Thursday, 21 March 2013

Fostering independent learning through mobile technology

Today's blog post was inspired by a talk I was asked to give at #SSATeachMeet on how mobile technology can foster independent learning in our students. It wasn't a great talk to be fair. The speaker was knackered from an observation by the Head in the morning, a full day and a break and after school duty, had tried to cram in too much to his 7 minutes, and then garbled his way through most of it when the tech gave out (the irony is lost on nobody), and consequently, had anyone tried to get a question in edgeways, they would have been greeted by the old Queen song "Don't Stop Me Now" (though the second line would have been omitted for obvious "bricking it"reasons). Well, that's the last time anyone asks me to do anything like that again.

I've already written about how to use some of the apps I talked about here, so the purpose of the talk wasn't to re-hash old ground. Rather, I wanted to try to pick apart some of the key aspects of independent learning that mobile technologies can help us with, to provide a solid founding rationale for anyone wanting to move in that direction. It's a huge step, and long before you start thinking about when, how or what you're going to do, you need to ask yourself why you think mobile learning is the answer: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

In my case, I tend to get a lot of students come to my A level Film and Media classes who have ever studied the subject before. We never turn them away, but it has come to my attention that they have often scraped through their 5 A*-C grades, and been heavily supported especially in their English. Which is great to get them through the GCSE hoop, but unfortunately now I need them to start thinking for themselves, and very few of them are capable of doing that. So my original rationale for looking at mobile technology in learning, the "gap" I'd identified (to use the jargon), was student independence. I looked at many solutions, including SOLO taxonomy and flipped learning, as well as mobile technology, and ended up using a combination of all three to get my students thinking independently of me. These are my conclusions...

Mobile Learning Gets Students To Take Responsibility For Their Learning

In itself this is a huge step. A student who has a list of excuses for why they can't do something is a student who spends more time thinking up the excuses than doing the work. Mobile learning turns the onus onto them to get themselves organised. At the start of their courses, my students get a Google mail account so they can create and share Google Docs, and they create an Evernote account, so they can make their notes. I've blogged elsewhere about these apps (here and here, if you must), and I've even put tutorials online for how to use them on our Youtube Channel, so forgive me if I don't dwell on the "how to's" too much. Suffice it to say that an Evernote account allows my students to access learning in several new ways:

  1. By allowing them to supplement written notes with pictures (often of what I've drawn on the board), audio notes and attachments;
  2. By allowing them to organise these into subject files, and topic sub-folders;
  3. By allowing them to tag their files, and cross-reference them
  4. By allowing them to be stored on the cloud
There was an understandable sound of "whoop-di-doo" as I was talking about this, until I pointed to the  fact that a student who arrives at his terminal exams two years down the line with a full set of notes intact and cross-referenced was already at an advantage to probably well over two-thirds of the cohort. We seem to take loss of learning material as an occupational hazard in Sixth Form, but it's tantamount to prolonged absence in some cases, so I felt that this was a great starting point when discussing the advantages of mobile technology in developing independent learners.

The Big Picture

The second area in which students benefit from the use of mobile technology is in the ability to simply and quickly create permanent mind-maps and brainstorms which allow them to think about the bigger learning picture. Right from the start, students will use Popplet or one of many other mind-map apps to think about what they know about the topic before we start, to think about what they want to know, and to think about knowledge and skills from other subjects which they might be able to use in the one they are about to tackle. These types of connections are crucial, as they encourage students to think outside of the usual boundaries of subject areas, and to see how the world really works in an inter-connected way. Moreover, they can start to explicitly think about the big picture, and get a sense of how the topic they are about to embark upon affects the real world. In itself, this one change in outlook can provide students who are used to learning topics because "it's on the syllabus" with a much better notion of why it is important to study them, and what use they will be to them later on.

Applied Learning

The next benefit I've found in using mobile technology is in the way it facilitates flipped learning. I've talked about what flipped learning is before, and in many ways the idea isn't revolutionary (last century  it was simply called "prep", but I like the fancy new pseudo-pedagogibabble!). But the world of homework research is made immeasurably easier and more interesting when combined with mobile learning. Not only can we set learning from a variety of different sources and source types, matched to the students' ability levels and the types of material they access most easily, from videos to online powerpoints to audio podcasts, but we can also use some great online tools to set associated quizzes for our students to try at the same time as the learning, in order to allow them to judge just how good their understanding or mastery of a concept is. I talked last night about TED-Ed as one such resource. It has allowed me to find some great videos, and flip them by creating quizzes for each one, as well as flipping some of my own Youtube tutorials: Here is an example of one I got my A level students to do, with initial quick-fire recollection and deduction questions (to make sure they'd watched it and learnt the facts!), and other more open-ended questions which prepared them for the sorts of issues we'd be talking about in the classroom.

