George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Think back 20 years. Pay phones still worked, and only doctors carried pagers. Laptops weighed as much as bowling balls, and few of us had Internet access. In fact, much of what we now consider commonplace -- Google, email, WiFi, texting -- was not even possible. If that was 20 years ago, where are we going in the next 20?

We are all going mobile! Tablets, smartphones, Chromebooks -- and yet, these devices only serve as the most recent iteration of mobile technology in the classroom. Remember Netbooks? How about those old-school Macbooks that looked like toilet seat covers? What if we go back further? What about chalk and slate?

The writing slate was in use in Indian schools in the 11th century as mentioned in Alberuni's Indica (Tarikh Al-Hind), written in the early 11th century. (Source: Wikipedia)

In essence, we have always had mobile tools in the classroom, but our current devices offer significantly more capabilities while also advancing at an appreciably more rapid rate. If, in the past 20 years, we've gone from green screens to Google Glass, where will we be in the next 20? Think about the tools that you had available when you were the same age as your students, and now imagine what may be possible when they are our age! How will we prepare our students for what has yet to even be imagined? What if, instead of focusing on the current tools of the mobile classroom, we hone in on skills -- the same ones that we've actually been teaching all along?


Communication has always has always been an essential skill in the classroom. In the past, we strived to help our students become effective communicators both orally and through writing. However, with the plethora of communication tools made available by mobile devices -- texting, instant messaging, Skype, Twitter -- we may be doing our students a disservice if we ask them to communicate only via one or two mediums.

Decisions, decisions . . .

Credit: Beth Holland

Not only do students need to be able to present themselves in a face-to-face setting, but also via video, audio and text. Crafting an articulate tweet or blog post may be as critical as a five-paragraph essay, and in-class presentations may be as important as delivering a Skype talk or Google Hangout. With the influx of options afforded by mobile devices, not only do we need to teach students what to communicate, but also how.


The Partnership for 21st Century Skills explicitly lists communication and collaboration together in their Framework for 21st Century Learning. If we use their definition of collaboration, students should be able to work effectively with diverse teams, assume shared responsibility, and value individual contributions. While this is great at a theoretical level, how do we actually teach collaboration?

Several years ago, I volunteered my seventh graders to be part of a research project called HARP. For three days, they worked in groups with special handheld devices to solve the mystery of an alien invasion. While my students did an excellent job delegating and dictating, they struggled to actually collaborate. In one group, a student had the information but refused to share. In another, leaders chose to ignore their teammates. It became very clear that they did not know how to assume shared responsibility and value individual contributions.

As we debriefed the experiment, I realized that my students had no idea what collaboration really looks like, so I introduced them to Bruce Tuckman's group development model.

Tuckman's stages of group development (my version for students)

Credit: Bruce Tuckman via Beth Holland

When they saw the concrete phases, my students realized that their groups rarely moved past the Storming stage, as they didn't know how to productively handle differences of opinion. Moving forward, I built scaffolds for collaboration into assignments, reminding them of what they should achieve at each stage of group formation. By providing these scaffolded opportunities, we can better set students up for successful collaboration.


In mobile classrooms, communication and collaboration are no longer limited by physical proximity or time. Have a question? Tweet it. Need advice? Post it to a class Edmodo wall. While it is still important that we make face-to-face connections, it is increasingly critical that we learn how to take advantage of virtual ones.

When we look back on this era in our history, I believe only then we will understand the power of the web as one of the greatest equalizers of opportunity in our society . . . So if this is the case, we should encourage and build a culture of participation in a conversation and celebration of our schools online.

Jason Markey, voted NASSP Digital Principal of 2014, wrote the preceding shortly after launching the #leydenpride hashtag. As a district, Leyden wanted to model positive connection building across all media, so they built it into the fabric of their community.


Through connection, students gain a larger audience for their creations; and through creation, we provide them an opportunity to construct their own knowledge. While it has always been possible for students to create projects, mobile devices provide options and choices that were previously inconceivable, pushing our thinking beyond the constraints of an 8.5x11 page (as Shawn McCusker points out in Paperless 2.0).

Beyond replacing outdated texts and cumbersome notebooks, mobile devices enable students to create and share from anywhere and at any time, unlocking creativity and removing the limitations to what's possible. They provide students with cameras, audio recording studios, blogging platforms, and multimedia tools allowing students to construct new learning artifacts across their curricula and in a variety of contexts.

