Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

From Left: Angel Taylor, 6, Jose Becerra, 7, and Julissa Munoz, 6. | Photograph by Danielle Levitt

A Is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked 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.

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.

Angel Taylor, Jose Becerra, Julissa Muñoz
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
Angel Taylor, Jose Becerra, Julissa Muñoz (Click for slideshow)

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."

Existing PDAs such as the PalmPilot and Dell Axim, on initial testing, proved a little too delicate and expensive for classroom use. So Innovations for Learning worked with a Chinese company to cheaply design and develop the TeacherMate, which debuted in 2008. Currently, it sells for $100, bundled with games customized to match each of the major K-2 reading and math curricula.

The name was chosen carefully: Weinberger says he has realized that educational innovation is useless if the teachers don't find it helpful — it can't be a distraction, an additional burden on their time, or a threat to their authority. Innovations for Learning is partnering with Chicago's Academy for Urban School Leadership, a not-for-profit that focuses on professional development, emphasizing that helping teachers learn to work with TeacherMate is their priority. With the backing of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and Arne Duncan, then the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and now the secretary of education, IFL took the TeacherMate from its longtime cluster of 12 Chicago schools to 500 schools in 14 states as of the fall of 2009.

Weinberger can't stop talking about the TeacherMate's untapped possibilities. It seemingly has a solution for every educational buzzword out there: differentiated instruction, English-language learners, class size. It can let a Spanish-speaking parent help a student with his homework in English. (In addition to Spanish, software is being developed in Arabic, Hebrew, and Tagalog, with a goal to get to 100 languages.) It can help a teacher track exactly how much reading is going on at home. And it can allow a math whiz to speed ahead several grade levels.

While the TeacherMate doesn't yet sport wireless connectivity, that should be coming within the next year or two. Weinberger envisions porting the software to the iPod Touch and iPad and then a next-generation of more-sophisticated machines running Android, Google's open-source operating system. Content could expand to include science-experiment demos and immersive historical environments for social studies.

For longtime school reformers, the sales pitch for the TeacherMate may sound familiar. When it comes to our nation's public schools, the Miracle Man's wagon pulls into town every week with some magical intervention or other. What feels different about Innovations for Learning is that it isn't wedded to any particular gadget. While his organization has put significant resources into developing the TeacherMate, Weinberger says his true investment is in the concept. What matters is the development of new teaching and learning practices built around an idea: affordable, portable machines paired with constantly updated, collaboratively designed, open-platform software. "It's about the system," he says, "not a device."

At the same time, even as he's careful to note that the TeacherMate is just one stage in an ongoing, deliberate process, Weinberger can't restrain a tone of geeklike glee at what his team has produced — a convergence of compelling features, a reasonably affordable price, and demonstrated results — which is winning converts under its own momentum. "There's no stopping it," he says. "These devices are just too freaking good."

Late on Thanksgiving night, I'm in a van bumping over gravel roads in Baja California, Mexico, with Paul Kim, the chief technology officer of Stanford University's School of Education; a field team of four students; and two boxes of TeacherMates. Stray dogs prowl in front of roadside taquerias, their eyes glowing red in our passing headlights. Noah Freedman, a 19-year-old Princeton sophomore, is on his laptop in the front seat doing some last-minute debugging of an interactive storytelling program, while Ricardo Flores, a Stanford master's student, translates the software's directions into Spanish — giving a new meaning, Freedman jokes, to "mobile development."

We spend the next two days meeting with Mixtec and Zapotec children at campos, farm workers' camps with rows of corrugated-steel-roofed barracks set on packed mud. We roll into the compounds in the back of a truck driven by a local missionary and hand out bags of rice and beans to the mothers, who tell me that the youth here — clad in the international uniform of hoodies, jeans, and sneakers — are struggling with borderlands issues of drugs and violence on top of rural poverty and isolation. And though schools here are supposed to run in half-day sessions, we find schoolhouses empty and locked both morning and afternoon.

