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TOOLS FOR LEARNING: The Big Bang--Charting the Expanding Universe of Mobile Education

By Victor Rivero - Posted Nov 1, 2012
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Under the sun, moon, and stars, there’s plenty to explore when it comes to “mobile in education.” There are mobile devices, cool mobile gadgets, and more mobile teaching and learning apps than you could ever dream of. All these mobile solutions are carefully positioned to help you chart your courses, whether you’re a student, teacher, parent, media specialist, librarian, instructor, or anyone else in the education universe. According to international research firm Ambient Insight, LLC, the U.S. market for mobile learning products and services reached $958.7 million—nearly $1 billion—in 2010. By 2015, that figure is expected to explode like a champagne supernova to almost double; it’s projected to reach $1.82 billion. School officials aren’t oblivious to the trend: 44% of respondents to a recent Market Data Retrieval survey indicated that they would be moving to a Bring Your Own Technology approach in the next 3 years. As you gaze up at the wondrous options, with a few stable coordinates you can hitch your wagon to a star, fly yourself to the moon, or have your day in the sun. So dare to venture out, push the envelope, and discover new worlds! Here’s a lens through which to look, constellations to consider, and a few bright stars to guide you on your way. Bon voyage!


Tablets. Yes, they may be larger and clunkier than smartphones, but they’re still light enough, easier to view, and preferred. By 2016, sales of tablet computers (roughly a third being iPads) are expected to hit 375 million with 760 million in use worldwide, according to Forrester Research, Inc. Look back at 2011 when 56 million tablets were purchased worldwide, do some math, and figure for 46% annual growth rate—tablets are zooming ahead as the mobile device of choice. For a great example of big things ahead, have a look at where Amplify Education is going. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch hired former New York City Department of Education chancellor Joel Klein to build into the education space with Amplify, a new business dedicated to reimagining K–12 education by creating digital products and services that empower teachers, students, and parents in new ways. As Amplify team member Larry Berger (chairman and co-founder, Wireless Generation) put it, “It’s not that teachers should have to learn more about technology—it’s that technology needs to learn more about teachers.” As the new company builds a curriculum unlike anything that’s gone before, they are doing it specifically with the tablet in mind, paying close attention to data and analytics. “Together, we plan to bring to market a 4G mobile tablet-based experience that we believe will significantly enhance teaching and learning for grades K–12,” says Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility, an Amplify partner. They’ll introduce these new curriculum and platform products through pilots in U.S. schools across the country during the 2012–2013 school year; AT&T will provide 4G tablets, device management and technical services, and connectivity over AT&T’s Wi-Fi network and its 4G network, which is the nation’s largest.

Smartphones. In Onslow County, N.C., students in algebra, algebra II, and geometry have made significant gains on their end-of-course exams. They’re using smartphones as part of a pilot program, Project K-Nect, in three high schools in economically challenged neighborhoods. Scores went up by an average of 20%. The project has provided a safety net of support, connecting classmates and teachers, and more than 90% of students say they’re more comfortable learning math; 81% say they have increased confidence in talking about math and math problems. When applied to an academic setting, smartphones are translating the ease of social connections and convenience into a winning formula. Two-thirds of students reported taking additional math courses. More than half are now thinking about a career in a math field. Teachers have seen their students become more active—even the shy or reluctant types and students with disabilities or limited English. As one student put it, “The smartphone is like a teacher in my pocket.” The project, funded through Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Initiative, is discussed more fully in a report available from Project Tomorrow. www­

Laptops. More than a decade after a first-of-its-kind, $37-million-plus initiative put laptops into the hands of every middle school student and teacher in Maine, the program is still going strong. Students have become better writers and deeper researchers, and overall, they continue to engage in their schoolwork more fully than without laptops. Since those early days, there have been dozens of laptop initiatives in school districts across the country from Florida and California to Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. The outcome in so many of these districts is better writing, deeper research, increased student engagement, and the overall sense of community and connectedness the programs bring to students, teachers, and parents. The next few years will tell whether or not tablets begin to cannibalize the laptop market, but for now, all that really matters is results. Have a look for yourself; see this publication from North Carolina State University College of Education:

iPod/MP3. In a study at the University of Texas–Austin, researchers found that the use of iPods or similar handheld devices among ELL students can increase learning time and motivation. It makes sense; they’re fun, engaging tools. Would students use them for academic advantage even when they didn’t have to? The study found that yes, they would. The devices extended their learning time dramatically, and students—many of them from partial English-speaking, lower-socioeconomic backgrounds—also liked them for their cool factor. Having the devices made them feel more a part of the rest of the student community. So learning is fun, learning is cool, and mobile devices such as the iPod aren’t just expensive toys with little result. They are taking student achievement and a sense of pride and accomplishment to new levels.


