mice.

‘High correlation’ between learning outcomes and schools’ ICT

Professor Nussbaum, linked in from Santiago, Chile, by Cisco’s TelePresence video-conferencing system, highlighted the lack of a clear and direct link between investment in education technology and student learning gains and quoted the UK Nesta report, Decoding Learning (2011). But he was also clear of the overall value of mobile technology: in a study of 600 schools, researchers found a “high correlation” between learning outcomes and the amount of infrastructure the school has invested in and the way it is used for learning. They also found that many schools that had ICT simply weren’t using it with children for learning.

He highlighted the need to understand how children are taught. Intensive research into the results of national mathematics tests for some 200,000 children in Chile took the scales from eyes.

Despite the success of a minority of children, it was clear that the majority could not keep pace with the curriculum and failed to absorb and retain the learning. In a nutshell: “We teach for the curriculum and not for the kids.”

The curriculum and assessment was the central theme of the debate, and this was given a healthy jolt by the contribution of UK consultant (for Toshiba and others including the DfE) Bob Harrison. Calling in from Manchester, he questioned a sacred cow of investment in technology for learning – learning outcomes: “I think that asking whether investment in technology will improve learning outcomes is the wrong question. What we should be thinking about is what is the opportunity cost of not investing in technology and ensuring that our young people and teachers have the digital skills and the creativity to compete in a global economy.

“There is no evidence anywhere in the world of any causal link between any piece of technology and improved learning outcomes so let's be clear about that. What there is, is an abundant amount of evidence about the relationship and correlation between schools, colleges, universities and providers of learning that use technology effectively and improve learning outcomes.

“Let's be clear - technology doesn't teach people anything; that's what teachers do, what learning providers do. And I think the challenge is not about technology; it's about culture, about trying to nudge the culture of the education service.”

‘Assessment  – the tail that wags the pedagogical dog’

Of course this, and his heavily tweeted comment – “The assessment system is the tail that wags the pedagogical dog” – didn’t necessarily contradict the arguments of Professor Nussbaum who later clarified his priorities further. He viewed assessment as just another aspect of the curriculum, which is what really needed to be changed.

Curriculum and teacher education had been largely unchanged for up to 60 years, he said, since the end of World War II: “If you really want to make a change, don't care about assessment, care about curriculum.”

The debate went far wider than curriculum however, bringing in teacher preparedness, infrastructure, connectivity, available and relevant materials and modes of learning and teaching. The global picture was illustrated by David  with Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organisation). (The organisation has published more than 15 papers on mobile learning – see below.)

Joining the debate from Paris, his starting point was: “Technology itself is a means; it’s not an end.” And he warned that technology was still being introduced as an end goal for some policy changes in education. Unesco’s priority is to develop new policy targets for 2015 and beyond now that its current set of aims and goals – known as the Dakar Framework for Action – has concluded.

There had been some progress on enrolment, he said, but there are still “significant challenges”. These include the fact that there were now 3 million more children out of primary schools than in 1999.

The top priority for improvement in many parts of the world is literacy. Some 17 per cent of the world’s population – 774 million – are not literate, and 74 per cent of them are women, which also makes this a gender equality issue.
Significant barriers remain, such as: access; lack of teachers (severe in 112 countries); lack of relevant, mother-tongue, gender-specific materials; geographic isolation of hard to reach target groups. Mobile phones are seen as a very useful resource, which was why Unesco published, in association with World Reader and with support from Nokia, its Reading in the Mobile Era report. (Unesco is about to release a product to support literacy work on mobile phones with women and girls, and the theme for its Mobile Learning Week in February 2015 is gender equality.)

‘$20,000 a month for 3 million kids, 109k teachers and 8k schools’

The emerging consensus in the debate was, ideally, for 1:1 for all. But former Zimbabwean education minister David Coltart, joining from Johannesburg, brought everyone down to earth with a reality check. “Pie in the sky” was how he described the prospects of a 1:1 scheme for learners in some developing countries. He gave the example of being in charge of Zimbabwe’s education system where, over the course of one month, his department was responsible for supporting 3 million children, 109,000 teachers and 8,000 schools with a budget of just $20,000.

While that might seem extreme, he said, it indicated the “vast gulf” between African countries and the rest of the world. In the context of such massive economic constraint, raising the skills of teachers had to be a high priority.

Professor Angela McFarlane, joining from London, tackled the assumption that children might not need support with technology. Chief executive and registrar of the College of Teachers, she is a leading authority on mobile learning and has worked with Professor Nussbaum.

“I think we have to be a little careful about over-romanticising young people's interactions with technology,” she warned. “I am basing these comments on a lot of research including a three-year study that I led where we followed young people who had powerful, connected devices to use as they saw fit. And yes there were children who developed meaningful facility with those technologies quite quickly, but there were an awful lot who didn't. They would appear to be very competent, and would certainly be prepared to spend extended periods of time with the technology, but when you actually examined what they were doing, it was often quite trivial.

“And when we looked into the kids who were the high-end adopters, inevitably they were part of family and friendship groups where they were exposed to competent users… We should be careful about assuming young people will have the necessary knowledge and skills to use devices to support their learning without being taught.”