Eliana Singer, Gemma Singer
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
Eliana Singer, Gemma Singer (Click for slideshow)

Kim is devoted to using cell phones to provide poor children with the basics of education and with access to all of the world's information. "Kids love stories," he says. "In places with no TV, no Internet, no books, when they are given these devices, these are like gifts from heaven." He has long dreamed of a machine that is cheap, powered with a solar or bicycle charger, and equipped with game-based learning content — a complete "Pocket School." For the past four years, he has been testing phones from a dozen different manufacturers, but the TeacherMate, which he discovered in March 2008, comes closer than anything to the Pocket School ideal.

The Mexico trip is one of a whirlwind of small user-testing and demonstration projects that Kim has undertaken in the past 12 months. He has personally brought TeacherMates to Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, India, South Korea, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Palestine, and several sites in Mexico, in most cases working with local not-for-profits, trying them out for a few hours and on a few dozen children at a time. He brings along programmers, like Freedman, so they can get feedback and tweak the software accordingly. In South Korea, Mexico, and the Philippines, schools and community centers continue to use the devices and collect data.

Kim's TeacherMate strategy, like Weinberger's, is to let the kids figure it out by themselves. In Baja, I watch children aged 6 to 12 pick the machine up and within a few minutes, with no direct instructions, they're working in groups of three, helping one another figure out the menus in English by trial and error, playing the same math games as the students in Chicago, and reading along with stories in Spanish. The children agree that the TeacherMates are bonitas — "cute." An 11-year-old named Silvia asks me hopefully, "Son regalos?" ("Are these gifts?") I have to say that they are only for borrowing. The missionary, Pablo Ohm, will keep the TeacherMates at the community center he runs in the town of Camalu, but access won't be regular.

One of Kim's inspirations was George Washington Carver, who brought a "movable school" — a horse-drawn wagon full of agricultural exhibits — to poor black communities in rural Alabama in the 1920s. Kim is targeting especially the kids whose circumstances make it impossible to attend school regularly: refugees, migrants, the homeless. "Unesco reports that there are 150 million street children and another 250 million who will never see a book," he says. "Donating books is great, but think about it. When you mail a book from here to Rwanda, the shipping will cost you way more than the cost of the book, and maybe nobody there can read the book."

Whereas Weinberger wants to improve teaching practices at existing schools, Kim focuses overwhelmingly on empowering kids to teach themselves. He sees technology as a liberating force, helping kids in rich and poor countries alike bypass schools, with all their waste, bureaucracy, and failures, entirely. "Why does education need to be so structured? What are we so afraid of?" he asks. "The more you expect from a kid, the smarter they're going to get."

Kim is drawing on his own painful experience with formal education. In postwar South Korea, Kim found school a conformist "assembly line." As a "bottom 2%" performer, he was beaten regularly for major and minor infractions. "Other kids, when they were punished, would go home and tell their parents, and their parents would come to school and give the teachers white envelopes, and the treatment would get better," he says. "But I never wanted to tell my parents what happened at school." At the age of 19, Kim taught himself English in the library using middle-school textbooks before escaping to college in rural Americus, Georgia. Returning to Korea, he became a teacher with a passion for fostering people's innate capacity to learn.

As I watch him kneel in the Mexican dirt, surrounded by eager kids, his face wreathed in a broad smile, he seems to delight in the way that the TeacherMate puts the kids in charge. "That's a phenomenon I've found even in Rwanda — where only 1% have electricity," he says. "With these devices, what the kids pick up in two minutes, the teachers need two hours to learn. The kids explore by themselves and figure it out. When you work with those kids directly, no matter where they are, they're so innovative."

Jordan Shakeel, Jocelyn Mines
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
Jordan Shakeel, Jocelyn Mines (Click for slideshow)

For all his infectious passion, Kim would be the first to admit he has no specific plan for how the Pocket School might come to scale. His "development team" is an ad hoc group of volunteers — like Freedman and his 15-year-old brother, Aaron, who composed the music for the fireman game. They have altruism and lots of heart, but they don't have a business plan.

