Of Course You Can Use Your Cellphone in Class

A Pew Research Center survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers (conducted between March 7th and April 23rd, 2012 and published in February 2013) suggests that the internet - and how students are accessing it - is starting to reshape education in the US, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For example, mobile devices - which many Old World teachers initially saw as a distraction that should be banned from school property - are increasingly becoming a key part of the learning process.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project Report, 73% of AP and NWP teachers say they and/or their students are using their cell phones in the classroom (with the teacher's permission) or to complete assignments. And that's just cellphones.  Almost half of the teachers surveyed said their students were using e-readers (45%) and tablets (43%) for the same purposes (i.e., in class and homework).

And fully 38% of the teachers reported that their students were using cellphones to capture images and video for school assignments. I hope that particular statistic begins to resonate with the school administrators and legislators who've been starving the budgets of filmmaking classes in the mistaken belief that science and engineering classes are the only avenue to success in the 21st century and that visual storytelling and filmmaking skills are frills that can be dispensed with in tough economic times.

Speaking of money, the Pew data also suggests a troubling "digital divide" based on family income: Roughly half (52%) of the teachers of upper and upper-middle income students reported that their students were using cell phones to look up information in class, compared with only 35% of teachers of the lowest income students.

Are mobile devices and access to the internet having a positive influence on education?

92% of the teachers surveyed said that the internet has had  a “major impact” on their ability to access content, resources, and materials for their teaching.  But this access to more resources online does come at a psychic cost: 75% of the teachers said the internet and other digital tools had "added new demands to their lives, agreeing with the statement that these tools have a “major impact” by increasing the range of content and skills about which they must be knowledgeable."

In short, mobile devices are being embraced by the best teachers in US middle and high schools - even though they are not fully in the hands of lower-income students yet and the internet is accelerating the demands on teachers (as it has on everyone else) to stay informed.

As an April 2012 report from the National Writing Project observed: "The advantages of digital media now greatly outweigh the disadvantages and require that schools update their thinking and policies to provide guidance on the use of these tools to improve student learning and achievement."

Although the wealthier nations had a head start, it now seems inevitable that the power of mobile devices to educate will be harnessed by forward-thinking teachers in every country around the globe - even the poorest.

When that happens, the world's most populace nations (i.e., China with an estimated population of 1,354,040,000 and India with 1,210,193,422) - even though they started the race to educate the leaders of the 21st century behind the US and Europe - will soon become the leaders in using mobile devices for education.

We are still at the beginning of that revolution. The generation that grew up with mobile gaming has yet to seize control of the educational system. But they will. At that point, the early experiments in using games to teach the world's students to read and to access the internet for all sorts of other information will become a flood.

And, at the same time, the places on the globe that were once too remote or too poor to afford the best teachers will have access to the same online educational opportunities that are being offered in the richest cities.

I don't know when the balance will shift - but serving the needs of millions of (currently) disenfranchised students around the world through mobile devices seems to be the next great frontier in education.

Right now, there are hundreds of millions of young Chinese without access to high speed (3G or better) connections.  And in India only 10% of mobile devices are currently smartphones. But all that is about to change:

According to a February 2013 report from Cisco, China Mobile's mobile data traffic grew 77% from mid-2011 to mid-2012 and China Unicom's mobile data traffic grew 112% from mid-2011 to mid-2012.  And in India (according to an Ericson ConsumerLab report cited by eMarketer), 68% of the newly connected used their smartphones for more than 50% of their total time online.

And increased access to high speed mobile connections in China and India in the next few years is likely to make even those stunning numbers seem pallid:  China Mobile will begin providing 4G service to their 700,000,000 users in 2013 (China Mobile currently only has 13% of its users on 3G, but they've just launched trial 4G operations in 13 cities and network construction is proceeding rapidly). And access to better networks is also fueling the demand for better mobile devices in India, where year-on-year 3G subscriber growth is 841 percent.

To sum up, according to eMarketer's estimates, by 2016 there will be 2.5 billion mobile internet users worldwide, an increase of roughly 50% from today's numbers. And many of these new mobile devices will be 3G or better and in the hands of users who are young and live in China and India.

Can anyone doubt that hundreds of millions of newly-connected students will spur a revolution in education in the next few years?

Isn't it obvious that inexpensive mobile devices with high speed internet connections are poised to reshape teaching and learning - and perhaps even where innovation comes from and how problems are solved - in fundamental ways?

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