How smartphones like the iPhone and other handheld teaching devices and apps have created an educational revolution

As smartphones and handheld computers move into classrooms worldwide, we may be witnessing the start of an educational revolution. How technology could unleash childhood creativity -- and transform the role of the teacher.

Gema and Eliana Singer, both 3 years old have fun using their parent's Apple iPhone to learn

Gemma and Eliana Singer are big iPhone fans. They love to explore the latest games, flip through photos, and watch YouTube videos while waiting at a restaurant, having their hair done, or between ballet and French lessons. But the Manhattan twins don't yet have their own phones, which is good, since they probably wouldn't be able to manage the monthly data plan: In November, they turned 3.

When the Singer sisters were just 6 months old, they already preferred cell phones to almost any other toy, recalls their mom, Fiona Aboud Singer: "They loved to push the buttons and see it light up." The girls knew most of the alphabet by 18 months and are now starting to read, partly thanks to an iPhone app called First Words, which lets them move tiles along the screen to spell c-o-w and d-o-g. They sing along with the Old MacDonald app too, where they can move a bug-eyed cartoon sheep or rooster inside a corral, and they borrow Mom's tablet computer and photo-editing software for a 21st-century version of finger painting. "They just don't have that barrier that technology is hard or that they can't figure it out," Singer says.

Gemma and Eliana belong to a generation that has never known a world without ubiquitous handheld and networked technology. American children now spend 7.5 hours a day absorbing and creating media -- as much time as they spend in school. Even more remarkably, they multitask across screens to cram 11 hours of content into those 7.5 hours. More and more of these activities are happening on smartphones equipped with audio, video, SMS, and hundreds of thousands of apps.

The new connectedness isn't just for the rich. Mobile adoption is happening faster worldwide than that of color TV a half-century ago. Mobile-phone subscribers are expected to hit 5 billion during 2010; more than 2 billion of those live in developing countries, with the fastest growth in Africa. Mobile broadband is forecast to top access from desktop computers within five years.

As with television, many people are wondering about the new technology's effect on children. "The TV set was pretty much a damned medium back in the '60s," says Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop. But where others railed against the "vast wasteland," Sesame Street founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett saw a new kind of teacher. "They said, Why don't we use it to teach kids letters and numbers and get them ready for school?" Sesame Street, from its 1969 debut, changed the prevailing mind-set about a new technology's potential. With its diverse cast and stoop-side urban setting, the show was aimed especially at giving poor kids a head start on education.

Today, handheld and networked devices are at the same turning point, with an important difference: They are tools for expression and connection, not just passive absorption. "You put a kid in front of a TV, they veg out," says Andrew Shalit, creator of the First Words app and father of a toddler son. "With an iPhone app, the opposite is true. They're figuring out puzzles, moving things around using fine motor skills. What we try to do with the game is create a very simple universe with simple rules that kids can explore."

For children born in the past decade, the transformative potential of these new universes is just beginning to be felt. New studies and pilot projects show smartphones can actually make kids smarter. And as the search intensifies for technological solutions to the nation's and the world's education woes -- "Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age," as the title of a summit at Google HQ last fall had it -- growing sums of money are flowing into the sector. The U.S. Department of Education has earmarked $5 billion in competitive school-reform grants to scale up pilot programs and evaluate best practices of all kinds. Major foundations are specifically zeroing in on handhelds for preschool and the primary grades. "Young kids and multisensor-touch computing are a huge area of innovation," says Phoenix Wang, the head of a startup philanthropic venture fund called Startl -- funded by the Gates, MacArthur, and Hewlett foundations -- that's entirely focused on educational investing. Google, Nokia, Palm, and Sony have all supplied handheld devices for teaching. Thousands of new mobiles -- not just smartphones but also ever-shrinking computers -- have come into use at schools in the United States and around the world just in the past year.

In March 2008, Innovations for Learning, a non-profit company, announced the TeacherMate, a blue GameBoy-like handheld computer designed for Kindergarten to second graders.  It’s got directional buttons, a few face buttons, a 2.5-inch LCD, USB sync, SD card storage, AC/USB charging, and a 3.5-hour battery life. Inside the teachermate is a “complete reading and math curriculum that is aligned with all of the major reading and math programs,”  The teacherMate retails for $100 and individual reading and math programs cost US$20 per student.