Enter a self-described Iowa farm boy named Richard Rowe, who founded and leads an organization called the Open Learning Exchange, which is spreading educational technology by working closely with governments worldwide. Teaching is in Rowe's blood — his mother once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in a town called Buffalo Wallow. He has spent a lifetime at the intersection of technology and education. In 1964, while working for the American Institutes for Research, Rowe helped oversee the automation of secondary-school entrance exams across English-speaking West Africa. Until then, blue books traveled by train and steamship to England, taking an entire year to be graded and returned. "We flew an IBM 360 from Frankfurt to Lagos and brought in some scanners and introduced multiple-choice testing," he says. "That increased accuracy, cut the cost dramatically, and reduced the lag time from 12 months to one, transforming the lives of literally millions of kids almost overnight. That's a use of [technology] to transform education completely, and it's not even all that clever."

Rowe once headed the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, but came to believe that the much-hyped $199 computers — funded by eBay, Google, and private donors for supply to the developing world, with the next, flashiest Yves Béhar — designed version coming in 2012 — were too clever by half. The OLPC project has been widely criticized for delays, cost overruns, and limitations in its software. Rowe says he had a more serious problem with it: He and OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte "fundamentally disagreed about the approach to basic education. It was his belief that if you have a really neat technology, if you build it, they will come. I had been around a lot longer than he in this field and knew from my own experience that it's far more complicated than that." (Negroponte was unavailable for comment; Matt Keller of One Laptop Per Child says, "We provide the technology. That's who we are. At the same time, we're an organization that cares about supporting the writing of poetry, not about the pens.")

Taking a leaf from the burgeoning open-education movement — like MIT's Open CourseWare site, which provides all of the university's courses online for free — Rowe started the Open Learning Exchange with the redoubtable aim of providing quality basic education to 1 billion children in 100 countries by 2015. The OLE is structured as a global network of centers led by local social entrepreneurs who share materials, best practices, and new technologies. Already active in seven countries and setting up in several more, they are building a free "billion kids library" of open-source educational software and working with an eye toward adoption of technology-based educational "accelerators" by each country's government.

Rowe, who calls Innovations for Learning "one of our great partners," says, "Content is king, and too often little attention is paid to content, as with One Laptop Per Child. TeacherMate is a shining exception to that rule. What makes it so good is the software: it actively engages the student and frees up the teacher to be more of a mentor."

OLE Rwanda has launched a demonstration project with 500 TeacherMates supplied by Innovations for Learning; the project will compare them to OLPC's XO laptop for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. OLE Rwanda director Jacques Murinda says, "I think that the use of mobile phones in education has a great future even in developing countries. Teachers are being capacitated to use them, but children are already very creative in using them." Another of the seven OLE centers, an organization in Andhra Pradesh, India, called the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources, is also trying it out. Use of the TeacherMate, if successful, is likely to spread to other OLE centers; that's what the exchange is designed to do.

However, Rowe says the TeacherMate software probably has a brighter future than the hardware. It could easily run on the next generation of cheap mobile phones as soon as an open, free platform like Android becomes more standard. "Mobile phones used offline have virtually the same features as the TeacherMate — screen, speaker, mic, buttons. Mobile phones will continue to be more iPhone/iPad-like in the not-too-distant future. And they can communicate two-way, which the TeacherMate does not."

Rowe sees low-cost, appropriate mobile technology as just one piece of a greater educational strategy that also pays plenty of attention to fostering local leadership and collaboration. "The history of educational technology, which goes way, way back, is just full of graveyards," he says. "Now can be different — maybe. Technology is getting smarter and cheaper. Software is getting more powerful and effective. The open-source movement is making content more widely available at much lower cost. But we need to recognize that the technology itself is only a very small part of the solution for ensuring highly effective education."

The OLE's business plan is to prove both the cost-effectiveness and teaching-effectiveness of these tools and strategies through research, so that governments around the world will be moved to take them up on a grand scale. "We have to be far more creative about appropriate information technology in the developing world," Rowe says. "Our job is to enable a given country to take what is available and adapt it and try it out."

