Mobile devices are coming to school.The Learning First Alliance (where I am deputy director) and Grunwald Associates, with support from AT&T, recently released Living and Learning with Mobile Devices, which examines parents' attitudes towards mobile devices as learning tools.
This survey, completed by parents of children age 3 to 18, found that 51 percent of high school students carry a smartphone with them to school every day -- so do 28 percent of middle school students and 8 percent of elementary school students.
Many in the education community recognize the transformative power of these types of devices, which have the potential to increase student engagement, allow educators to more easily personalize learning experiences, and provide students quick access to an enormous amount of information.
But are schools using mobile devices for learning?
In many cases, no. While 17 percent of parents say that their child's school requires use of a portable or mobile device, in many cases it is a school-provided portable computer. And 72 percent of parents report that their child's school does not allow use of family-owned mobile devices.
There are a number of legitimate concerns related to the use of mobile technology, particularly student/family-owned devices, in school. Two often cited are issues of equity and the potential for distraction. But given the ubiquity of mobile technology in daily life, the fact that kids are often told to power down at school reflects a disconnect that raises the issue of whether we are appropriately and adequately preparing students for life in the digital age.
So how can educators, who are often frustrated by policies against the use of mobile devices in their classrooms and schools, more successfully advocate for the use of these devices in learning? Perhaps by engaging a key ally: Parents.
Parents and Mobile Devices in Learning
Many parents agree completely or somewhat that mobile devices and apps can build creative and life skills, as well as help children learn academic content and skills. And parents of younger students are more likely to see value in these devices. The findings from Living and Learning include:
- 85 percent of parents (and 90 percent of K-2 parents) completely or somewhat agree that mobiles and apps can make learning fun
- 77 percent (84 percent of pre-K parents) agree* that they promote curiosity. ("Agree" refers to either somewhat or completely agreeing with the statement provided.)
- 74 percent agree that they help their child know local and global current events
- 63 percent (73 percent of pre-K parents) agree that they teach problem-solving
More than 70 percent of parents of K-2 children (and more than 60 percent of all parents) believe that mobile devices and apps have benefits for teaching content and skills in reading, math, science, and world languages. And parents of students who are required to use mobile or portable devices at school, as well as parents of "super users" (children who use at least three devices at least a few times a week and at least one mobile device daily), express stronger agreement about many potential learning and educational benefits.
Unfortunately, parents are not seeing the learning potential of mobile devices fulfilled. Parents of K-12 students consider 69 percent of the apps and content that their children use regularly as "purely entertainment."
Still, most parents agree that mobile devices open up learning opportunities (71 percent), benefit students' learning (62 percent) and engage students in the classroom (59 percent). More than half -- 52 percent -- agree that schools should make more use of mobile devices. Thirty-two percent agree that all schools should require mobile devices in the classroom, though sizable portions of the population are also concerned about distraction, equity, and the dominance of entertainment-only apps.
And it is important to note that parents are not waiting for schools to make the move to mobile learning. Forty-five percent of parents report that they have bought, or plan to buy, a mobile device to support their child's learning.
Tapping Parents as Advocates
Given parents' overall support for learning with mobile devices, they are in many ways an untapped resource in advocating for new education technology policies, such as BYOD policies. They can also help schools address the budget challenges that often thwart efforts to take mobile learning to scale (56 percent of parents already report being willing to purchase a mobile device if their child is required to use it in the classroom).
The report offers a number of recommendations for how educators can engage parents in mobile learning efforts, including:
- Model the safe, productive use of mobile devices as learning tools in practice
- Partner with parents to make the case for mobile learning, develop mobile device policies and showcase best practices -- particularly for parents who are not yet persuaded
- Enlist the support of parents who tend to be the most positive about mobile learning, including parents of younger children, parents of "super users" and tech-savvy parents
- Offer authoritative information and advice to parents and students on how to make better use of mobile devices and apps for learning, rather than for entertainment only, and how to use them safely -- and differentiate this guidance for different grade levels
- Do a better job communicating mobile device policies with parents -- a "back to school" packet of information might not be enough
As we in education look to update our system to meet the needs of today's students, engaging with families who share our goals can only help speed up the process.