Mobile Tech in Classrooms Boost English Learners

Mobile Tech in Classrooms Boost English Learners

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HAYWARD, Calif.—On a rainy Wednesday morning at Tyrrell Elementary in Hayward, sixth-grade teacher Francisco Nieto was giving his students—all English language learners —an in-class assignment: To fill in the blanks of sentences with new words they learned from reading Lois Lowry’s book, “The Giver.”

“Intricate,” said Nieto. “What does it mean?”

“Very complicated but detailed!” screamed one student from the other end of the classroom, iPod in hand, after looking up the word quickly online.

“Very good,” said Nieto with a smile on his face, seemingly impressed that the student was able to give him an answer within seconds of being asked the question. Other students followed suit, entering their answers into an online worksheet, which they sent electronically to Nieto, many using their mobile devices.

Yes, personal mobile devices like the iPhone, iPod and Android - strictly forbidden in most public school classrooms -- are welcome in Nieto’s class. And the impact, according to Nieto, his school principal and students, has been overwhelmingly positive.

It all began last fall, when Nieto began incorporating his personal iPad into lectures as a learning tool, taking advantage of the wireless Internet service available on campus to call up information instantly, with the tap of his finger. Shortly thereafter, when a student asked Nieto if he could bring his iPod to class, Nieto agreed, and neither teacher nor student has looked back since.

Now, more and more of Nieto’s students are bringing their mobile devices to class. Many choose to turn in their homework via email, and the class even designed a blog together. Nearly half the students use mobile devices during in-class lessons, and those without their own, team up to work in pairs with those who do.

The main reason for allowing his students to do so, said Nieto, is that there are not enough desktop computers—only five total —in his classroom, where he teaches 30 students. Making matters worse, the machines are all at least 10 years old, ancient in technology terms. Tyrrell does have a shared computer lab on the other end of campus, but it too is outdated, something teachers and administrators here hope to change by making an investment in new computers and additional technology by next school year.

A certified Spanish bilingual teacher, Nieto conducts his class 80 percent of the time in English and 20 percent in Spanish. He said mobile devices are particularly useful because of the many learning applications and basic language tools, such as spell check and grammar check, which increase the speed of learning. Rather than view the mobile applications as learning shortcuts tantamount to cheating, Nieto sees them as motivational tools that increase his students’ interest in reading and writing by giving them instant feedback. It’s a perspective most of his students seem to share.

“It entertains you,” said 12-year-old Mariana, one of Nieto’s students. She often brings an iPod Touch to class, a recent birthday gift. “Instead of sitting right there not knowing the answer, you can use your iPod and search for the answer. It helps a lot,” she said.

The speed of learning afforded by these devices, said Nieto, is especially important for English learners, who generally find themselves needing to play “catch up” in order to get their English proficiency to the level of their native-speaking peers by the time they hit high school or college. And, he said, homework completion is not quite the problem it was, prior to his allowing use of the technology.

“They have the speed of the Internet in their hands, ” said Nieto. ”They are able to access their material really quick. It focuses them more on finishing their work and engages them more than traditional methods, where lots of kids lose their motivation.”

That observation is supported by a recently released Project Tomorrow survey of roughly 300,000 K-12 students, 42,000 parents, 38,000 teachers and librarians, and 3,500 administrators from over 6,500 public and private schools, on how they are using—and would like to be using —new technologies in the classroom.

The results show that while the majority of students—and, perhaps surprisingly, parents—are in favor of using mobile devices for learning as long as the school allows it, most school administrators remain opposed.

The survey reported that 65 percent of principals would not allow their students to use their own mobile devices at school for instructional purposes. Even within the cohort of administrators that use a smart phone themselves, only one-quarter of them said they are likely to allow students to use their own mobile devices.

“I know the main reasons mobile technology is not welcome in the classroom are fear and misunderstanding about the structure that it gives the learning,” said Reina Cabezas, a teacher at Cox Elementary in Oakland, Calif., who is also doing masters thesis research on the topic of mobile devices in the classroom.

“The fear is that students will access unwanted material on the Internet, or that they will connect with predatory personalities. Like any fear, especially any parent's fear, it is well-grounded,” said Cabezas. “But I don't think we stop living because of fear, right? No, we educate ourselves and learn about the security measures, expectations of all stakeholders, and apply principles of successful models of mobile devices in the classroom. Most importantly, we realize that technology is a tool of efficacy for the teacher, not the teacher's replacement. Lastly, technology only engages and motivates students when teachers know how to use them strategically to keep the hook. Overuse of anything is never good.”

