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Virginia Journal of Education


The Future: You May Be Phoning It In

by Karen W. Richardson

In his book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman names four forces that are driving the incredible changes taking place in the way we live, work and communicate in the 21st century. He calls them the steroids: digital, mobile, virtual and personal. We have seen these forces at work on a global scale as people in the Middle East embraced social networking tools to organize. Cell phones brought the horror of the Japanese tsunami in almost real time to people who then used those phones to mobilize. We carry the world in our pockets, with instant access to news, information, indeed almost the whole of human learning.

Do I sound a bit dramatic? Perhaps focusing on the more mundane will help show the power of these devices. Recently, I recently misplaced my cell phone. After searching, I finally found it in the kitchen where I had been using it to access a recipe.
In fact, calling this device a phone seems to diminish its possibilities. Yes, I do use it to talk to people. But more often I take advantage of my data plan to send and receive e-mails, publish blog entries, talk via Skype, take pictures and share them and conduct video conferences. When I’m not connected, my “phone” is an ebook, an mp3 player, and a game console. Now that I have moved to a “satellite only” zone in rural Virginia, the phone is my connection to the digital world. My phone allows my husband and me to live on a 19th-century homestead, a blending of past and present that I believe provides a glimpse of the possibilities for the future.
Yet as educators we struggle to determine the role of these devices in the classroom. They simply aren’t as easily integrated as other digital technologies, such as interactive whiteboards or student response systems. Sometimes we ban them, despite their potential to provide access to all the tools of education, from textbooks to videos to pens. We do so out of real concern: we can’t control them and schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe. We’ve heard plenty of horror stories about illegal and immoral uses by both students and adults.
But there are also plenty of examples where these devices are being used in innovative ways to support student learning. And helping students learn to navigate safely and effectively in the digital, virtual, mobile and personal world is, in my humble opinion, the most pressing Internet safety and media literacy issue of our time.
Virginia educators are leading the way in exploring the potential for mobile learning. The state’s Department of Education has piloted a mobile learning project in four school divisions. Researchers at several universities in the commonwealth are making mobile learning the focus of their work. Schools divisions across Virginia are looking for the best ways to incorporate these devices in their everyday practice. In March, the Virginia Society for Technology in Education celebrated all these educators as part of Mobile Learning Month, with virtual and face-to-face events highlighting the use of mobile devices from cell phones to ereaders to tablets. On March 15, educators shared mobile learning resources on Twitter as part of the VSTE Hotlink Project.  You can review all their tweets here: Finally, a small group learned a little about programming for mobile devices using the VSTE Ning: Archives of the six webinars are also available at the VSTE website: Handouts and presentations from the Mobile Learning Share Fair, held in Fredericksburg at the end of the month, are available at the conference site:
Anyone who knows even a little of the history of school reform understands that technology almost never drives real change. Instead, it gets incorporated into the existing structures of the system, maybe making small changes, but ultimately being changed itself. But, at the risk of flying in the face of history, mobile devices seem to challenge ideas about school and learning the way whiteboards and clickers simply do not, representing Friedman’s steroids in action. In a recent commercial, the founder of Tom’s Shoes, a shoe company that itself challenges notions of business by giving away a pair of shoes for every pair it sells, commented that he was able to run his business from his phone. After over 20 years of working in educational technology, I find myself invigorated and excited by the future. I only hope I’m around, watching it on my cell phone from the front porch of the farmhouse.

Richardson holds a PhD in Curriculum and Educational Technology from the College of William & Mary. She teaches educational technology and research courses there and at Virginia Commonwealth University. She also serves as executive director of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.


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