Do Smartphones Make Us Smarter? Educators Can Harness the Potential of New Technologies
If you’re the type of faculty member who frowns when a student taps away on a smartphone during class, you may actually have reason to smile. Granted, the student is probably texting or tweeting rather than paying attention in class. From another perspective, however, your digitally distracted students are holding a backlit window into education’s future in the palms of their hands.
Just as smart and mobile technologies are redefining how we shop, socialize, share, and schedule our lives, they are also at the core of conceptually profound changes in higher education. Smart devices and new media are literally turning the gadgets in our hands into new learning tools. Educators have an unprecedented opportunity to harness these technologies to students’ advantage.
The World Is a Classroom
Any location is potentially a classroom, thanks to mobile technology. Laptops, smartphones, and e-book readers are making course content available at any time and nearly anywhere. Colleges are delivering classes and services to mobile devices. Classroom interaction is taking place on virtual discussion boards.
For the foreseeable future, residential campuses will not disappear, but more and more textbooks, lectures, courses, and materials will become available online. Students will both roam the library stacks and download texts to their e-book readers; they’ll both meet with their instructors face-to-face and chat with them online. Expect the distinction between the physical and online classrooms to become increasingly blurred. As mobile technologies become more advanced and flexible, learner preferences will increasingly shape the learning experience.
Social networking is also helping to turn the world into a college campus. In recent years, social networking websites have experienced enormous growth:
- As of January 1, 2011, nearly 200 million registered accounts had signed on to Twitter®; collectively they post 110 million tweets per day.
- More than 500 million people are active Facebook® users. Fifty percent of them log on to Facebook on any given day. The average user has 130 Facebook friends. People spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook.
- In 2009, 47% of online American adults 18 and older who accessed the Internet used a social networking site like MySpace®, Facebook or LinkedIn®, up from 8% in February 2005.
How will the social networking explosion affect education? Social networking facilitates one-on-one communication, group-based conversations, and public dialogue. In addition, it also enables content sharing—for example, posting photo albums on Facebook or Flickr®, sharing videos through YouTube®, and broadcasting weblinks through Twitter.
Thanks to the social networking boom, students have unprecedented access to content and subject matter experts. Social networking sites provide a powerful tool for connecting with people based on a common interest or as part of a search for specific information. Students on their own engage their networks as an information source; educators will need to find creative ways to tap into the social networks that have become an integral part of students’ lives.
For example, University of Phoenix created the PhoenixConnectSM academic social network for students and faculty at the University. “With the launch of our social network, we are using paradigms that are familiar to students to help increase academic success,” says Nikki Katz, vice president of product management, who drives the vision, strategy, and design for the new University of Phoenix online learning platform. “Lively discussions about academic course content are taking place within the PhoenixConnect networking environment. With our initial tests, we have seen that academically focused social networking increases student participation, engagement, and satisfaction with the academic experience.”
More Opportunities To Learn
Technological advancements are making education accessible to more people than ever before. The majority of today’s college-goers demonstrate one or more characteristics of nontraditional students—for example, those who postpone education until after age 23, work full- or parttime, or are financially self-supporting. Popular perceptions about this growing segment of the student population were recently analyzed in a University of Phoenix Research Institute study titled Americans Flunk Quiz About College Students. The majority of today’s students are not “college kids,” but working adults who must integrate their education into myriad personal and professional responsibilities rather than treat learning as an isolated endeavor. Mobile and smart technology can help them do just that.
Providing advanced educational opportunities to the nontraditional student population requires a seamless mode of content delivery. People are coming to expect education to be as accessible as their favorite websites. Expect this trend to become more pronounced in years to come.
Individualized Learning Experiences
Recent advances in data acquisition and analysis make it possible to gear classroom activities and evaluation methods to the needs of individual students. In the same way personalized medicine allows physicians to customize treatments to fit individual patient needs, technology-based individualized instruction enables educators to guide students based on each student’s specific goals, competencies, and characteristics. Consider, for example, the new learning platform under development at University of Phoenix.
“Our goal with the new platform is to help educators understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses from a holistic perspective—sort of like reading their cognitive DNA,” explains Dr. Satish Menon, senior vice president and chief architect of the new University of Phoenix platform. “Think of cognitive DNA as a computer model of the learner’s cognitive, affective, and conative characteristics. Using the model, we can individualize how we serve a learner’s needs.”
Individualization, or “personalization,” is widely deployed in a variety of domains, including the consumer Internet. The Amazon® analogy is helpful here. The popular online retailer generates personalized recommendations based on a user’s history and likeness to other consumers who use the site. Similarly, the new University of Phoenix platform may create specific recommendations based on evidence of a learner’s (or the learner’s “tribe’s”) past success. This information is fed back into the platform’s adaptive learning engine, creating a virtuous cycle of a system that learns and evolves over time.
The Workforce Won’t Wait
Technology has long been viewed as an ancillary part of higher education; it must now be seen as an integral component. In the computerized and increasingly mobile workplace, technological skills are more than just a minimum job requirement. They are essential to maintaining and developing a competitive workforce. As the United States faces a growing work skills gap and a shortage of qualified workers to meet future employment demands, educators have the responsibility not just to advance students’ knowledge and skills, but also to help them translate their skills into contributions to the workplace and society.
“As developers, we want to make sure technology in education is transparent and user-friendly,” says Michael White, chief technology officer at University of Phoenix, who oversees product and technology strategy and implementation. “I believe in a personalized, individualized approach as well as making sure the technology environment is social. Because most students at University of Phoenix are engaged in distance learning, social technology cuts down that distance and makes learning more local and more personal.”
“As educators, we want to make sure students are prepared for the workforce,” adds White. “Students must be able to leverage and apply technological skills, and, most importantly, enter the workforce and be productive.”
A recent University of Phoenix Research Institute study, The Great Divide, examined workers’ and employers’ perspectives of the skills that will be needed for jobs in the next decade. Technological skills are projected to be among those most in demand.
Higher education institutions have an opportunity to partner with policymakers and industry leaders to align educational objectives with workforce needs, including the demand for technologically savvy workers with the complex thinking skills to manage the wealth of information at their fingertips. Smartphones might indeed make us smarter—but to develop a skilled, educated workforce requires more than gadgets and sophisticated learning platforms. For our nation to be a leader in the global knowledge economy, the academic community must take a lead role—and collaborate with business and government—to make education accessible, relevant, and adaptive to the evolving needs of individuals, industries, and society.
Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti is Vice President and Managing Director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Media X program for research on technology and society. She has published extensively and speaks globally on the future of technology, education, work, and society.
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National Center for Educational Statistics. (2002). Findings from the condition of education 2002: Nontraditional undergraduates. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education website: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf
Rouse, R.A., & Miller, L.A. (2011). Americans flunk quiz about today’s college students. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix Research Institute.
Heitner, K.L., & Miller, L.A. (2011). The great divide: Worker and employer perspectives of current and future workforce demands. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix Research Institute.
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