Mobile phones have transformed communications, especially in the developing world, more swiftly than anyone could have imagined. The prospect of doing the same for education — putting best-of-breed learning software in kids' hands anytime, anywhere — is tantalizing. Yet not everyone is so excited about what might be called the iTeach future.

While a $100 curriculum-in-a-box may seem like a good value even by developing-country standards, wide distribution would still be costly. Many experts maintain that educational interventions in the poorest countries should stick to even cheaper technologies that have already proven their value, like chalkboards and paper. "Before one can make use of a computer, reading and writing are fundamentals," says Erin Ganju, CEO of the social enterprise Room to Read, which has built and stocked 9,000 developing-world libraries over the past decade with plain old paper books. "For as little as $5 a year per child, we can create a well-stocked library with a trained librarian."

And then there is the anticommercialization camp. Skeptics are wary about the motives of cell-phone makers and telecom-service providers, which would reap a windfall should governments embrace mobile learning — Unesco has estimated educational spending worldwide at $2.5 trillion annually. And as with the boob tube before it, there's worry that wide adoption of mobile technologies for learning will give marketers direct access to a very impressionable demographic. "Cell phones are increasingly a way for advertisers to target children," says Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "We've seen branded Burger King games downloaded to cell phones and text-message advertising sent to kids."

But the biggest challenge to Pocket School — style learning may not be the business model. The same possibilities that make these technologies so exciting — the sight of Gemma, Eliana, Julissa, and Silvia pushing the buttons, controlling their own learning and their own destiny — make them threatening to the educational status quo. A system built around tools that allow children to explore and figure things out for themselves would be radical for most developing-world schools, which emphasize learning by rote. In the United States, which is currently so in love with state curriculum benchmarks and standardized tests, it could be just as hard a sell.

What's at issue is a deep cultural shift, a fundamental rethinking not only of how education is delivered but also of what "education" means. The very word comes from the Latin duco, meaning "to lead or command" — putting the learner in the passive position. Rabi Kamacharya is an MIT engineering grad who returned to his native Kathmandu from Silicon Valley to found a software company and started OLE Nepal, the network's most established branch, in 2007. Kamacharya talks about technology putting "children in the driver's seat" — to overcome the limited skills of teachers: "Even in urban areas, teachers who teach English, for example, do not know English very well. Children are at the mercy of the teachers, who may not be motivated or have sufficient materials to work with. We want to enable them to go forward with self-learning and assessment."

Srijani Dasararaju, Shalini Dasararaju
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
Srijani Dasararaju, Shalini Dasararaju (Click for slideshow)

This idea, common among these tech-driven educational entrepreneurs, imagines a new role for teachers. "The main transformational change that needs to happen is for the teacher to transform from the purveyor of information to the coach," says Weinberger of Innovations for Learning. As Rowe puts it, "Up until very recently, most communications were hub-and-spoke, one to many. The Internet is a many-to-many environment, which is in the early stages of having a major impact on education. It involves a fairly major change in the concept of what education is, which is one of the reasons we use the term 'learning' as distinct from 'education.' It's student-centered and student-empowered."

The challenge of putting such ideas into practice — and getting the kids into the educational driver's seat — is so daunting it's almost laughable. Still, when you've seen a tiny child eagerly embracing a device that lets her write, draw, figure out math, and eventually find an answer to any question she might ask, it's hard not to feel the excitement of the moment, or its revolutionary potential. We're talking about leapfrogging over massive infrastructure limitations to unleash what Kim calls "the only real renewable resource" — the inventive spark of 1 billion children. "They're creative, these children," he says, "no matter where they are."

