Mobile Technologies in the Classroom

October 1, 2010 Gerald Logan

Schools are developing an app-titude for harnessing students’ enthusiasm for mobile technology

Three high school students are making their way along a rocky ridge, surveying plant and animal life as they go. One student snaps a photo of a flowering plant, geotags it and sends it to the group blog. His partner records a high-definition video of a spider preparing its web and uploads it to YouTube. The third student is typing notes on a wiki. They hear three simultaneous beeps, check their devices, and read that another student has twisted an ankle and everybody must return to the bus so the student can be taken for medical assistance. The teacher sends one student a GPS location so that he can help the injured student to the bus.

The media have reported that computing will become ubiquitous, from a smart toilet that does urine analysis (White 2008) to a smart fridge that finds recipes based on its contents (Trei 2010). This all seems futuristic. How will this technology fit into the lives of my students?

While these outlandish ideas have been percolating in research and development labs, technology for the masses has slowly permeated our lives. A simple measure of this is student access to computers. Today, Internet-enabled computers are available to most students. The most recent study done by the Media Awareness Network (2005) found that 94 per cent of students had access to an Internet-enabled computer, and 51 per cent of Grade 11 students had their own. Considering that this research is five years old, one can draw the conclusion that today’s students have even greater access.

Since this study, we have seen considerable changes in the mobile computing landscape. In 2005, mobile computing meant a computer that could be moved from point to point and that could access a network at each point but not on the way. Over time, we drove away from our wireless network at home and into the range of the school’s wireless network. While we were moving our laptops, our students were engaging with mobile devices that we didn’t view as computers. Today we define a mobile computing device as one that can be used anywhere, including en route.

Handheld devices with the ability to play interactive games, through networking, were first adopted by younger students. Cellphones with text messaging were more common with older students. The technology may have first been adopted by these groups, but it is now nearly universal.

Several industries have converged, and a new category of device has emerged: the mobile computing device. Phones have become smart; music players have become Internet browsers; game devices can pull up news reports; cellphones have become video-conferencing systems. The technology is continually evolving. An application feature list today might include the following:

  • Voice calls
  • Internet browsing
  • Text messaging
  • Instant messaging
  • E-mail
  • Music player
  • Camera (still and video)
  • The ability to add new applications

Devices can also change the connection from a cellphone network to a wireless network (if available).

As handhelds have evolved, the software landscape has changed as well. The move has been toward Internet-based software services that can be accessed through a browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox). Examples include Google programs, Facebook, the e-learning systems Desire2Learn and Moodle, and school district portals. The handheld world relies on small screens, low power consumption and less powerful processors. This has led service providers such as Facebook to design free or low-cost apps for accessing their products without having to load a Web browser. An app will speed up access and provide a customized interface.

These changes have had an impact on the role of mobile computing in learning. The initial research was conducted in technology-rich learning environments where each student had a laptop, often called one-to-one learning environments. The current research uses the term m-learning—learning mediated with mobile devices. The pedagogy of this environment has shifted away from the transmissive model to a social context where learning is shaped by collaboration and group interaction (Taylor 2003).

Developing an m-learning strategy to support students would be a natural fit with the learning model Alberta teachers are using in their classrooms today. In a utopian world, students would participate in a collaborative learning activity by doing the necessary research from their handheld, collecting data and images with the handheld’s camera, noting GPS locations on a field trip, and posting information to a shared Web space. Students could access this information from their handheld or a computer, and individually or collaboratively produce the evidence of their learning. During the lesson wrap-up or debrief, the teacher could display questions on an interactive whiteboard, and students could respond with their handhelds via a website like Poll Everywhere ( or the Smart Response VE interactive response system.

