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Mobile digital devices to enhance mathematics and science learning

Jeremy Roschelle
Center for Technology in Learning SRI International http://www.ctl.sri.com

This article is an edited abridged version of the author's keynote address at Curriculum Corporation 13th National Conference, Adelaide, August 2006.


Roschelle March07

As 21st-century societies are increasingly organised around knowledge and innovation, it is hard to imagine how school education will be able to keep pace without the incorporation of new technologies. However, although new waves of emerging technology have excited educators before, most have failed to make a substantial impact on school learning (Cuban 2003). Schools are complex institutions that adopt technology quite differently from consumer markets. To make an impact on learning, new technologies must be integrated into schools’ social practices, including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and school leadership.

In today’s schools, the typical ratio of students to computers is 5:1. Traditional desktop technology is expensive and, as a result, limited computer resources must be shared among many users and are often located in special computer labs (Cattagni & Farris 2001). The logistics of scheduling lab time and moving students between rooms greatly interferes with teachers’ abilities to integrate computers into learning activities (Becker 1999). The resultant infrequency of technology use limits the overall possible impact of computing in education.

In contrast to desktop computers, handheld digital devices are relatively inexpensive, allowing a student to device ratio of 1:1. In addition, handhelds are mobile and flexible, allowing for easy use in and across classrooms, field sites and home environments. Finally, because handhelds can be used much more frequently than computers in traditional labs, they have dramatically increased the potential to positively influence the learning process (Consortium for School Networking 2004).

Handhelds are not simply smaller personal computers; in fact, the most successful examples are not particularly like personal computers at all. Two such devices – graphing calculators and networked classroom response systems – demonstrate that handhelds are already making a huge difference in student learning. These success stories draw on rich integration with school social practices, suggesting that successful designers must think about more than just technology, and also consider the dynamics of how and what students learn.

Graphing calculators

Graphing calculators have become one of the most widely adopted handheld technologies in education. Graphing products are now integrated with national and state standards (for example, Victorian Essential Learning Standards) and are supported in some curriculums. Best practices of instruction are well documented and teacher professional development is widely available (Burrill et al. 2002; Seeley 2006).

Like other handheld instructional technologies, graphing calculators are inexpensive, mobile and readily adaptable to existing classroom practices. They enable students take on traditional tasks in new ways, and also tackle new topics that would otherwise be inaccessible, such as manipulating complex data sets or demonstrating how a change in an equation links to a change in a graph (Goldenberg 1995; Kaput 1992). Calculators enable students to devote their attention to conceptual understanding rather than laborious calculations, and their interactive nature gives students greater responsibility for checking their work and justifying their solutions.

Strong research on the use of graphing calculators supports their educational value. US National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results have consistently shown that frequent calculator use at Year 8 level (but not at Year 4 level) is associated with greater mathematics achievement, across different locations and demographic variables (National Center for Education Statistics 2001, p 141). The NAEP findings are corroborated by studies by Heller et al (2005), Graham and Thomas (2000), Ellington (2003) and Khoju et al. (2005).

Classroom response systems

A second effective handheld learning technology is the networked response system. The first notably successful classroom response system, Classtalk, was patented in 1989, and similar product concepts have since been re-implemented many times. This technology serves to augment the natural communication flow of the classroom, accommodating existing teaching practices while offering new enhancements.

In a traditional communication flow, a teacher assigns an activity to a student, the student submits the assigned work, and the teacher returns the graded assignment to the student some days later. In this model, there is very little discussion after a question has been answered. Furthermore, for the majority of students, there is a long delay before they receive any response from the teacher.

In contrast, the networked response system enables teacher–student communication to occur much more rapidly, with smaller-sized tasks. Students enter their responses to a given question or problem into a personal computing device, such as a graphing calculator, laptop or even a special purpose device similar to a TV remote. The teacher’s desktop machine then aggregates the student work, and presents it in a graphic that teachers and students can interpret quickly. The key difference from traditional class discussions is that the thinking of all students is thus visible simultaneously, not just the answer of one individual.