Ethnic minority students, and especially “digital natives”— young people who have grown up with the Internet and personal computers — seem to be quicker to adopt these new media platforms into their daily lives, which has implications for how these technologies are used by students, according to Cabezas.

“‘Digital natives’ turn in homework on time regularly by the very immediate nature of being able to complete assignments in formats like text, blogs, and videos,” she said.

According to recent research on media usage among youths in the United States, released by Northwestern University earlier this month, minority youths—Asians (13hrs 13mins), Latinos (13 hrs) and African Americans (12hrs 59 mins) aged 8-18-years-old—consume an average of 4.5 hours of media per day more than white youth (8hrs 36mins) do. Furthermore, time spent on mobile devices differs substantially by race, with Asians (3hrs 7mins), Latinos (2hurs 53mins) and African Americans (2 hrs 52 mins) spending almost three hours per day watching videos, playing games and listening to music on mobile devices such as cell phones, iPods, and other handheld gaming devices, while whites spend 1 hour and 20 minutes each day using the same devices.

The students interviewed at Tyrrell Elementary in Hayward, mostly Latinos, said they interact with their mobile devices from morning to night, half of the time for academics and the rest of the time on video games, music and social network websites. They also said they would be less interested in attending school if they were not allowed to bring their mobile devices to the classroom.

And what about the issue of equity? While more and more students have access to mobile technology, hand-held devices are still cost-prohibitive for many families. According to the Project Tomorrow survey, only 34 percent of students from 6th to 8th grade have access to a smart phone, and even less, 13 percent, have access to a tablet device like the iPad. Might the allowance of mobile devices in the classroom, rather than narrowing the digital divide, be creating a new divide between the haves and have-nots, right in the classroom itself?

Nieto does not believe that needs to be the case, and said he is addressing the issue of the divide within his classroom by giving students access to his own personal devices and allowing his students to borrow and share with classmates.

“We share [mobile devices], so [those do not have mobile devices] could use it and have the experience too,” said 11-year-old Jesus. “It’s like teamwork.”

Twelve-year-old Naomi also shares her iPod with others from time to time. She said the sharing helps she and her classmates learn as a group. “Because when you understand it and you [are] partnering, [your classmate] can use it and understand it, too,” she said.

Marvelyn Maldonado, principal at Tyrrell Elementary, said at first she was concerned about students bringing their mobile devices to Nieto’s class, because from an administrator’s perspective, she not only needs to consider the educational value such devices bring but the safety concerns they can create.

Those concerns became a reality at the end of last year, when she learned that one of Nieto’s students, Alberto, lost and iPod his mother had bought for him on the very first day he brought it to school.

According to Nieto, Alberto loaned the iPod to a classmate who could help him download mobile applications, because Alberto does not have Internet access at home. But the iPod went missing from the classmate’s backpack later that day.

The school initiated a search and later found the device in a trashcan, stomped to bits. Speculations ensued, some believing that the theft and destruction of the device arose out of jealousy. In the weeks that followed, a number of students said they were reluctant to bring their devices to school.

The story, luckily for Alberto, had a happy ending. His iPod was replaced when Maldonado called Apple on behalf of Alberto’s mother, and Nieto drafted an agreement that all his students must sign in order to use their devices in class. The agreement stipulates they may only use mobile devices for educational purposes, they must keep the devices in sight at all times, and they can only lend their devices to people who they know would be responsible. No texting, no inappropriate photography or video games are allowed. The school’s wireless Internet system has also blocked social media and video sharing websites, such as Facebook and YouTube.

Ultimately, Maldonado said she agreed to allow mobile devices in her school even after the episode, because she saw the rising level of engagement in Nieto’s students. “How can we compete with entertainment in a classroom if you are just up there constantly lecturing with a pen and pencil? ” said Maldonado. “We are working in a world where kids are very tech savvy and use their mobile phones. I do think that there is certainly room and space to explore [the use of mobile devices] in education and how we can use them to our advantages to further engage our students.”

But Maldonado also has doubts that mobile devices are the answer to bridging the digital divide because, she said, the divide is too wide now between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

“I see it as an introductory piece,” she said. “And certainly a step in the right direction.”