Logan Bailey, Madison Richardson, Oscar Soto
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
Logan Bailey, Madison Richardson, Oscar Soto (Click for slideshow)

Anya Kamenetz is the author of the new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

From Left: Angel Taylor, 6, Jose Becerra, 7, and Julissa Munoz, 6. | Photograph by Danielle Levitt

Add New Comment


  • secure socket layer info

    The huge disconnect in this article is the idea that just because these mobile games have the illusion of choice, it puts kids in "the driver's seat", and "unlocks creativity." Anyway, thanks a lot for sharing your ideas and thoughts to us.

  • Manav Kamboj

    The mobile devices that render themselves best to learning are the new gen smartphones. As of now they are out of reach for the majority of kids in Africa or for that matter India which is in a much better place when it comes to mobile connectivity and penetration.
    I completely agree with Anya on the potential of learning through mobile devices but am yet to figure out how we can take it to a 5 year old in Sierra Leone. Whether a $100 device will address the problem or the tipping point is at a lower price is something that we still don't have an answer to. Recently read somewhere that an Indian Minister launched a $35 tablet that could be used for similar purposes. But based on my understanding of technology as it stands today, we are nowhere close to a $35 hand-held device which has sufficient computing power to run even a basic learning applications.
    Philanthropy alone cannot feed the world's poor or educate the illiterate, but enabled with technology we can do wonders. The innovation is happening with the high end customer in the mind; iPhones, iPads, Android devices and so on.
    I read "Fortune at the bottom of the Pyramid" a second time recently and realised that mobile phones present us an outstanding opportunity to make business sense out of making technology solutions for the poor. Only if we could direct some energies at innovating for them.

  • Tom Weaver

    Some of the comments here make it sound like technology and education are being brought together for the first time.

    It's worth remembering that computers have been in our schools now for more than thirty years (I'm remembering in particular, the BBC Micro we used to have in the UK). Four things have changed: (1) they've becoming vastly more cheap, which has (2) brought the pupil:computer ratio down from hundreds:one to nearing 1:1. And (3) the way we interact with them has become increasingly intuitive and (4) the range of educational software has dramatically increased, particularly with the rise of very cheap Apps via the iPhone.

    So although we refer to this generation of Western kids as the Digital Natives (or perhaps the iGeneration?), growing up in a world where they have never known what it is to not be digitally connected, using technology per se in education is not new.

    It is true that sometimes it does not help - see this article from a schools project in the UK ( - but that can often be about spending on the wrong things (eg. smart whiteboards without the teacher training to go with it, or used as glorified projectors rather than to support learners) - as opposed to the use of technology per se.

    I've seen some primary schools use it brilliant to grow and develop confidence of presenting in front of peers. I know a secondary school project in Wolverhampton ( very well that has had stunning results in raising reading age, attainment and attendance through mobile learning.

    This is merely the next stage of that natural progression. What is most interesting and exciting is that technology allows us to put more control of learning in the hands of learners, which studies on motivation by Deci et al. show to be crucial for building deep learning experiences that build understanding rather than just memory.

    Yes, as Dr Maingard says, teachers need to be equipped. But the best teachers I've seen have been those who got their learners to show them what their devices were capable of. Seeing young learners build an animation of plants growing in their biology class on their ultra mobile pcs, narrating over the top of it and exchanging ideas, researching more when they needed to find something out... this was not about the teacher incorporating the technology, but the learners unleashing the technology.

    Tom Weaver

  • joseph uliano

    Not So Fast.....Company.

    Hold on, are those two, three year olds on your cover holding iphones? I’m sure you are aware of the studies that are pretty conclusive in regard to the harmful effects of cellular phones and children. The cover might as well have two children in the 50’s holding cigarettes up for Phillip Morris. The mobile phone industry is targeting children with new mobile apps and held held gaming and entertainment. It’s a huge business future. It is up to parents obviously to handle their children responsibly, but those of us in the tech business, know better. The cell phone is the new cigarette and we will see all the effects in the future. So while I love technology and have an app for our brand and create apps for other brands, I personally think that parents should put down their own phones long enough to teach their children the ABC’s rather than just handing off the radiation yielding electronic nanny to teach, while they twitter about themselves. Come on guys, really????? three year old twins with cell phones is your cover, maybe I will gift you a subscription to GOOD magazine or better yet get you an ethics app. Love your magazine, really question that cover.