Even the most basic uses of classroom networks can profoundly affect teaching and learning. Real-time information about students’ comprehension enables teachers to modify instruction to meet the needs of learners. Formative assessment is known to be a very powerful intervention (Black & Wiliam 1998) and these systems enable students to receive much more feedback than in traditional settings. In addition, students can see where classmates share their understandings and recognise that they are not alone. Students’ work can be displayed anonymously, eliminating embarrassment (Owens et al. 2002). For problematic concepts, the shared points of reference provided by the system can catalyse class discussions.

Despite its fairly simple function, this technology can therefore bring about a significant, powerful shift in the classroom climate, pedagogy and resulting learning (Davis 2003; Stroup et al. 2002). However, non-technological social processes, such as asking questions, explaining, clarifying and summarising, still carry much of the burden of teaching and learning. The effective implementation of classroom response systems requires a combination of pedagogical technique and computational capability.

The work of noted physics teacher Eric Mazur supports the potential of the networked classroom. Mazur’s pioneering style of classroom practice, termed ‘peer instruction’, is based on augmented teacher–student communication and increased class discussion, as described above. Analysis of his students’ test scores over time has suggested that Mazur’s method can yield substantial gains in student learning, which has been corroborated by subsequent research (Crouch & Mazur 2001; Fagen et al. 2002).

Emerging representational and collaborative tools

The representational capabilities of graphing calculators can now be found in a variety of devices, including Palm PCs, PDAs, handheld gaming devices and mobile phones, and the capabilities of such devices will continue to expand. Simultaneously, the wireless networks required for classroom communications are becoming increasingly common. The growing convergence of these capabilities is expressed in a variety of powerful new applications. Examples include the SimCalc networked calculators (Hegedus and Kaput 2003), and developments with Pocket PCs (Nussbaum and Zurita 2004). At SRI International, the GroupScribbles program is being developed as a means of using ink or stylus input to capitalise on the potential of networked technologies for classroom collaboration.

These studies demonstrate the potential of networked handhelds to stimulate passionate engagement, peer interaction and deep conceptual learning. They build on simple everyday classroom activities, such as answering questions, and transform this activity into a much more powerful form. Technology is not used merely as a medium for individual practice with subject content, but rather as a medium to transport teaching and learning into the social space of the classroom. This collaborative learning dramatically augments the learning that occurs through individual interaction with technology devices.

Conclusion: efficiency and innovation

A number of key features contribute to the success of the two technologies described above. Both graphing calculators and classroom response systems are relatively simple, robust and cheap. Simplicity is an absolutely essential feature of all technologies that succeed at scale in transforming classrooms. Even more importantly, there is a deep scientific linkage between the capabilities of these technologies and how students learn. Graphing calculators and classroom response systems both facilitate conditions that are known to optimise student learning, such as formative assessment, peer interaction and opportunities for reflection and revision.

Two less obvious factors also contribute to the success of these two technologies. First, their adoption has been championed by practising teachers who function as influences on the professional community. The participation of teachers is a key characteristic of effective technology integration. Indeed, leading companies in both graphing calculators and classroom response systems have come to rely on advice from the teacher networks to design new features (Ferrio et al. 1997). Many education technologies developed without teacher input are too complex and too rigid to fit into classroom practices. More simple technologies that are open to teachers’ adaptation and improvement are needed.

Second, efforts to integrate these technologies into classrooms did not begin with the expectation of rapid transformation, but rather provided a context to support a long, steady trajectory of continuous improvement. In this way, teachers can begin with one or two relatively simple applications of the technology, and gradually increase the depth and breadth of their integration as their confidence grows. Well-designed technology can provide a pathway for growth, whereby teachers who use the technology can gradually become more expert in helping their students to learn.

Many technologies fail in schools because they actually make teachers’ lives more complex. This cannot work; effective integration requires technologies that make teachers' lives easier. Yet, while they do so, the technologies must also enable significant innovation. The most powerful technologies will be open to teachers’ innovation and adaptations; and the most successful technology companies will develop strong relationships with educational practitioners. Finally, the most transformative products will become pathways and catalysts by which teachers can develop their own expertise in supporting student learning.


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Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Science teaching
Mathematics teaching
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computer-based training