What that means is that I could come into the classroom, look at the test results, and straight away split my students into differentiated groups on the basis of how well they dealt with the material: Groups needing more support get extra scaffolding, groups who clearly dealt with it easily get stretch material, and off we go. Tick the OFSTED boxes about personalised learning at the same time. If that's your cup of tea.

Inter-Dependent Learning and Collaboration

If mobile technology does one thing, it allows students to share and work together in a much more meaningful way than ever before. Apps like GoogleDocs and Evernote are great for sharing over a variety of platforms, including Twitter, e-mail download etc. With GoogleDocs, students can even work simultaneously in real time on the same document from different locations, whether that be classrooms in school or from home. Not only that, but they can comment on each other's work. While at first one area of mobile learning I struggled with was showing evidence of self, peer and teacher assessment, this kind of sharing makes that easy and permanently recorded for them to refer to, unlike the sticky notes I used to find lying around my classroom after an ├╝ber-fruitful peer assessment session, where the fruits had clearly fallen on stony ground!

Recently, however, I have seen others extend this idea even further by publishing essays and research online via Twitter or other forums, and asking the outside world for feedback. As I mentioned in my talk, a couple of weeks back some students of mine had been researching, discussing and writing about the problems facing the UK film industry. When we put their essays out for public critique, can you imagine the level of motivation they got when they received two comments from two British film producers? "Quite chuffed" doesn't really do it justice! But this invitation to outside experts to scrutinise our work grounds the students in the real-world context of their learning, and gets them already engaging with the issues and the people they aspire to work with in the future. Do they really need me any more?

The Meta-Cognitive Dimension

The real benefits for me of using mobile technology to foster independence are about the meta-cognitive skills the students develop. A mobile device, with an array of apps which do similar but not identical things, gets students really thinking about learning itself, and selecting the tools by which they learnt best*. They have to think about how they will research, assimilate, learn, remember and revise their work. They have to think about a way of presenting their learning to me which most clearly demonstrates their understanding and their progress. So I could end up marking an interactive book with videos and full glossary in it (Creative Book Builder), or an animated walk-through of a process or timeline (Videoscribe), or an interactive whiteboard presentation which is narrated (Explain Everything), or even a simple collaborative pin-board where all the students have collated their ideas (Linoit). To be honest, as long as the focus remains on the learning and not the tools, then I don't mind what they present to me. But the very fact that students have to think carefully about this aspect of their learning clearly leads them towards greater autonomy.

A Changing Role For Teachers

Finally, I ended with the contention that this direction I had been talking about necessitated a change in the way we as educators view our role in the whole process. I think everyone on Twitter would agree that the idea of teachers as the sole repository of knowledge within a classroom is bunk. We have to get away from that notion of "sage on stage" and move towards being the "guide by the side", no matter how much this might threaten our little egos. "Grow a pair and get on with it!", as my mother would never have said to me, ever. It is in fact much easier to play the role of guide given the time freed up by students not needing us any more thanks to mobile learning devices! It allows us to get stuck in to some seriously timely and highly effective personalised interventions (OFSTED box-tickers: Fire away again!). But we can only do that if our interventions are informed by a system of diagnostics which is highly accurate, targeted and instant in its feedback. I've used simple apps like Traffic Lights for a quick RED/AMBER/GREEN response from students (this often tells me more about their confidence levels than their levels of understanding), as well as Socrative, an instant quick-quiz app which allows you to set multiple choice or open-ended questions, single or multiple question quizzes, starters or plenaries and even hinge questions. Each one an opportunity to change the direction of the lesson for any individual who looks like they need a bit more guidance.

The results for me have been really good, if anecdotal as yet. My Year 10 class now moan that I don't test them enough to check their understanding, or if I tell them a particular way to do a task. "Can't I do it this way?" they will ask, before justifying their request with a perfectly cogent reason why they would present their learning more effectively a different way.

It's enough to make a bloke of my age need a long lie down. Which is easily done now that I've got all this spare time...

If you're interested, the original prezi from TMBrum2 is here, in glorious techni-thingy. I'm sure you'll agree from above that I did astonishingly well to get it under the 6-minute limit, even though I do say so myself. @Danielharvey9 may have a video that tells a different story...

* If that sentence sounds wrong, check it again. It's right, I promise: The plural "do" refers to the multiple apps, while the singular "gets" accords with the "mobile device". But it took me three read-throughs (should that be reads-through?) to see why it was right!