Using netbooks to support mobile learners’ investigations across activities and places
By: Mark Gaved a*, Trevor Collins b, Paul Mulholland b, Lucinda Kerawalla a, Ann Jones a, Eileen Scanlon a, Karen Littleton c, Canan Blake a, Marilena Petrou a, Gill Clough a and Alison Twiner a
a Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK;
b Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK;
c Faculty of Educational and Language Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK
Open Learning Vol. 25, No. 3, November 2010, 187–200
The world we live in today demands that we be able to accomplish a variety of tasks in a variety of locations. With the development of such technologies as smart phones and laptops, a large number of people are completing their work in what was once thought of as unconventional locations. Planes. Coffee shops. Trains. Even at home, while in pajamas still in bed. We as a society are working. Everywhere. And therefore it has become commonplace to expect to be able to access such luxuries as the Internet while on a camping trip, or up on the mountain while skiing, so we can take our “office” anywhere. “Many authors claim wireless, portable technology will have a role to play in the way we learn and have a large impact on types of learning (for example, Patten, Sanchez, & Tangney, 2006; Roschelle, 2003) (187).” This world is the world our students are a part of and the workforce they will become, so the idea of integrating “mobile learning” at the secondary level is not only a reality; it is a necessary skill for students to learn.
The article “Using netbooks to support mobile learners’ investigations across activities and places” explores the effectiveness of mobile learning for secondary students. Sharples (2009, 18) defines mobile learning as ‘learning that happens across locations, or that takes advantage of learning opportunities offered by portable technologies’ (189). In this study, small laptops or “netbooks” were used in seven trials with 300 student participants and seven teachers. The netbooks were used in inquiry-based projects where students accomplished their investigation individually, in small groups, and in full class settings. Topics ranged from Urban Heat Islands, and microclimates, to even food production cycle and food sustainability. Students worked in the field collecting data, in the classroom organizing that data, and even at home to finish their assignments. The netbooks provided the students an opportunity to work in all three environments seamlessly.
The article addresses the fact that though the netbooks help with ease of transitioning from one setting to another there are minor difficulties in the management of the technology. Also, minor technical difficulties, and power and Internet signal losses occurred, but students were quick to problem solve and there were no major setbacks reported. With each trial, it became increasingly clear that the success of mobile learning outweighed the challenges. In one instance when the school had some power loss issues, the fallback plan of working on the netbooks in the classroom instead of in the school’s computer lab had an unexpected outcome. “One of the teachers reported her students’ behaviour improved and they were more engaged when working on the netbooks in her classroom than on school machines in the ICT suites” (194). This led her to request to have students stay in the classroom and work on the netbooks instead of the computer lab once the power returned.
Mobile learning is not only a convenience; it is a valid teaching method that provides students with valuable skills that they will undoubtedly use in the real world. This article provides significant information to take into consideration as an educator:
1. Mobile learning allows “students to move between classroom, fieldwork sites and home, in formal and informal learning environments, and undertake a range of tasks including planning, researching, data collecting and report writing” (196).
2. Some educators may be hesitant to adopt mobile learning and integrate technology into the classroom, but it is worth the highly plausible success. “A common concern when introducing new technologies to learners is that these will be unfamiliar, complex and will get in the way of learning (for example, Cramer et al., 2009). However, the students adopted the netbooks quickly” (196).
3. Mobile learning does take time and resources to implement successfully for for the long term. “Management of mobile devices is time consuming, and this is a critical aspect of ensuring the long term sustainability and incorporation of these devices within any learning environment (Vahey & Crawford, 2002)” (196).
Connections to NETS
Mobile learning addresses a significant number of NETS for both students and teachers. When looking at the NETS-T’s, each standard is met. Mobile learning can be used to meet NETS-T 1.b which is “facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity,” specifically “engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources.” As in this article, students were assigned real world geographically issues and they used their netbooks to collect the data and complete their assignment. NETS-T 2 a-c is also met because with mobile learning you can “Design and Develop Digital Age Learning Experiences and Assessments” which includes developing “relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools” (2.a). Furthermore, it also allows teachers to “develop technology-enriched learning environments” (2.b), and “customize and personalize learning activities to address students’ diverse learning styles” (2.c) because using netbooks allows students to utilize the technological tool at the level they are currently at and to grow from there. NETS-T 3.a-d is met because teachers “model digital age work and learning” through incorporating real-life situations like completing work in a variety of settings using the netbooks. NETS-T 4.b is addressed as well because mobile learning allows teachers to “address the diverse needs of all learners by using learner-centered strategies providing equitable access to appropriate digital tools and resources.” Lastly, mobile learning meets NETS-T 5.a-c because it has teachers “engage in professional growth and leadership.” This is due to the fact that they need to be educated on the technology they are using for mobile learning. Furthermore, this article’s studies allowed teachers to participate, exhibit leadership, and evaluate and reflect.
