RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – As mobile technologies gain popularity in U.S. classrooms, a new report by researchers at RTI International suggests that mobile technologies may be an untapped resource that offer opportunities to improve math skills for early grade students in developing countries.
The report is one of three background papers commissioned by The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to better understand how to improve early grade numeracy in developing countries.
“We found many instances of small and large-scale initiatives to leverage mobile phones for math skills, but those remain largely at middle and secondary school levels in medium to high income countries,” said Sarah Pouezevara at RTI, the report’s co-author. “The potential of mobiles devices to increase access to math education and change the way children learn and apply mathematical concepts in the developing countries has not yet been widely adopted.”
The report suggests that math education in the early grades relies heavily on providing children with many different examples to illustrate concepts, which mobile technologies are well suited to provide.
Because young children experience and explore not only mentally, but also physically, touchscreen interfaces are particularly suitable; they offer hands-on exploration, such as the ability to change the size and orientation of shapes and construct and deconstruct them through simple dragging and dropping.
Mobile technologies also allow children to interact with their environment supporting the seamless integration between life, play and learning typical for young children; for example, a child could take a picture of an item and overlay it with a dynamic protractor to build understanding of measurement and angles.
“Even basic mobile phones provide a tremendous opportunity to reach individuals and engage them in learning both within and outside the classroom,” Pouezevara said.
Additionally, according to the report, mobile technologies can be used to improve teaching skills and curriculums, providing teachers with professional development opportunities and teaching tools for continuous assessment of learning, content that would otherwise not be available through local textbooks or teaching materials. Mobile phones can also be a link between school systems and parents, engaging parents to support numeracy at home
The authors suggest that for these mobile technologies to be implemented effectively in developing countries, perceptions as well as policies need to be changed.
“Skepticism about the value of mobile learning leads to policies that prohibit the use of mobile phones in schools, and teachers or administrators may be reluctant to change classroom dynamics to facilitate their effective use even where they can add educational value,” said Carmen Strigel, team leader, Information and Communication Technologies for Education and Training at RTI.
The report also suggests that an enabling environment for adoption must include the availability of free and open content optimized for mobile devices offered in many languages, and international standards for educational content such as file formats and communication protocols need to be developed that will allow content to be compatible with a wider variety of devices.
In addition, the report proposes a carefully developed research agenda to ensure evidence-based use of mobile technologies for numeracy in low-income countries and to design initiatives so as to generate critical data to inform scale up and replication.
“Most of all, our report emphasizes the need to first identify the learning gaps that mobile technologies can address that aren’t currently being met in the classroom,” Strigel said. “We want the educational need to drive the use of mobile devices and not the other way around.”