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Learning with Mobile Technologies

Learning with Mobile Technologies, illustrative photo

Credit: Nestor Rizhniak

With a few years of hindsight, the previously ambitious but now notorious rollout of iPads by the Los Angeles Unified School District certainly looks "spectacularly foolish."5 Quite consistently, researchers, industry experts, journalists, school personnel, and politicians agree the plan was well intentioned, but ill conceived and doomed from the start. They lament that if the school district had a more comprehensive blueprint for selecting, using, and managing the technology, the enterprise would have been successful. This cycle of hype and disappointment continues to characterize large-scale adoptions of technology in schools across the globe.2,12 The accompanying lessons, however, are surprisingly short-lived. I recently attended an international forum with participants from across groups of stakeholders and the message was quite clear: technology in schools equals innovation; let's not waste time being negative about technology; let's just get on with it. Such a cavalier approach to learning technologies in schools and the flippant reaction to any cautions and critiques only serve to further jeopardize the learning opportunities of students who have been historically marginalized in schools.

This Viewpoint presents my reflections on struggles encountered in a curricular reform project that relied heavily on new technologies in the classroom.7, 8, 9, 10, 11, I am transparent about the difficulties we experienced in the hope that our candor will allow for pause and deliberation as others embark on similar efforts, ultimately providing them a more advantageous point of departure. Recognizing the importance of place and context, I do not expect that our challenges will be identical to what others face across varied learning environments. That said, I sincerely hope that strong proponents of the "just get on with it" position will have the courage to not dismiss our concerns as idiosyncratic.

Our project was deployed in high school classrooms throughout the Los Angeles area over the last six years. A defining characteristic of the reform effort, implemented in high school computer science, data science, math, and science classrooms, was to have students use mobile technologies to collect data about themselves and about issues that were important to them. The collection and the analysis of personally relevant data were intended to promote computational and statistical thinking in STEM.

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From a learning technology perspective, we faced three top-level challenges. First, a considerable amount of instructional time was squandered dealing with technology issues. Particularly in large classrooms with a single teacher, precious days of instructional time were lost trying to ensure the technology worked with different platforms, with devices that ran older software, and with network specifications that varied across sites. Similar to the phenomenon identified by Hasu and Engeström,4 these troubles emerged because the idealized conditions in which technology is developed rarely match the messy conditions in which it is actually used. Not only do technology developers struggle to anticipate real-world challenges, they fail to recognize them and empathize with users when bugs, errors, and user troubles begin to manifest.

Second, the novelty effect of mobile phones not only waned but gradually morphed into a source of student opposition.7,8 The project assumed that mobile phones would motivate students to collect and analyze their own data. The use of phones soon got repetitive and lost its allure. In fact, many students eventually resented having to complete assignments that required smartphones. Without adequate attention to the pedagogy that would sustain interest and learning, mobile technologies became a hindrance to student engagement.

Third, the mobile app and the corresponding desktop-based software were often not responsive to students' developing interests. This issue was perhaps more pronounced since our technology was meant to engage students as producers rather than just consumers of data—an emphasis that required tailored software. But, students started asking questions they could not adequately answer with our platform. Given the large investment of time and resources, there was at least an implicit pressure to continue to use the technology. Within a dynamic that allowed technology to supersede teachers' and students' creativity and inventiveness, the technology eventually started to constrain student learning.

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Our biggest lesson is that the success of any classroom learning technology requires a deep commitment to valuing the expertise, creativity, goals, and desires of teachers and students. Such a commitment is particularly demanding and laborious since it calls on us to design technology and learning experiences with rather than for teachers and students as they live and learn in the richness and complexities of their contexts.

Profound dilemmas about the use of mobile technology emerged the deeper we engaged with issues of implementation.

The first commitment must be to students. Technologies must be used to create learning opportunities that build on students' strengths and dynamic interests and recognize their emergent hopes and goals.3 But, adult assumptions about youth can make such learner-centered approaches to technology difficult. As I have documented, adults assume time and again that young people's out-of-school interests will transfer fluidly into school-based learning.7,8 We have shown that utilizing technologies on the presumption they are a part of youth culture can backfire. Young people can come to resent that their out-of-school interests are co-opted and appropriated in the curriculum. For instance, in many of the classrooms we observed, students began to feel burdened by the smartphones they used for school, going so far as to say they were no longer "phones" but "devices for school." They were more than happy to Instagram a picture of a particularly delicious meal, but were aggravated and exasperated that teachers required them to document their snacks with smartphones for the data analysis component of the curriculum. In a particularly striking case, students were indignant that financial resources were expended on mobile technologies while what mattered to them most, like band and music, were cut at their schools. Students were exceedingly frustrated that adults and outsiders made superficial assumptions about what would engage them rather than valuing students' real, context-specific desires and aspirations.

