Skip navigation

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.

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

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.