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Is there a place for m-learning?

Can mobile learning (m-learning) really make a difference to teachers and learners? On the face of it the question seems a “no brainer”.

InternetWorldStats.com calculates that in 2006 only 10% of the country’s population had access to the internet and e-learning, while cellphone penetration was 70%, so it seems to make sense that we should harness this technology.

In the school where I taught every learner had a cellphone and the devices became the bane of our lives. They rang at inopportune moments during lessons, they were harnessed by exam cheats to distribute the correct answers to friends and they were used to summon parents to school when a learner felt he or she had been hard done by, without the school being aware that any infraction had occurred. Consequently the school considered banning them.

An initial look at how cellphone technology is beig used in various research projects, both local and international, might seem daunting for some teachers. In an effort to be relevant, sophisticated support technologies are being used.

For example, one of the Meraka Institute projects is employing Audio Wikis, a technology with which many of us are unfamiliar. Other projects require teams of tutors. All of this seems a bit out of reach for the average teacher.

To evaluate m-learning we need to experiment with simple strategies. The cellphone is merely a tool or, more accurately, a set of tools we can harness to enhance teaching and learning. Here are a few suggestions for using some of the tools found on cellphones:

Text Messaging (SMS): This can be used to alert members of the school community. I’ve used it to bulk SMS my class to remind them of an upcoming test (although my learners complained that it was not “cool” to receive messages from a teacher). Similarly, schools can use SMS to alert parents to school events and so on.

At a more sophisticated level Audio Wiki allows the learner to text a request for an article from a Wiki website. The service phones the learner back and an automated voice reads out the article.

Video camera: Ask the learners to create a video demonstrating what they have learned, for example a skill learned in biology or to recreate a newscast or historical event. In any learning area or subject where there is an opportunity to “show”, ask the learners to film it.

The video can either be made in one take (very simple) or, if the learners are willing to work out new technologies, let them edit their efforts on a computer to create a more professional product. Use the Bluetooth facility on the phones to distribute the films to the cellphones of other class members and encourage discussion and positive criticism. Save these videos and use them later as a revision exercise.

Camera: We are always being asked to contextualise our lessons. So ask the learners to identify in their local environment examples of what they have learned. If, for example, the class is about energy saving ask them to document good and bad practices of energy use in their community. Print out all the photographs and ask the learners to create a wall chart on which they label their photographs with comments.

GPS: Some of the latest cellphones show the latitude and longitude coordinates at which the phone is positioned. Social science/geography teachers could use this facility to reinforce map work by making groups of learners design a treasure hunt, hiding clues for the next coordinate in an elaborate route around the school or community. Teachers of other subjects might use the treasure hunt to reinforce learning in a fun way. Each set of coordinates offers an academic task that must be performed before the team can continue to the final “treasure”.

So, while academics, researchers and experts argue about how best to integrate cellphones into our teaching and learning, why not find out for yourself if they can add value to the way you teach? Use or adapt the suggestions above and let the Teacher know what you find. If nothing else, the learners will get a kick out of using their prized cellphones in a fun and new way.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has an MEd degree in computer­-assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company

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