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Mobile learning devices: my perspective

A year ago I still remember debating whether or not integrating technology into education was a good idea. For the most part, even the most stringent critics are starting to realise the necessity and relevance; in my life that discussion is over. Rather, the pressing questions now are “What technology do we integrate?” and “How do we do it?”

This is new ground for all of us, especially in South Africa and although there are many pilot programs and even more opinions, the jury is still out on how exactly to go about doing it, and more specifically which mobile learning devices should be used.

I teach ICT in a school that is about to embark on a BYOD (bring your own device) pilot; effectively what we’re saying is if you have a mobile device at home, bring it to school and let’s see what you can do with it.

We are not stipulating a device: laptops, tablets, smartphones - all are welcome. We are not prescribing a platform: OS X, Android, Windows, we won’t discriminate. But we are telling our pupils to bring in what they have: dad’s hand me down, mom’s upgrade, your latest birthday present; if it can be used as a tool to somehow supplement what we’re doing in class, use it.  It’s contentious and it’s risky, but it’s also experimental, and at least we have a plan.

We’ve realised two main things: firstly, regardless of whether we’re all in agreement, technology and mobile learning devices are penetrating educational institutions. On this, we’ve decided that we will not be left behind. Secondly, in response to this, we believe that society’s use of ICTs will continue to be personal; I had a Windows laptop which wasn’t performing as I needed it to, so I bought a MacBook. I had an Android smartphone which cost me a fortune in data, so I got a Blackberry which then kept crashing, so I got an iPhone. I teach technology, so I needed a tablet, so I bought an iPad. This is not an advert for Apple, but rather a demonstration of how we pick and choose the devices that best suit our individual needs; how we choose to spend our money on the laptops, tablets and smartphones that are most relevant to us and that make us most productive.

Technology is not a one size fits all one stop shop. In fact, it remains ever changing for all of us: my obsessive use of Google Apps probably means an Android tablet would have been a better choice. In a space where there is little certainty and guarantee, what you can be sure about is that there is a huge amount choice and potentially a large expense factor. That said, should anyone be stipulating?

For me, the most important thing in education today is that children have access. That’s really what this is all about. The device or operating system does not matter half as much as the fact that having a device in your hand gives you instant access to information and resources that you otherwise would not have had. This is invaluable.

Because life is increasingly mobile, a choice of device should align with this; you want to move around so get a device that can easily move around with you. This again mimics the real world, and the more like real life that school can be, the better adapted you’ll be once you’re ‘out there’.

You also need to balance out reliability with cost. Few devices have a life-expectancy longer than 3-4 years; you need something that will meet your needs for the amount of time that you’re going to need it for, and at the same time make the most economical sense for your budget.

I attended the EdTechConf Table Indaba Thinkshop a couple of weeks ago. The stimulating introduction from Tim Keller, and informative and interactive panel discussion between Karen Stadler (Elkanah House), Gail Gubb (Ceder House), Wendy Hindle (Parklands College) and Judi Francisco (Micklefield School), looked at various pros, cons and aspects of using mobile learning devices, and specifically tablets, in classrooms.

Many of the issues I’ve touched on in this post came up at the Indaba. There are many different perspectives. There remain issues around operating systems, compatibility, device size, power, connectivity, available apps, costs, etc.

My overriding sentiment favours tablets. Although I am still dependant on my laptop, today’s children, I believe, won’t have that same dependency. Their increased mobility and desire for instant gratification means that they won’t be interested in fighting the battles that we do: they don’t want to plug in and plug out, they don’t want ten different chargers, they’ll ditch an operating system as soon as it makes them less productive. They want intuitive simplicity and they want functionality, no mess, no fuss.

Social media will give them access to credible public opinion that counts. They will be watching the big technology companies far more closely than we do, and they will put their money where their mouths are. Google, Apple and Microsoft will be kept on their toes by a demanding generation who know what they want.  

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“You don’t need permission to do great things” - Dion Foster

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