Thursday, 1 December 2011

Online 2011 - The Challenge of Mobile Literacy in Schools

I heard Sarah Pavey talk at a COFHE Information Literacy / Teach Meet training day earlier this year. She is the School Librarian at Box Hill School and one of the things that she touched upon in that earlier talk was her use of mobiles as learning tools. I remembered her as an enthusiastic speaker with some good ideas so I was looking forward to this session.

The idea that mobiles can be useful in education isn’t universally accepted. In fact at Box Hill School they are officially banned. The relationship between child protection, network security and teaching mobile literacy is a difficult one. Opportunities lead to risk so it is hard to find the right balance.

As you can guess from the title Sarah thinks current approaches are too focussed on avoiding risk at all costs. She also made the point that blanket bans are commonly ignored and argued that clear guidelines might actually be more effective.

She highlighted the advantages of mobile phone apps over letting students search on the open web. We can check where an app comes from and point students towards reliable ones from respected sources. Obviously we try to point students towards reliable websites but the temptation to just google it isn’t there with apps. They are arguably less wild and wooly than the web.

Before I go onto the possible uses I should include the disclaimer that the following assumes high levels of smart phone ownership. Box Hill is an independent school but Sarah provides training on mobile literacy at a variety of schools. She thinks that levels of smart phone ownership are very high among young people from all backgrounds. That said there are obvious ethical and practical issues around assuming that students have access to particular technology.

Educational uses for mobiles

1. Using phones to record information

Filming - Students can record lectures, drama performances etc.

Speaking - Students can use mobiles as Dictaphones to record their thoughts. The Vlingo app even turns speech into text.

Collating – Onenote and Evernote both help students to organise and reference their research.
Easybib lets you scan book barcodes to get the correct reference citation.

2. Using the phone to find information

At Box Hill they signed all of the students up to the local Public Library service. This meant that they all had access to e-books through Overdrive which is apparently particularly good at supplying fiction for young adults.

Various apps exist which supply students with information. The one that jumped out at me (I'm sorry) was Moonjump. If you jump with it turned on it tells you how high you would have jumped if you had been on the moon. She did mention more practical examples.

Sarah puts relevant apps on her subject resources guides. This is a simple thing that we could all do with a little research.

3. Using the phone to revise.

Bitesize and i-revise both exist in mobile app form.

Cramberry- Creating revision flash cards.

Inquizitor – Creating revision quizzes.

Epic win – A to do list but each time you tick off a task you progress through a game. I will come back to gamification in a future blog post on Online 2011.

4. Creativity

QR reading links - Putting a QR code on a book that takes you to further information ie reviews, the author's site etc.

QR codes on brochures and posters.

Interactive storytelling - These sound like great fun. My favourite was a school wide event where students used their phones as ghost detectors and had to complete various tasks.


Sarah acknowledged that her ideas rely on changing perceptions of mobile phones among educators and parents. She wants people to move away from the idea that mobiles are a threat, a source of disorder, a distraction or worse. She wants everyone to see them as an asset. Tools for discovering and organising knowledge. Tools for revision and creativity.

Sarah is advocating a significant cultural shift in schools and colleges. She has some solutions to this challenge. Training sessions for teachers and parents apparently have a big impact. Also parents often drop their initial hostility (which can be intense) once they've seen how the phones are being used for education.

While many good quality apps are free there isn't a mechanism for buying them in bulk. Mobile learning shifts the burden for providing hardware (the smart phones) and much of the software (the apps)onto the students. That might sound tempting in the current climate but if mobile learning is going to be big we will have to be careful to ensure that students who don't have smart phone don't feel excluded. Hunting down good free apps sidesteps the software half of the problem.

In terms of smart phones the point is that a lot of students do have these potentially very powerful tools and they enjoy using them. We risk wasting an opportunity if we ignore the idea that mobiles can be used to engage students and advance their learning.

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