Over the 2011-2012 school year, e-Mergents has been involved in “guerilla research” to get some insight on several gnawing questions regarding the use of Android tablets in primary school classrooms.  Some of the questions are profoundly practical, such as whether students can really write papers on tablet devices even though we adults are convinced we need laptops for serious writing.  Some of the questions are logistical, such as whether Androids can serve the same purposes as iPads. But some of the questions are emergent: “What happens when you give students and teachers mobile devices with 24/7 connectivity to the Internet and the freedom to use them in the ways that work for them?”

The project is called Learning Untethered (learn more or download the report). e-Mergents purchased the devices and data plans for the project – everything else was contributed by the participants (teacher, students, parents, principal, IT director, district, and project manager). We didn’t conduct research in the formal sense, but rather participated in a collaborative exploration, paying attention to how various questions played out while first and foremost serving student learning.

In many ways the whole structure of the project itself relied on emergent principles. At the project level, we let the kinds of things that are goals of formal research (evidence and models) emerge as side effects of working to improve teaching and learning.  At the collaborative level, our daily work processes emerged as a side effect of each participant using good judgment in the pursuit of our shared goals to improve and understand teaching and learning with mobile devices.  Most importantly, at the level of each student, agency as independent learners emerged as a side effect of exploring the use of mobile devices and Internet connectivity for learning and for personal interests.

This last result was a surprise, though in hindsight it shouldn’t have been. The project and classroom culture supported a virtuous cycle of responsibility leading to increased mastery leading to increased autonomy, making it easy for intrinsic motivators to lead the students to more active learning in the classroom and to independently continue their work at home. Initially, it seems, the cycle kicked off when the teacher made a conscious decision not to be the “source of all knowledge” for the students regarding the devices. When faced with a line of 20 students asking how to change their wallpaper, access the Inernet, and other questions, she pointed out they knew as much as she did and to go find out. The students got into the habit of asking each other, looking things up with Google, and using their growing analytical skills and experience with debugging hardware and software issues.

Next, the teacher encouraged students to share tools and apps that they found – the class had a sign-up sheet where anyone could talk about an app or a tool or a trick for using the technology.  Students also shared games, and the class as a whole discussed whether a particular game was appropriate for school or more of a distraction – the games that were found to be “schoolpropriate” were added to a list kept on the wall.

At the same time, students were encouraged to use the devices for their own purposes at home, and most became very engaged with using them for gaming, photo/video, and music, as well as for keeping in touch with their families during the school day. They learned how to evaluate apps before downloading them, how to find games that were challenging, and how to find music without violating any laws. The skills that were useful at home and the personal use of the tablets transferred to the classroom and vice versa.

In the classroom and at home, the students came to realize that with 24/7 access to the Internet, they no longer had to wait passively to be taught or told things, they could find their own answers in response to their own goals or curiosity at any time. When the teacher was talking or reading to them, the students would look up relevant information and share it in the class. When involved in family discussions at the dinner table, the students would look up facts to support their arguments.  They were no longer content to wait for answers when the information was literally at their fingertips.

Students also lost their tolerance for “dead time”.  During transitions when students would normally have to wait for others to be ready to move on, they would pick up their tablets and work on spelling, math, reading, or educational games.  They preferred to take advantage of snippets of time to improve their skills than to just wait around.

The usefulness of the connected tablets for both learning and personal uses, the freedom of students to use them in their own ways, the ubiquitous availability of the Internet, and the environment and culture fostered by the classroom teacher, combined to remove obstacles to the kind of active, authentic learning that is the natural tendency of teachers and learners.  Obvious in hindsight.

In the past, however, student agency in mobile learning projects has come as a result of students connecting with each other online after school to help each other, developing a community of learning, and so it came as a surprise when it showed up as the result of students using the Internet individually. The virtual learning community did show up towards the end of the school year, as the students began collaborating from home as well using Edmodo, a secure social networking and collaboration site, and the students moved to a whole new level as independent learners.

The lesson is that under the right circumstances, mobile devices can eliminate obstacles and act as a catalyst that shifts the day-to-day practice of teaching and learning to something more authentic and collaborative and intrinsically motivating. The path plays out differently with different students, teachers, communities, and schools: it isn’t about the particular steps, processes, and uses that evolve in a particular implementation, but about the vision of professional educators to recognize and appreciate student shifts to active learning, the freedom to experiment and explore, and ubiquitous access to mobile devices and the Internet.