The second commitment must be to teachers. We must unsettle problematic discourses that attempt to explain the failure of technological innovation through teacher resistance or complacency. We need to shift our focus away from "training" teachers to use particular technologies. Rather, we need to start from a place that respects teachers' professional expertise and, from there, facilitate the space for teachers to access and leverage technologies as one set of tools in a repertoire of pedagogical resources. As I have argued elsewhere,7 technologies should be considered in light of the texts, tools, and talk they make available for teaching and learning. Technology in the classroom is successful when pedagogy is effective. We must learn to trust and support teachers as they closely consider the possibilities and limitations of technologies in their specific contexts and decide to leverage them (or not leverage them) accordingly.

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Profound dilemmas about the use of mobile technology emerged the deeper we engaged with issues of implementation.8 First, who will provide the technology? If schools provide them, how do we address issues of liability? How can policies be formulated so they do not limit access to students if they or their parents are unable or unwilling to assume liability? If the assumption is that students use their own devices, what expectations arise for students to purchase and possess up-to-date, compatible devices? Similar challenges emerge in terms of data plans.

Second, a recurring issue that came up in our work was that students felt they lacked freedom with mobile technologies in schools. Schools are often required to limit access to websites, social networking sites, and modes of digital communication. But these limits change the very meaning of digital technologies for students and inadvertently discourage their usage for school-sanctioned, instructional purposes. The proposition to simply let students use mobile technologies is naïve. Mobile technologies cannot be an island of freedom in an otherwise controlling and constricting learning environment. Such contradictions lead to mobile technologies as a source of disruption and subversion by students. We must do the hard work to make schools places where students are trusted with their own learning. It is within a larger commitment to respecting students' agency that mobile technologies can lead to expanded learning opportunities.

Third, as students use mobile technologies, they generate large amounts of data, consciously and more often without explicit consideration or awareness. Such data can be powerful when used to customize learning experiences for students. But, the same data can inadvertently limit possible trajectories of learning through dynamics analogous to the "filter bubble."6 Additionally, given the realities of funding and liability, one could easily imagine arrangements where corporations provide technologies to schools in exchange for access to students' data—deals that are already in place. These trends raise weighty and far-reaching questions about the purpose of schooling in a democratic society.

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If classrooms, schools, and society are inequitable, the introduction of mobile technologies into classroom spaces will not fundamentally alter these inequities. Equitable learning does not simply transpire through disruptive innovation that uses technology. We need to engage in the difficult work of understanding and addressing relationships of power, authority, and knowledge in the classroom. We must create learning environments where students and their cultural practices are valued and built upon. We need spaces where students feel connected to their peers and adults. We must nurture classrooms where students engage in democratic deliberation about issues of equity and justice.9 We need to address the societal inequities and injustices in which schooling is embedded. If we simultaneously address these needs, mobile technologies can benefit all students. Otherwise, as history has shown us, the introduction of new technologies in classrooms will continue, for the most part, to reproduce existing patterns of success and failure.1

Mobile technologies have permeated our society. There is no question whether we should incorporate them into schools or not. They are already in schools and will most likely become a more significant part of our daily lives, both in and out of schools. To those who say, "let's just get on with it," I say certainly. But let's do it in a manner that deeply wrestles with the challenges and quandaries of mobile technologies, and in ways that honor the complexities of teaching and learning and respects the agency of teachers and students. Else, the "just do it" attitude will get us nowhere.

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1. Cuban, L. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

2. Graham, M. Kenya's laptops for schools dream fails to address reality. The Guardian. (June 27, 2013).

3. Guzdial, M. Learner-Centered Design of Computing Education: Research on Computing for Everyone. Morgan & Claypool Publishers, San Rafael, CA, 2016.

4. Hasu, M. and Engeström, Y. Measurement in action: An activity-theoretical perspective on producer} user interaction. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 53, 1 (Jan. 2000), 61–89.

5. Lapowsky, I. What schools must learn from LA's iPad debacle. Wired (May 8, 2015).

6. Pariser, E. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. Penguin Press, New York, 2011.

7. Philip, T.M. and Garcia, A. The importance of still teaching the iGeneration: New technologies and the centrality of pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review 83, 2 (2013), 300–319.

8. Philip, T.M. and Garcia, A. Schooling mobile phones: Assumptions about proximal benefits, the challenges of shifting meanings, and the politics of teaching. Educational Policy 29, 4 (2015), 676–707.

9. Philip, T.M., Olivares-Pasillas, M.C., and Rocha, J. Becoming racially literate about data and data literate about race: A case of data visualizations in the classroom as a site of racial-ideological micro-contestations. Cognition & Instruction 34, 4 (2016), 361–388.

10. Philip, T.M., Schuler-Brown, S., and Way, W. A framework for learning about Big Data with mobile technologies for democratic participation: Possibilities, limitations, and unanticipated obstacles. Technology, Knowledge and Learning 18, 3 (2013), 103–120.

11. Philip, T.M. et al. When educators attempt to make "community" a part of classroom. Teacher Education 34 (2013), 174–183.

12. Tashobya, A. Government to revamp one laptop per child programme. The New Times. (Mar. 19, 2015).

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Thomas M. Philip ( is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.

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This work was partially supported by a National Science Foundation grant (MSP-0962919).

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.


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