In May, NAIS published a new report, preparing by Insightlink Commuications, regarding “mobile learning” in NAIS schools; the report is useful as an overview of the state of the association in moving toward effective integration of technology into learning, and stimulates thinking.   My reactions follow.

1. Mobile learning is a term some prefer to use for integrating digital and web-accessing tools into learning, but I find it it a bit clunky.  For the purposes of this report, the term seems to be defined this way:

use of mobile computing devices – laptops, tablet  computers (such as the iPad and similar devices), smartphones (such as the
iPhone, Android, Blackberry and similar phones with Internet and other advanced  capabilities) and 1:1 initiatives (individually assigned devices for students).

2. 90% of educators answering this survey (and voluntary survey response might have tilted the respondent pool toward those favoring usage) believe

that the use of mobile devices can transform how students learn (90 percent either agree strongly or agree) and that these devices make the learning experience more engaging for students (84 percent).

But, 40% of respondents do not agree (half neither agree nor disagree, and half disagree) that “schools have no choice but to adopt mobile devices into their classrooms.”   It may be that that statement is bizarrely worded: nobody likes to agree that they “have no choice.”   I always want to believe that schools have a choice.  But if it is not a matter of wording, then it is disappointing the disconnect between the recognition that these tools are transformative and the perception that it is only a matter of time before we put them into place.

3. BYOD is an approach regular readers here know I am particularly partial to, and I was glad to see that 72% is using, planning to use, or studying the use of BYOD (page 10-11).   That was higher than I’d have expected, and suggests as an association we are moving in a healthy direction.  For contrast, look to Lisa Nielsen’s campaign at the Innovative Educator to permit BYOD/BYOT policies in the enormous NYC public school district, and the obstinate opposition she is encountering.

However, unless I am just missing something, there is an oddity to the options five provided for the survey about use of laptops in each grade.

  1. Provide laptops to students on a shared basis such as a cart
  2. Provide laptops paid for by the schools individually to each student.
  3. Requires students to have a specific brand of laptop provided by their families.
  4. Permits students to bring their own laptops (any brand) with no laptops provided by the school.
  5. Does not use laptops at all.

What’s missing?  3B is missing, disappointingly, because 3B is the most logical approach today, I believe and argue, in our cloud-based, user-neutral,
open-source, environment.   3B is, of course, requiring students to have a laptop of any brand, meeting a minimum set of specs.

The report acknowledges some schools are doing this, but doesn’t explain why this wasn’t provided as a survey option, nor does it consider how the survey responses might be distorted by the lack of this option.  I don’t know how I would have answered this question for our policy at St. Gregory, in that I couldn’t have chosen any of the five provided.  (Well, I would have had to choose four, but four really misses important elements.)

In contrast to the voluntary component of many BYOD models, some  independent schools appear to have implemented a mandatory BYOD program  (“Students in our Upper School (grades seven-nine) are now required to  purchase their own laptop for school and they bring them to school regularly”/“We have required our upper school students to have a laptop with capability since 2002.”)

4.  The other problem with options three and four is they exclude the possibility of answering that families provided their own laptops as they are able, and the school provides or assists for those who are not.  This is essential.

It is addressed separately, on page 16, when respondents are asked if the school provides financial aid when requiring students provide mobile devices.  35% answered yes, 39% no, and 26% don’t know the answer to this important question.   This is disappointing of our association; how is it possible that we can promise to offer educational equity to our students who are increasingly coming from widely diverse economic situations if we don’t CERTAINLY offer assistance to ensure our lower income students have access to these tools?   This has to be built into any and all technology plans schools are preparing.

5. Perhaps the most interesting page in the report is page 19, the importance/achievement summary analysis.  Only two factors demonstrate strength in that the achievement reasonably closely matches the importance people place on the factor: equalizing access to the internet and web 2.0 tools,  and making learning accessible to students from any location at any time.

However, there are 8 areas in which survey takers report disappointing progress:

  1. Adapting curricula to make learning more interactive and engaging
  2. Making the classroom more integrated with the ways students use these devices in their lives
  3. Being able to take advantage of new learning materials that are available
  4. Enabling an environment in which students act more as ‘authors’ and ‘doers’ and less as passive consumers
  5. Supporting differentiated instruction
  6. Enabling collaborative learning and teaching
  7. Supporting project-based learning
  8. Training students to use the devices they will be using in the future

The gap between importance and achievement ranges from 30 to 50%, (discounting number 8, which is less interesting and important to my mind).

This speaks volumes, I think, to where we need to emphasize our faculty professional learning.    Interestingly, these are areas that some of the most interesting charter and alternative schools, such as High Tech High and New Tech Network, are prioritizing and succeeding at– and we need to meet the challenge.

It is interesting to me too, I think, because numbers 1-7 align very closely with my own interests and pursuits in my learning these past four years, and they are what I seek to offer advice upon in my writing and speaking.  It suggests there is a good window here for the work I am seeking to do:  it is my determined intent to help schools as best I can to better “support project-based learning,” to better “enable collaborative learning and teaching,” to better “enable students to act more as authors and doers,” and these others.   Let’s do this.

One other observation: There is an important factor absent. Teaching and learning to strengthen attention and focus, and the ability both to mono-task and multi-task in ways which best suit the project at hand.   It would have been fascinating to see how the respondents rated this factor for importance and achievement.   After all, as Rheingold writes,

“When it comes to the interacting with the world of always-on info, the fundamental skill, on which other essential skills depend, is the ability to deal with distraction without filtering out opportunity.”

6.  Surprising to see that such a large proportion of schools, 75%, report permitting students to bring smartphones to school (page 15).    In my casual observation, it would seem to me that this splits 50/50 or even runs the other way, if we understand this to mean we permit students to bring and use smartphones at school.   However, some may have understood it as “permitted to bring” them to school but have them put-away for the school day, a common policy that differs sharply.    If we take this 75% as meaning bring and use, we as an association would seem far ahead of many other school types which I believe far more frequently ban usage during the school day, New York city again being the most prominent examples.

7.  Page 20 offers a little window into how teachers are learning, and the report says most are learning from experience, which is great, and from “other teachers at your school and/or other schools.”   This is great too, but I’d love to have understood more about how many teachers are “learning form teachers at other schools,” specifically, and especially learning from participation in PLN’s online that are such an opportunity, and such a promise for the future.   We need to help teachers better know how to develop their own PLNs, and we need to give resources and structures to advance this.

8.  On page 23, “problems faced” is evaluated, and it is great to see that ” For the most part, independent schools do not appear to have encountered many problems with their mobile device programs.”   Now, some of this depends on your definition of problems.    As we saw before, there were nine areas (out of 11 total)  in which achievement isn’t matching importance in the integration of mobile devices, which is certainly a type of problem which demands we take action, but this category is less about achievement of learning goals and instead about problems created by having technology– and look, they just aren’t that serious.  “Improper use?”  Just 11% report it is a big problem.  Security? 11?    Helping teachers develop their skills though: now the numbers rise to 30% plus range.   We need to keep helping teachers learn.