By adaptive - February 22nd, 2016

Mobile devices are revolutionizing banking, retail, entertainment, and navigation. And as Brendan McNally reports, these veritable digital appendages are also changing education.

Until recently, educational textbook publishers had it relatively easy, at least by today's standards. Sure, printing textbooks was a much more expensive process than with regular books and catering to all the different state educational review boards and purchasing committees with their sometimes very odd requirements could be a major pain. But they had relatively high margins, and it was more difficult to measure their effectiveness or how well their readers engaged with them than it is with digital media.

When electronic textbooks started showing up, a dozen or so years ago, there was the promise they would bring a change with them. But it never really altered the equation to any degree, since most were nothing more than PDF-versions of the same ink-on-paper textbooks that had put earlier generations of student readers to sleep. Though these books are still being offered, their day is rapidly fading. A new educational paradigm is taking over and it promises to be an exciting one.

Of all the areas of human endeavor currently being changed by the mobile digital revolution, the one most profoundly affected by it might just turn out to be children's education. The face of pedagogy, as it's stood for nearly three centuries, has mostly been a top-down, teacher-directed approach. But now it's suddenly shifting to a more child-centered, project-based, collaborative learning model. While mobile devices are enabling the shift, what's driving it are the requirements of our own changing world, particularly the workplace.

Warren Barkley, CTO of SMART Technologies, a Calgary, Alberta-based provider of educational technologies, puts it this way: “When you dig into employer surveys, you'll find that they're not looking for someone who has a quadratic equation memorized, they're looking for people who can work together, to co-create, and this is where education is going.”

In other words, classrooms need to put much greater emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem solving in group situations. It also means that the task of teaching no long wholly rests on the teacher's shoulders. Under this new paradigm, students will also be involved in teaching each other. This, of course, requires high levels of engagement by the students. The way to do this, Barkley says, isn't to make them put away their smartphones, but to incorporate these devices into the process.

“When I talk to superintendents and big content folks, I say to them that the classroom has to represent the world. Some 70 percent of junior-senior-sophomores have smartphones in their pockets. Nearly 90 percent use the internet everyday,” says Barkley. “If you turn off the internet, you don't engage them in ways they're used to, they'll just shut off.”

He believes educators need to embrace the devices in their particular ecosystem. “We need to bring everybody into the conversation. It can no longer be a one-way lecture like we had when we were in school. Here's a group of kids, you get them to go and create something and to use whatever device in whatever location,” he says.

One example he gives is the Drew Charter School in Atlanta, located in one of the historically poorer parts of the city. “Their outcomes are awesome,” he says, “and their education is based on project-based learning.” Rather than focusing the teaching on math, science or English, it's based on projects like, designing a lawnmower, and in the process, learning the math, science, history, and anything else that comes with it. “This is the way they run the school,” says Barkley. “The kids do great on standardized tests because kids retain more information through project-based learning. It's exactly the opposite of 'teaching for the test.'”

Barkley's company, SMART Technologies is best known for its SMART Board, an interactive electronic whiteboard, used in classrooms all over the world. But like a lot of companies in this field, their emphasis is becoming less device-specific and more towards developing software products like their new SMART amp, cloud-based software which allows collaborative and intuitive learning across a wide range of devices. He calls SMART amp, “the 'glue' that brings all of the devices together, involving everybody no matter where they're coming from.” Barkley stresses that an agnostic approach is critical for it to work. “Apple and others want to create silos so that if I have an Apple TV, I can only use iPad,” he says. “The reality is, in public education, it doesn't work that way.”

Kelly Miksch is an instructional technology specialist with the Northeast Independent School District (NEISD) in San Antonio, Texas. She led the team that set up the SMART Boards within the different classrooms. She says that they way the children engaged with the new educational model amazed her. “The kids were so engaged! Critical thinking skills suddenly started coming into play. Now we have kids that are all actively engaged in learning and teaching each other. It's been a great change,” she says. “It allows them to truly collaborate with each other both inside and outside the four walls of the classroom.

Miksch describes the NEISD as being very diverse, with large numbers of Anglo, African American and Hispanic students, but also students from everywhere else, including large numbers of refugees, many with rudimentary English language skills. Bringing them into group learning situations is often quite beneficial. “It allows them to come out of their shyness,” she says. Sometimes they'll bring them up directly to the smartboards themselves and work there in pairs and small groups. The point is to remove barriers to learning and bring in games to make it fun.

Another thing that happens is when they're unable to come up with an answer to a problem, they'll post it on the website and other students will come up with the answer. “We talk a lot about 'digital citizenship' and helping each other and finding ways of getting them to participate,” Miksch says. “They stop being afraid of sharing what they know. So that's seen as a major plus. Having them help each other, the difference has been huge!”

NEISD students have access to a lot of technology. Each teaching classroom has a smartboard and the district has 12,000 iPads and 10,000 Chromebooks. “The teachers have access to the Chromebooks,” says Miksch. “If they know they're going to be using them, they'll be brought in. Other campuses are piloting Bring Your Own Device policies. That is the way a lot of districts are going. The goal is ultimately to have a one-to-one between students and devices.”

The technology can't produce these amazing outcomes by themselves. Miksch makes no secret that much of the success is due to the commitment from everyone involved. It required massive, multi-level training of, not just the teachers, but everyone from custodians to administrators. “We hit them hard with training,” says Miksch. “After school, during school and on Super Saturdays. We had websites set up. Some teachers learn at a slower pace than others so we have cohorts and major intensive training, so they'll all know what they should be seeing, share what they've done in the classroom and help them create lessons and determine best practices.”

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