Where Are We Going?

In a recent keynote, Greg Kulowiec (@gregkulowiec) reminded teachers, "Technology is not the emphasis. It's the tool to do thoughtful work." Apps will change. Operating systems, capabilities, and even devices change. However, if we focus on a core set of essential skills -- communication, collaboration, connection and creation -- and start to develop curricula that will benefit our students regardless of the technology, then we can truly embrace a mobile curriculum.

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Innovative Ideas for Using Mobile in the Classroom

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.'s picture
Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.
Founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership

Well written article. There needs to be a change in the fundamental way that we think about learning. The information that we are learning about the brain is coming in as rapidly as the changes in technology. The question is how to incorporate that into a system that changes so slowly.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Mobile will change the classroom, but we also have to look at the possibilities for mobile beyond the classroom walls. Kids frequently have agency over their own devices, providing a more direct and constant connection to (potentially) learning environments. This hit home when we had our first iPad, and my son was going to have a skype study session with one of his classes in middle school. Instead of sitting down at one of the computers with headphones and a microphone, he put in a set of earbuds with a mic and walked off with the ipad to a quiet spot in another room to take the "call". Mobile means movement, it means flexibility, and it means agency as well, for communication, collaboration, and creation. When it's theirs, they simply care more and are more invested than in a device teathered to school or to a desk for that matter.

Stephen Kleykamp's picture
Stephen Kleykamp
Technology Developer for Learning

Could you elaborate on the connection between "Collaboration" and the mobile classroom? Your example shows only that your students failed to work together, but did you use mobile technology to overcome this problem? Thanks.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor


I really like your comment about "agency." It does mean that learning is no longer confined to a specific space. Daniel Edwards and Don Orth made some really interesting points about the impact of space and technology on learning in this webinar today that may be of interest -


Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Stephen,

You make a great point, and I partially did that on purpose. Too often, because of the "collaborative" nature of particular tools or apps - like Google Docs, Popplet, Explain Everything, Book Creator, etc. - we think that just because devices allow for digital connection that our students are collaborating. I think mobile devices facilitate the creation of collaborative learning experiences because they provide options.

For example, with Google Docs, I could very easily "collaborate" on an essay via the sharing settings. However, just because the tool allows for that interaction, it doesn't mean that our students are effectively collaborating. Because the technology provides so many opportunities to work with others, regardless of time and space, being able to effectively do so becomes increasingly important.

In my example, the students had access to both mobile devices as well as Google Docs and yet they were completely unable to collaborate effectively.

I'm not sure if this answers your question, but thank you for raising the point.

Sara Sharer's picture

I would be very interested in what types of scaffolding you used to assist kids in dealing with differences of opinion via use of their technology. I think this is avenue in which teachers can most influence how their students learn with technology, because it is not inherent in their current practices.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Sara.

My apologies. I thought my reply posted last week.

I tried to get my students to think about WHY they disagreed. However, to be frank, Angela Cunningham (@kyteacher) has a much better solution. If I could do it over again, I would use a rubric similar to the one she uses for discussions - The visuals for the types of responses would have been significantly more helpful than the guidance that I provided.

I think providing students with a collaboration rubric would be really helpful. Items like: have a more efficient solution, have a different approach, or "what if".

That help?

Mikki Modjeski's picture

Having my districts referendum pass and being given the opportunity for each of my students to become one-to-one with their own personal iPad, I have recently begun the transition to a mobile classroom. I have faced many similar challenges with my students, particularly with collaboration and having my students successfully interacting. I think Bruce Tuckman's group development model resource you provided would serve as a very beneficial tool toward bettering effective collaboration among my students. How do you decide which assignment and activities to make collaborative?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Mikki, I like to use technology in lessons that maybe aren't as strong as I would like them to be. I've found that the technology can provide a boost to something that maybe isn't the most interesting or exciting. Integrate the technology into a lesson where you would like to see more student collaboration. I know that sounds REALLY obvious, but putting the iPads into students hands with a tool to support collaboration will in fact result in more collaboration just because of the technology.. In other words, don't start with a lesson where they already collaborate well. Instead pick something which hasn't been as collaborative and see what happens.

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