To understand the transformative potential -- and possible pitfalls -- of this device-driven instructional reboot, you can look at the impact of one machine, the TeacherMate, that is getting educational futurists excited. It has the total package of appropriate design, quality software, and an ability to connect kids with teachers and technologists. And while it will have to leap huge hurdles -- systemic, bureaucratic, cultural -- to be widely adopted, it does pre-sent the tantalizing prospect of revolutionizing how children are educated by drawing on their innate hunger to seize learning with both hands and push all the right buttons.

When I walk into the first-grade classroom at Henry Clay Elementary School on Chicago's South Side, the lights are off and the room is silent. Three-quarters of the 20 children are plugged into headphones, staring into little blue machines. The TeacherMate, as it is called, is a handheld computer with a four-hour battery life. It runs full-color Flash games on a platform partly open to volunteer developers worldwide, and it can record and play back audio. Julissa Muñoz shyly tells me that she likes this device better than her PlayStation 2 at home. "They have lots of games," she says. "I like the fireman game," where exciting music plays as you choose the right length ladder, which sneakily teaches simple addition and subtraction.

Julissa's teacher, the delightfully named Kelly Flowers, explains that the software on her laptop lets her track each student's performance. Once a week, when she plugs each student's TeacherMate into her docking station, she downloads a record of their game play and generates reports for herself as well as for parents. Then she sets the precise skills, levels, and allotted time for the upcoming week. The programs are synced with the reading and math curricula used in the school -- right down to the same spelling words each week.

Most important, says Flowers, the TeacherMate works. She privately sorts her kids into three groups based on their reading skills -- green (scoring at or above grade level), yellow (borderline), and red (underperformers). "This year, with TeacherMate, I started with 11 greens, 2 yellows, and 7 reds. By the middle of the year, I had just 2 reds. I can move a red to a yellow on my own, but this is my first year moving a red directly to a green. I've never seen that much growth in that short a time." Flowers's observations are backed up by preliminary University of Illinois research that suggests that reading and math scores in classrooms with TeacherMates are significantly higher than in those without.

Flowers says the kids like the TeacherMate because it gives them a feeling of freedom. "It doesn't feel like homework," she says. "They can choose from a whole list of games. They don't know that I decided what [skills] they'd be working on." And during the time her class spends with TeacherMates each day, Flowers can devote more focused time and attention to small groups of students.

TeacherMate is the brainchild of a bearded technology lawyer turned social entrepreneur from Evanston, Illinois, named Seth Weinberger, who punctuates his verbal volleys with waving hands and liberal profanity. He says he's on year 15 of a 30-year personal life plan to transform schooling in America using technology.

When Weinberger's daughter and son, now college-age, were toddlers, he and his wife helped start a preschool. "I donated some computers and was going to donate some reading software," he says. "I went to Best Buy in 1993 and I couldn't see how any of the stuff they had could teach a kid anything." At his law firm, Weinberger happened to have some video-game designers as clients; he asked them to create a game-based reading program. It was a hit. "The school loves it, I love it. To me, this is the future of education. I go back to the clients and say, 'This is a great beginning!' They say, 'No, this is the great ending. There's no market for educational software.' "

Weinberger disagreed, and decided to teach himself how to program. He would work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the law firm, go home, and work from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at his 
computer -- his obsession with education making him a near-absentee dad to his own kids. Eventually, he licensed the software, which allowed him to "hire real developers who rewrote everything, laughing hysterically," he says.

For the next 12 years, Weinberger continued to develop K-2 level reading and math software through his not-for-profit, Innovations for Learning, coordinating the work of programmers in India and Argentina with teachers at a dozen schools in Chicago. Three years ago, Weinberger and his team realized handheld mobile devices had gotten sophisticated enough to be ideal for classroom use. They were cheaper and more durable than laptops, and teachers found their smaller size proved less distracting in class. Moreover, he says, kids seemed to intuitively understand how to use the simpler machines. "We encourage teachers not to do any pretraining," he says. "Pass them out, turn them on, and have the kid start."

Innovations for Learning is committed to obtaining long-term independent university research on the effectiveness of its products and services. 

In 2006-07 the Spencer Foundation funded a team of researchers at National Louis University led by Professor Camille Blachowicz to study the impact of the Reading Program. Click here to download the findings.

Professor Bill Teale of the University of Illinois at Chicago is currently studying the impact of TeacherMates in the 200 Chicago Public Schools that TeacherMate deployed in the 2008-09 school year. Preliminary test data has been very encouraging. A full report on results will be available this summer. Click here to download the full report.


Courtesy of an article dated April 1, 2010 appearing in Fast Company

Those two rug rats Gema and Eiana are real cuties!  I hope you enjoyed reading this reprint.

Tags: education, iphone, learning, preschool, smartphones, teachermate

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