Ebooks. The new Amazon Kindle Fire, at $159, is a force to be reckoned with, even among “real” tablets. You’ve got to check these out. They’re beginning to shake out the bland and push in the features—and the price is still right. One especially cool feature is Kindle FreeTime, a new service (included) where adults can essentially maintain easy control of the device after they hand it off to a child. It’s like a different device when the child has it: Background colors change to be more kid-friendly, choices change, access and restrictions change—there’s little trace of their parents’ tablet for the time they have it in hand.

Presentation tools. With the Penveu, you can make any projector or large-screen display interactive. The set comes with a pen, a “veu,” and a dock. The pen is both a long-distance over-the-air writing tool—think of a weatherman’s clicker that writes when pointed—and a mouse. The trick is, it works on any surface, including a pull-down screen. You really need to see a video of it to get the magic it brings to a classroom setting. Check it out.

The Swivl is another cool tool. This one is unique in that it makes videoing a lecture much easier and more professional. In a few words, it’s a hands-free professional cameraman, and it’s another tool that you’ll have to see in motion to appreciate the magic it brings to a classroom.

Video cameras. After Cisco bought out the Flip cam a couple years back and then restructured it out of production, the little $100 easiest-camera-to-use-ever inspired teachers, students, and parents alike to share a good cry. Silly! They should really start making it again. Nonetheless, there is the DXG-125V, so small and light it could be worn around your neck. It’s a pretty rugged little all-weather camcorder (there’s plenty of “weather” in any classroom so it’s tough enough for kids), and it’s what they call “splash-proof.” That doesn’t mean waterproof, but it should hold up to outdoor (playground) usage just fine.


Apps, that is! There are now more apps than named stars in the night sky. (Can I get a fact-check on that? Why, yes—there’s an app for that!) There are apps for readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic; there are apps for science, technology, and engineering; apps for the Common Core State Standards; and apps for just about anything you can think of. Here are some of our favorites:

Studyblue. This little company is doing big things. Finding, making, and mastering study materials is really the gist of it; online flashcards is an easy way to describe it. It’s mobile, it’s social, and it’s free. You can also make study guides and quizzes. Socially, it’s like a huge study hall. Mobilewise, it’s extremely convenient, and because students are connected into a “larger brain,” it’s genius. It’s also addicting! Check it out.

Shmoop. Will there ever be anything like it? This is really a one-of-a-kind site, and it’s all in the personality. “Put a Ph.D. in your pocket” is how this easy-to-read study guide company describes its mobile applications. It offers study guides, quizzes, and more in app form, with a story overview, chapter summaries, study questions, and a quiz-o-rama.

Shake-a-Phrase. This is pure fun with words and sentences. It can be a creative writing prompt, it helps with vocabulary and parts of speech, and its gamelike approach is good for laughs and learning on-the-go.

ST Math. From Mind Research Institute, this app proves that penguins aren’t just movie stars. Being the arctic creatures they are, they naturally help kids make it through the cold, hard facts of basic math.

CourseSmart. The digital textbook company offers free apps for iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, and Android devices providing access to etextbooks. The pages look just like they would in print, there’s a virtual bookshelf, it’s easy to navigate, and there are study tools for note-taking and searches.

Core. From MasteryConnect, the Common Core Standards are available in this one easy-to-use app. In the old days, learning a new set of standards might have been a real pain, but these days, teachers, parents, and students can quickly find standards by subject, grade, and category. The app includes math and language arts.

BrainPOP. If you’ve never seen BrainPOP’s award-winning content, you’ve got to check it out for yourself. Now, there’s the BrainPOP Featured Movie app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. These animated movies with interactive quizzes are just right for students who may be dying of boredom but want to be engaged.

Motion Math, Inc. The company offers several free apps. From Hungry Fish and Wings to Zoom, there’s plenty of fun when it comes to learning math basics in a game setting. The artwork is simple and attractive, and it makes learning math that much easier.

Spelling Hero. This app helps students prepare for the National Spelling Bee, but whether they enter or not, they’ll be honing their skills acquiring a solid word foundation with the tap of a card. There are more than 2,000 words sorted by level, with pronunciations, definitions, and etymology included.

Teachers Tech. Your principal asks you to be the school tech leader. What do you do? Make sure you have this app, that’s what. This is help for teachers using technology, featuring how-to video screencasts of some of the most popular Web 2.0 applications in current use, with step-by-step instructions. These are not your typical videos; they’re worth checking out.

Star Walk. Finally, here’s an amazing app that really leverages the power of mobile technology like few apps are likely to do. Users can easily locate and identify more than 20,000 objects in the night sky. A 360-degree touch control star map will show you the constellations, stars, planets, satellites, and galaxies currently overhead, in real time, from anywhere on Earth. Now that’s cool!


There are literally thousands of apps for learning. These are but a very small handful of interesting apps to use. We hope you enjoyed the view, and now, we hope you enjoy actually venturing forth and using these mobile solutions to assist you toward greater freedom and knowledge. All the best!

Contact Victor at

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