Book review: Mobile learning in schools by Jocelyn Wishart

by David Longman. 25 Oct 2017

Wishart, J., 2017.
Mobile learning in schools : key issues, opportunities and ideas for practice

Here is a useful and relevant overview of the use of mobile technologies in teaching and learning, or ‘mlearning’ as it is sometimes known. As the title suggests it aims at practitioners working in schools but it also has a more specific audience in mind: practitioners who work in teacher development and teacher education. There is thus a great deal here for practitioner-researchers and practitioner-developers who are thinking  about exploring mlearning through investigation or project. Living up to its subtitle the book steers us to think about key educational issues in relation to mlearning and through illustrations from case studies, research projects, and reports the reader will find pointers to opportunities for further exploration.

Important aspects of educational practice are covered in chapters on assessment, activity management, and ethical issues. One of the great challenges in understanding mlearning, i.e. the role of mobile digital devices in education, is that the environment in which it operates is so fast moving that even as this book is published the topics have already moved on. This is fairly easy to see in relation to technical features but also in relation to ethical issues where, in the realm of public debate and policy making, there is often considerable turbulence.

While mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets are nowadays in widespread, if not quite ubiquitous, everyday use, for institutions of organised learning (i.e. schools, colleges, universities) understanding how best to make effective use of their many features and potentials takes a while longer. How, when, where, why and in what combination can we or should we use the endless catalogue of digital features provided by these wallet-sized, pocket-weight devices?

Wherever mlearning is discussed the problem of definition invariably arises and is discussed here early on. This is sometimes complicated because it often seems to conflict with a generally held principle that we should not raise technological marvels above their educational value or purpose. At the same time, in order to examine these marvels for their educational potential we need to define things in such a way that we can foreground their specific properties. Throughout this book we get much more of an emphasis on familiar general guidance and analysis about planning and organising for teaching than we do on the more functional aspects of information management.

Foregrounding the important, everyday concerns about organising teaching and learning certainly helps to soften any perception of mobile devices as awkward, disruptive and technically complex. So at times in this book we begin to see that a field trip to a museum, historic location, or marvellous landscape, is just that – a field trip. This is a constructive tone. Since the presence of mobile devices cannot be wholly ignored it is valuable to see, and hopefully to explore, that well-established and common forms of teaching activities in many subject areas can be supported and enhanced, if not transformed, by the use of mobile devices both in and out of the classroom.

However, while the potential added value from mobile devices is frequently linked to their role in supporting visualisation, collaboration, data capture or the curation of relevant information, there may be too little guidance or attention to some key practical details. For example in the case of a field trip we do not learn much about what sort of issues arise in managing all those digital files created in the field (files of images, videos, voice and text notes, data measurements etc.) and how they are made accessible for use in follow up sessions and later perhaps included as part of a portfolio. Presumably elements such as cloud filing, data gathering tools and messaging apps are in there somewhere but are there any issues to think about here? It’s unclear.

So, while the use of networked digital devices instead of clipboards or film cameras is an intriguing prospect it is also one that carries implications for teacher preparation, resource management, and an enabling school-wide infrastructure. But, as we know, this cannot be taken for granted and not surprisingly a recurrent theme in the book is is that there is an endemic lack of time for staff development and training. This is probably a major brake on the take-up of mlearning.

Perhaps the overriding opportunity implied here is that at the present time there are no established ‘solutions’ for the effective design of mlearning. Across Europe and the UK there are few systematic approaches to mlearning at a national level. Much of what is covered in this book is more ‘proof-of-concept’ than established pedagogy. The implications for practice generated by a lot of these case studies still need working out into acceptable and effective approaches to teaching and learning. Thus, the field is wide-open for experimentation in resource and activity design and this book is a strong starting point.

By Chapter 5 we are less in the territory of guidance for practitioners than guidance for project designers. Here we learn, as we already suspected, that scaling up the case studies reported in previous chapters so that they can become sustainable curriculum approaches is challenging not least because, to justify the commitment of time and resources, we need to show the effectiveness of mlearning in relation to learning gains. Learning gains promoted by mlearning, the author tells us, are difficult to demonstrate, in part because methods of evaluation as applied to mlearning are not well established. In turn this may be compounded by the fact that there is a richness of potential data that could be drawn on (e.g. log analysis of user behaviour). Without a grip on how to evaluate the effectiveness of mlearning it cannot become sustainable nor have a wider influence on practice. This is important advice for mlearning developers particularly.

Similarly assessment, covered in Chapter 9. As with evaluation, mlearning can add a complexity to the learning process and may require a broader range of evidence to draw from. At the same time, educators are being asked to teach for a wider range of aptitudes and knowledge than are necessarily covered by standard or familiar assessment methods and instead to focus more on assessing what students can actually do. Overall there is a bias here towards the idea of a portfolio approach to assessment along with an assessment for learning model. Both elements present challenges in terms of resource design – where and how will a digital portfolio be stored and organised? – or assessment time – how, when and by whom will feedback be provided? These are the sort of details that, if mlearning is to be more broadly successful, need to be worked out.

The chapter on professional development and initial teacher training is perhaps the least satisfactory in the book simply because it is an aspect of professional practice over which practitioners have almost no control or influence. Sustainability is thus difficult to achieve. On the one hand, a range of productive and valuable practices are recognised by many surveys and observations of teachers working with mlearning, but take up is slow for reasons already suggested: lack of time for development but also wide variation in beliefs and policies about the value of mlearning or what guidelines should frame its usage (technical, legal, behavioural).

The example of initial teacher education is instructive. On the one hand, trainee teachers are enthusiastic about the potential of mobile devices and often engage with actively and creatively with them, both for capturing records for their training portfolios but also for curriculum work. However, at the same time, trainee teachers often find themselves working against a reluctant school culture thus limiting the potential of mlearning for both trainee teachers and the schools in which they train.

There is much to value in this book not least because it can enable more informed discussion among practitioners and curriculum developers, a discussion built around some key ideas and opportunities. The opportunities are certainly clear. For example, in the case of Wales where there is fundamental curriculum reform taking place, now is certainly the time to be discussing and formulating some form of mlearning in at least some parts of the new curriculum (the Digital Competence Framework would seem to be an excellent place to begin that discussion). In teacher education and training too the field seems wide open for a co-ordinated approach to the role of mlearning in teacher training, an approach itself based on the tools and techniques of mlearning. University departments of teacher education would seem to be ideally placed to develop some form of shared resources and policies (for example ITTE has recently carried out some scoping research on some of these issues).

One final observation. We read that a supportive community of practice has an important, possibly crucial, role in sustained and effective professional development. Indeed, Chapter 6 opens with pointers to research that seem to make this very point. However, there is no wider commentary on examples of current, live (online?) communities of practice that illustrate this role in practice which, for some participants, is almost synonymous with the ‘mobile experience’. It’s an interesting topic.