    Children's heads most at danger from mobile
    phone radiation
    Children's heads are most at danger from mobile phone radiation:
    Children’s heads absorb up to 50% more mobile phone radiation than adults’ heads because their ears and skulls are smaller and thinner
    When a five year old uses a mobile, the radiation permeates 50% of the brain (on the side to which the phone is being held). This figure reduces to 30% for ten year olds. In adults only a small area around the ear is penetrated
    The study by Utah (US) University’s Professor Om Ghandi confirmed previous findings.

    Mobile phone use 'raises children's risk of brain cancer fivefold'
    Alarming new research from Sweden on the effects of radiation raises fears that today's youngsters face an epidemic of the disease in later life

    By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

    Joseph Uliano
    CEO, Gorgeously Green

  • Kerry McGuire-Balanza

    As both a techie and a mother I was really excited about this article and the potential that technology has to help drive education forward. I have been amazed at how quickly my kids have adopted and applied technology to learning. Plus having worked at the heart of the mobile industry I can support the notion that low cost devices with intuitive interfaces can really change what is possible. But as the article rightly points out creating scale will require even lower cost devices that can bring deliver great content and engage kids. On that front we are seeing the start of some real exciting developments in the ARM world of technology. We now have partners that are developing fully HD compatible tablets targeting sub $100 - Marvell just recently announced their efforts. So in my opinion things are looking pretty good on the technology front - it's up to all of us to keep it going.

  • Bennett Marks

    Interesting conversation my friends.

    First, I would like to say that the "interactive" piece of the Smartphone, Laptop or I-pad for that matter, is a significant step in learning dynamics for the human race.

    Any good teacher knows that in order to stimulate the creative centers in the brain and properly anchor the content, one needs to ask questions of the student that actually engage them in the curriculum. Otherwise, all we have is a talking head. Creative and Analytical process should be engaged for maximum learning - like turning on Baroque music in the background while studying - it anchors the content in a heightened way. These new devices have that capability.

    Secondly, when we talk about user defined content, or the analytics that Google has mastered, we can examine how people behave and what they are naturally drawn to. I believe this to be the next evolution in learning. Joseph Campbell (d), the great professor who once taught at Sarah Lawrence University, made a massive departure from high school in his early years because he couldn't hang with institutionalized learning. Instead he sought out only those subjects he was interested in and ended up possessing one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, not to mention his accolades with the university. It is important to "follow our bliss," as Campbell used to say, and user driven material provides this opportunity. I'm not saying replace the curriculum requiring math, english and science, but I am saying that a self-guided self-paced approach could be of great benefit to a majority of learners.

    The third point I would make is this - what may have once been a barrier for us as adults as new technology emerged, is part of the engrained fabric of our youth. They take on technology at a speed far greater than older people because they possess the learners mind. They are not afraid to get online and make mistakes - fart around with the new gadgets - or push the envelope of learning.

    We should indeed encourage this in our school systems; not only for the educational benefit, but also for the economic benefit - the economies of scale - the transition from institutional dogma to user driven content.

    B. Marks, MBA
    Honolulu, HI

  • Ash Edwards

    3 year old twins exposing themselves to cell phone radiation on the cover of Fast Company. Lovely.

  • Lisa Norris

    Fantastic that these children can interact and learn from a smart phone, but will they be able to interact with each other. From what I've seen in our school, I believe this has become a rather large problem. Children don't know how to interact with teachers, parents or other students. Just because they can problem solve and 'reason' with a computer, certainly does not mean they can problem solve and reason with a live human. If things do not work in their favor, there is generally not a happy ending! This is also occurring with adults more and more as well. We are quickly losing our ability to interact with one another in a civil manner - or have rational discussions or conversations.