Teacher acceptance of m-learning technology in the classroom has been growing. The pervasiveness of smartphones and music players with Internet capability has led teachers to encourage students to use that technology rather than booking the computer lab or sending students to the library, as was done in the past. Richard S. Fowler Junior High School, in St. Albert, is not only allowing smartphones but also encouraging their purchase for the 2010/11 school year. David Keohane, superintendent of Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, says that this is a way to engage students. Although Fowler is the first school in the district to take this stance, Keohane believes that the other schools will soon follow. He notes that plans are in place for families that cannot provide smartphones for their children (Hare 2010).

Grade 9 science students in Alberta study the solar system. The students attending Fowler will click on an app and hold their iPhone up to the sky to see the locations and names of stellar objects. They will even be able to zoom in for a closer look. Who is more likely to have her learning resource with her as she walks home from a friend’s house—the student with the textbook or the student with the iPhone? One characteristic of m-learning is that it happens anywhere and anytime, in small but appropriate doses (Johnson et al. 2010).

As we stand on the beach waiting for the m-learning wave to hit us, what do we need to do to prepare?

The finding of most studies is that technology initiatives will be successful only if professional development and technology support are part of the implementation process (Nagel 2010).

One way the m-learning environment differs from the one-to-one projects of the past is that the owner of the technology has changed. In the past, the school owned the equipment, it was generally all the same and the school provided technical support. The desktop was locked down so that students and staff could not make changes. In this new environment, students will have devices with different screen sizes and resolutions. Teachers will give up control over which applications are used. No longer will we have the ability to block sites we deem inappropriate. This will make lessons on citizenship and relationships of trust more significant.

Having students supply their own digital learning equipment is appealing, because educational technology is costly and needs to be replaced frequently. Many supporters of this strategy are already thinking of how to best spend the dollars saved to provide a better e-learning experience for students. Students who have not been raised in an enriched environment have the most to gain from a rich m-learning environment, but in many cases they can’t afford the leading-edge technology, so they will once again sit on the wrong side of the digital divide. It is the school district’s responsibility to provide the necessities of learning, so schools will have to adopt Fowler’s solution and provide the device if the family is not in a position to do so.

We are at a critical point in time, a tipping point, when schools are adopting policies to harness students’ enthusiasm for mobile technology and choosing to allow students to stay connected as they walk through the doors, rather than asking them to power down and leave the technology in their lockers. Mobile technology can have a great impact on student engagement, but we will be required to invest our time and resources to design learning activities that take advantage of this potential.


Finn, M., and N. Vandenham. 2004. “The Handheld Classroom: Educational Implications of Mobile Computing.” Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society 2, no. 1: 21–35. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Hare, C. 2010. “School Opens Door to iPhones in Class.” St. Albert Gazette, May 29. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Johnson, L., A. Levine, R. Smith and S. Stone. 2010. The 2010 Horizon Report. Austin, Tex.: New Media Consortium. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Manzo, K. K. 2009. “Making the Case for Mobile Computing.” Digital Directions 2, no. 4. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Media Awareness Network. 2005. “Young Canadians in a Wired World—Phase II: Key Findings.” (accessed August 31, 2010).

Nagel, D. 2010. “5 Trends in Education Technology Leadership.” THE News Update, April 23. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Swan, K., M. Van ‘t Hooft, A. Kratcoski and D. Unger. 2005. “Uses and Effects of Mobile Computing Devices in K–8 Classrooms.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 38, no. 1 (Fall): 99–112. Also available at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Taylor, J. 2003. “Pedagogy in the Mobile Learning Environment.” (accessed August 31, 2010).

Trei, M. 2010. “Smart Fridge Comes Up with Recipes Based on What’s Inside.” DVICE, May 29. (accessed August 31, 2010).

White, C. 2008. “Toto Smart Toilet Now Checks Body Temperature and a Whole Lot More.” DVICE, December 30. (accessed August 31, 2010).

Zucker, A. A., and R. McGhee. 2005. A Study of One-to-One Computer Use in Mathematics and Science Instruction at the Secondary Level in Henrico County Public Schools. (accessed August 31, 2010).


Gerald Logan is president of the Educational Technology Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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