In regards to the NETS-S, every standard is met as well. NETS-S 1.a, b “creativity and innovation” is met because mobile learning has students “apply existing knowledge to generate ideas” and “create original works.” NETS-S 2.a, d are met because mobile learning allows for “communication and collaboration” because students “interact, collaborate, and publish with peers” and “contribute to project teams” due to the ability to share information with the netbooks. NETS-S 3.a, d are achieved because mobile learning helps facilitate “research and information fluency” due to the ability to easily work in a variety of settings and “plan strategies” and “process data” with ease. The entire NETS-S 4.a-d is achieved because mobile learning, specifically in this setting, allowed for “critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making” through the inquiry-based projects. Furthermore, students identified “significant questions for investigation,” “complete a project,” “collect and analyze data,” and “use multiple processes.” NETS-S 5.a-d is addressed because when students are engaged in mobile learning they have to learn “digital citizenship” and use technology responsibly, “exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology,” “demonstrate personal responsibility,” and “exhibit leadership for digital citizenship.” Lastly, NETS-S 6.a-d is met because mobile learning centers on “technology operations and concepts” because students have to be able to use the technology in order to participate. Furthermore, they need to be successful at “selecting and using application effectively,” troubleshooting systems and applications,” and even be able to “transfer current knowledge.”
Connections to students:
As stated previously, our students are a part of a society that has become accustomed to accomplishing tasks or retrieving information at the click of a mouse or smart phone screen. This means that, if they are not already, they will need to know how to work in a variety of settings in order to finish work assignments or even just answer e-mails. Not all students will enter a work place that requires this, but teaching them to multitask as well as be successful in diverse situations will help them attain a skill that will be helpful in daily life. In the study, “students appeared to enjoy working on ‘their’ computers” (195), which is understandable because they instant access to the internet and their work, which allowed them to complete work and even access entertainment like YouTube and free game sites. Though “some students noted that the keyboards were a little small and the trackpad was received with varying degrees of enthusiasm” (192) no student failed to complete the work. This means that students like computers. We know this. So why not allow them the mobility they need with the technology they desire to use?
Connections to school and the classroom:
The main issues for school and the classroom are money, management, and maintenance.
We need to get access to the technology, which means we need the funds to do so. In an economy calling for budget cuts, it can be difficult to get technology on the school’s budget. But with the creation of NETS we have the duty to do so and provide students the access they need in order to acquire the technological skills they require for the 21st century.
Incorporating technology into the classroom, especially in regards to mobile learning poses some pedagogical and classroom management issues. But what I have learned, just like the teacher in the study, is that my students were actually better behaved when using our mobile lab computers than when in the computer lab. I believe it has something to do with being able to get in their own space; some students would choose to sit in our classroom reading area in more comfortable chairs, or some even on the floor, and others out in the plaza (a common working area). This showed me that just like every student has their own learning style, they also have their personal preference for learning environments as well. It should be noted that students knew that I had the right to move them back to their seat if they were found not being productive in their chosen location. Overall, as long as you as the educator are familiar with the technology, allowing students to engage in mobile learning is actually a comfortable and easy-to-manage teaching methods.
Lastly, the study’s approach “relied on Internet connectivity at all times” but “they worked with the school IT technicians, extending the school network to provide coverage around the school grounds” (195) which is totally doable in a school that has a strong IT department. Maintaining the equipment is a matter of making sure the students are responsible, and that there are funds for software and possible hard drive issues. In a school year, I personally encountered maybe five computer issues with our mobile lab that consisted of 90 netbooks, which is very minimal.
It is important as educators to recognize that “it is clear a range of highly portable yet powerful devices have arrived and will affect how learners study across contexts and environments in the near future (198). Mobile learning is a great way to provide the opportunities students need to build skills they will be using in the real world. We are already teaching an instant-access generation, who are retrieving, sending, and accessing data all day, every day, from a wide array of locations from home, to school, to even on the school bus. So let’s incorporate something they are already doing, and show them how to build the skill for an educational and collaborative purpose.