She identified an aspect of education that had produced plenty of “very healthy” research literature – collaboration in learning. This was an area where the potential for technology to support was “phenomenal”.  “But that collaboration won't necessarily come spontaneously,” she warned.

Questions about who should be getting what sort of technology should come “a long way down the line.” The first question should be “What kinds of models of learning do we really want to facilitate in our education system? And it seems to me that most effective education will have some kind of balance between consumption of content and production of content. Because you can't have an entirely skill-based curriculum because if you are going to learn you have to learn about something… the degree to which we all have to learn about the same thing is ultimately a political decision…

‘What do you want technology to be supporting?’

“So you will need content. But there also has to be a hefty portion of educational experience that is about creating powerful representations of your own understanding of what you are learning. And that is where the collaboration will really come in because, if you have input and feedback and you work collaboratively on those manifestations of your understanding, then you start to get into the whole formative assessment loop, often peer-to-peer assessment – there doesn't always have to be an expert other. Peer-to-peer collaboration can also be very powerful. And it's about which of those techniques you want the emphasis to be on. What do you want technology to be supporting?

“Now if you believe that your education model is all about exposing people to powerful content, then a teacher and a projector is a really powerful model, but if you want there to be the content production and the collaboration then clearly that's got to be about young people, learners, having technology in their own hands.”

The debate was full of all sorts of rich insights, most of which could be arranged around the themes already mentioned here. But it also ranged across social media, and over in Atlanta, USA, Steve Anderson was monitoring the Twitter feed. Comments followed the video-conference themes but tweeters created their own too, like the need for more conversations between education and the IT industry, particularly about the interoperability of technology and the reliance on consumer devices.

There was concern about schools being tied to devices or platforms in limiting ways, a point which brought a comment from Kirsten Panton, contributing from Copenhagen. An educator working with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning network, she said it was important for schools to move to cloud services so that the kind of devices they use would not be so important.

Infectious enthusiasm and hope of debaters

Despite the many challenges to the use of mobile learning – political, economic, geographic, institutional – there was no concealing the infectious enthusiasm and hope of the debaters. From students Terence and Estelle with David Coltart in Johannesburg, calling for more initiatives, to teacher educator Eliane Metni, Lebanon, an initiator of innovative local CPD pointing out that in refugee camps the mobile phones went in as quickly as the food.

Special needs adviser John Galloway, in London, spoke of the ways in which mobile technology, and tablets in particular, had opened up the lives of many people with disabilities. And often freed them from old-generation, expensive and ‘single use’ devices. Academic Riel Miller, joining from Paris, pointed out how it allowed educators to reverse a 19th century process whereby “learners were taken away from the task and taught about it in the abstract, on a texbook or on blackboard by teacher.” “Now mobile lets us bring the learning to the task and allows the learning to be driven by the task,” he added

In Toronto, Michael Furdyk, from the global student voice organisation TakingITGlobal spoke of their new app for young people, Commit2Act. With similar aims to EFF, its new app lives up to its name with a call to action – and the website and its online counter has already registered nearly 40,000 actions undertaken.

Education Fast Forward was created to help push educational change, and this first debate in its new identity as an independent trust working to continue building its community and sustainability, was another success. And Bob Harrison was on hand to remind participants that the key drivers of the education system were still not changing “in recognition of what technology can offer”. “Unless we address leadership, vision, connectivity,  assessment ¬– particularly assessment and accountability – we are never going to get the gains which Miguel and all of us want, which are not necessarily gains linked to PISA or anything like that, but learning gains that will ensure that our young children and older people are equipped to cope with the third millennium.”

It was a point not lost on EFF leader Jim Wynn as he concluded the session (which continued online with the Oxford Union on Unesco’s WSIS platform). He warned that the issue of learning outcomes had to be expressed in terms that could be taken on board by the people who ultimately held the key to educational change, the politicians. While the most important players were undoubtedly teachers, it was politicians and policy-makers who controlled the decisions and the purse strings, he warned. They were the ones who had to be convinced. In then meantime, he added, EFF would run a follow-up webinar on October 14 and was working with TakingITGlobal on an innovation fund to stimulate further action.

More information

Online video recording of EFF11
EFF on Twitter: @EFFdebate #EFF11
EFF on Facebook
EFF11 on Storify 
Sign up for the EFF newsletter

Further reading 
Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies By John Galloway, Maureen McTaggart and Merlin John (Routledge – October 2014)
Authentic Learning for the Digital Generation: Releasing the potential of technology in the classroom
by Professor Angela McFarlane (Routledge)

More from Unesco
Unesco Publications  
ICT in Education: Mobile Learning
ICT in Education: Unesco Mobile Learning Publications   
Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning    
Resources to complement UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning   
Reading in the Mobile Era    
Mobile Learning Week Presentations    
Mobile Learning for Teachers in Europe

Education Fast Forward offers limited funding in the way of bursaries for those wishing to bring about changes in learning and teaching. See EFF website for details about how to apply.

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