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The current ways m-learning is making online education better

A version of this post was originally published in ICT & Computing in Education, on January 18, 2019.

Even though many people accuse the education system of being stuck in the past and resistant to change, it advances nonetheless. Thanks to technology education today has come a long way since the agrarian and industrial periods it was invented in.

The modern classroom is equipped with all sorts of educational technologies. The internet is full of educational videos, websites, software, apps and various other tools, ready to be discovered and used to support students' learning.

Speaking of apps, there are currently around 350,000 of them specifically targeting the education market. Students of all ages love them almost by default. Teachers who use them can discover they can save time with them, keep students engaged longer, improve communication with both students and their parents and even create real learning impact.

Read more: Top 7 education apps for the classroom

And how can these educational apps be accessed? Through mobile phones and tablets, of course.

Mobile devices in the classroom: from foe to friend

The use of mobile devices in an educational setting like the classroom was received with the typical resistance to change of the system. Considering that at first the main purpose of a mobile phone was to make calls and send texts, teachers were right to ban them; they were a distraction for students. (I myself got some pretty high scores at the snake game when I was in school.)

Fast forward to 2019. The devices today’s students carry in their pockets are more powerful than all of NASA's combined computing in the 1960s; you know, when they sent astronauts to the Moon. Making calls and sending texts are no longer the most important functions of a phone. Smartphone users do much more than that — mainly accessing whatever piece of information they want within seconds and connecting to other people anywhere on the planet without taking one single step.

Smartphones and tablets have become useful extensions to people's hands. No wonder youngsters want these devices involved in their learning process. According to the Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey: “From Chalkboards to Tablets” from 2013, a majority of students believe that having access to a tablet is an essential component of their ultimate school.

Mobile devices enable anytime anywhere learning

The main reason mobile learning — or m-learning — has gained so much popularity recently is its ability to offer more personalized options for each student during their learning process.

Online education created virtual learning environments where students could participate to courses, get their questions answered, even take tests and have their knowledge assessed. But they could only do these things in places with computers: at school, at the library, at home, at a friend's house, etc.

Sadly not all students have access to a computer at all times. Some have to share, some have no computer at all. But the numbers of smartphone ownership among kids and teens are pretty high and continue growing. Also, the age at which children get to own a mobile device seems to go down as well in some parts of the world.

M-learning takes a step further on the journey started by online education and makes it possible for students to do all the learning they do online regardless of where they are. Mobile devices therefore allow students to get the benefits of online lessons, but those lessons can also happen anytime anywhere, creating a new level of immersion.

M-learning improves collaboration between students

Students love mobile technology and use it in many aspects of the their lives all day long, especially instant messaging each other. They are also social beings and learn within groups.

They see no reason their smartphones or tablets shouldn't be included in learning activities in the classroom. The truth is, when students use these devices they are so familiar with when learning, engagement rates and peer collaboration can increase significantly — compared to other activities that don't involve technology.

If something encourages students to pay more attention to what happens in class and collaborate more with their peers on learning activities — just like they do with instant messages on social media — it sure should get teachers’ attention. It's then up to educators to figure out the best activities to employ in the classroom if they want to harness the power of mobile devices to boost student learning outcomes.

Is m-learning really worth it?

The use of mobile devices in the classroom also brings some challenges. First of all, there are the costs of the devices, which not all students can afford. There are privacy issues to consider as well, as school online safety policies are more difficult to implement on personal devices. Last but not least, teacher authority might suffer as older students realize the teacher is not the only source of knowledge.

On the other hand, m-learning supports teachers in extending education beyond the physical walls of the classroom and also beyond the fixed time periods of the school day and week. It allows students to access learning content from wherever they are, communicate with teachers and other students, and work with other people online without being tied to one certain device or another.

All things considered, giving m-learning a chance, even without making it a top priority in the classroom, might be worth it.