  • Jon Bower

    Bravo for exploring the possible role of technology in education, but why did you focus only on a couple of small non-profits? This reads like a funding pitch.
    There are lots of fast companies out there building great education applications, selling them into schools and reinvesting their profits in further development. Because they have sustainable business models and they do outcomes research, they have long-term impact.
    Some great examples include Lexia and Headsprout in basic reading, Symphony in early math and Carnegie in higher math. My company, it's learning, offers an integrated learning platform that supports instruction on PCs, Macs, phones, XBox 360 and Wii offering far more access than cute blue boxes.
    Why isn't Fast Company writing about real companies that do well by doing good? There are lots of them out there!

  • Alan Degener

    As a middle school technology teacher I saw a technology gap and did something about it. Classroom response systems (clickers) are a great way to interact with your students and get real time feedback. But clickers are expensive and somewhat limited. It dawned on me that mobile devices (smartphones, iPod Touches, laptops, netbooks) would make outstanding "clickers" when connected via the web. So I built QuickieQ - - a webbased classroom response system. Sure, not all students have mobile devices today, but they will someday soon, and teachers need to take advantage of these as communications tools.

    In response to Dr. Maingard's comment about teachers being equipped, I built QuickieQ with the teacher in mind - simple and quick to learn and operate. Teachers aren't technophobic, they are just plain busy and new technologies must be easy to use, reliable, affordable, and they MUST enhance the classroom learning environment. Mobile devices in the classroom is going to require an education culture shift - it is a different way of doing business. My hope is that teachers see beyond devices as an Internet portal and use them to communicate directly with their kids via apps like QuickieQ.

    Alan Degener
    Floyd Dryden Middle School - Juneau, Alaska

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    @Christine & Angelo, do you have specific examples of where technology has hindered education?


  • Angelo Cisneros

    I agree with Dr. Maingard: what we risk ultimately is our ability to maintain capable and self-sufficient people if we supplement the educational process too heavily with technology.

    As a college student today, I have been a witness to increasing usage of blogs and electronic communications that are supposed to supplement the in-class experience. However, in my personal experience these efforts have provided very little benefit for myself in terms of the particular classes - however, having to perpetually blog has helped me to be able to quickly write a response to material of all sorts. So in sum, the inclusion of a blog is not all bad.

    Now to tackle the article, I agree that Sesame Street was able to take a medium which was seen as a "vast wasteland" and transform it into something that could provide educational content alongside the 'waste'. I think that ultimately the most important thing is the content itself, and not the medium. Whereas before the new media was television programming, today the new media are apps. In the former case, we saw innovation that provided educational programming, now we must wait and see if innovations in apps will provide similar educational content.

    Nevertheless, we must also take care to not forget the issue raised by Dr. Maingard, we must caution against using technology too much. Just as television programming like Sesame Street did not supplant in-class exercises and content, we must ensure the same happens with the smartphones/small computers and apps. They can be an aid in learning and studying, but they should not replace the core functionality of books and teachers in the classroom - especially until we have a more robust understanding of the gains and losses of increased use of technology in the classroom.

  • Christine Maingard

    What an interesting article! However, I am not sure that technology will unleash the inventive spark of 1 billion children. We may well be witnessing an educational revolution, but this transformation in the classroom also creates challenges that will have to be dealt with. To what extent will children become dependent on technology? How will they cope with information overload? How will this affect their ability to socially interact face-to-face. What about the kind of creativity that doesn't come from using technology, but from a clear mind and a mindful way of relating to the world at large?

    There is no question that technology isn't a great tool. It is! If used properly, it can be an invaluable tool for research, complex kinds of problem solving, collaboration with peers across the globe, creative writing projects, and so forth.

    The question is how will teachers be equipped to successfully manage the incorporation of smart phones and hand-help computers so that the sociological and psychological aspects of a successful curriculum are not short-changed? To intelligently integrate these technologies in the classroom (and beyond!) these are the sort of challenges that need to be dealt with urgently.
    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"

  • Sylvia Martinez

    The huge disconnect in this article is the idea that just because these mobile games have the illusion of choice, it puts kids in "the driver's seat", and "unlocks creativity."