Choosing the Right Mobile Learning Device

Choosing the Right Mobile Learning Device

Last week, even by my standards, was an EdTech overload. I spent a day at BETT 2013 and followed this up with a visit to The Brewery in London for the Apple Education Leaders Summit.

Aside from the fact that they were both free, the two events could not have been more different. One was chaotic, overwhelming in its size, underwhelming in its ability to inspire and poorly lit, the other was cool, calm, slick and intelligently indoctrinating. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which was which.

For all it’s faults, BETT was one of the better exhibitions I’ve seen at the Excel centre and it does give you a quick snapshot of what is out there right now. I was able to see all the tablets on offer, including a very interesting prototype device from Promethean, which has real potential in the primary market. What was evident immediately though was the lack of Apple’s presence. It’s hard to imagine how Microsoft’s Surface would hold up to a direct comparison with an iPad and I left BETT with the realization that there are a lot of teachers and directors of ICT who ma;y never have that opportunity. Because without this side by side comparison it’s just not possible to answer the most fundamental question when considering what you’re going to invest your money in:

Which device fits the needs of my school?

Is this the question people ask though? Do they simply look at the Surface and think, great, it has Windows and a USB port, i knowhow to work that, it is what I want. Or do they look at the iPad and think, great, I’ve got an iPhone, Apple is cool, the kids will love this.

It’s important to be as clear about your needs as possible before you go to an event like BETT because it’s so easy to be jollied along by a good salesman, or turned off by a bad one. Which mobile learning device to buy is probably one of the most important decisions anyone in your school is going to make in the next few years, with regards to teaching and learning. Not because the device itself will make students more or less clever, but because if you get it right, everything you do could change for the better.

If you choose the right device, students will be more engaged, attendance improves, learning is recognizably more independent and more thorough. Choose wrong and things won’t get worse, they will simply stay the same.

Whatever you think of Apple, they understand what is needed in the classroom to make positive changes happen. No, they’re not cheap, no they don’t make it as easy as it could be to integrate with your Windows environment or you plutonium-grade filtering system, but when you get the technology to work, you can really see results.

The reason for this is that they do exactly what author/speaker Simon Sinek suggests: they start with the WHY?

At the Apple Education Leaders Summit I found myself sitting in this classy venue, listening to motivated and engaging speakers constantly hitting me with answers to that question – Why Apple?

Whether the answer was ‘engagement’, or ‘results’, or ‘pedagogy’, they had an answer based in evidence and inspiration.

When I asked why the Microsoft Surface would be the answer to my classroom needs, I was told that it ran Windows 8 and had a USB port.

The Surface is a great product that IT departments are going to love, because it offers a solution that fits in with their current ecosystem.

As a teacher, as someone that wants to help move education on to the next stage of its journey, the ‘why?’ is important. The ‘why?’ needs to be more than a twist on the ‘what?’

As a teacher I don’t care if the device has a USB port, what I care about is that there is a workflow which means students can have access to their work whenever and wherever they are and that they can get that to me. Ports and sockets aren’t the only way to facilitate this.

There are a lot of different ‘why?’ questions that you might need to ask. The answer might be that you end up with a device you didn’t expect. The most important part of this process however is not 1 person in an exhibition hall, conference or shop floor thinking that they have found an answer; the answer can only come once you have put devices in the hands of staff and students and shown them (or had them show you) what that device can do for teaching and learning. If it becomes a centre-piece, it’s failed, if it becomes invisible, then you’ve got it exactly right. The device must facilitate good practice, it cannot replace it.

In no particular order, these are the criteria that I looked for when choosing the right device. On a physical level the device must allow:


  1. creating ebooks
  2. creating video
  3. creating presentations
  4. sharing of screens with peers and teachers
  5. printing
  6. making and curating notes in multiple mediums
  7. annotation of different mediums
  8. cloud-based storage and sharing of files


Most importantly, the device must be simple enough to use that it facilitates independent learning, whether there is a teacher to supervise this or not.

A good friend of mine (also a teacher) came over for lunch last week and he said to me that his school, like so many others across the western world right now, are in the process of making ‘the decison’ – what device and when? Actually that’s two decisions, and he wasn’t even quite convinced that mobile learning works yet. I thought he scepticism was refreshing. I’m often surrounded by people that are pushing an agenda; my device, my app etc is the best and you should use it.

He said to me that he had been on a couple of courses and no one had yet addressed what he believes to be the most important question – where’s the proof that this method works. Where’s the actual evidence that results are going to get better?

There are a lot of answers to this question.

The evidence is out there. But, the evidence is only out there for schools that were really struggling before they got the devices, so how much if the impact is about improved attitudes, confidence and feeling that if someone has given them this deivce that they are really investing faith and time in them? What about ‘ordinary’ or even ‘good’ schools where results aren’t an issue? Do students get that same buzz? Time will tell.

But there are other ways of answering this question.

Maybe we’ll find that results don’t get better. Maybe results don’t matter as much as the fact that you’re not ‘deskilling’ them; we’re not sending them off into the world of work without the knowledge of how to work using these devices. In a few years time, certainly by the time the current generation are done with school, we/they will laugh about ‘desktop’ computers. They might well laugh at the concept of tablets too, but at least we’ll have pointed them in the right direction.

Legacy counts for a lot – we are always going to teach; the way we do it will and should change, and it’s important that the generations that pass through the hands of teachers see that they engaged them with skills and ideas that were put in place to help them. The fundamentals of science, how to spell, what happened in a certain year, the water cycle, these things will live on in ‘schools’ whatever they might be, but just because fundamental knowledge doesn’t change, doesn’t mean the way it is delivered should also remain static.


Mobile learning will prove itself to the non-believers, I feel very confident about that. But until then, you should know that beyond exam results, teaching is about preparing students for what comes next; like it or not, technology is a big part of the future and we should be helping make sure that those who will use it, design it and disrupt it, know what they are doing and why they’re doing it.
The time to introduce mobile learning is now. Which device you choose should be dictated by the answer to one question:
‘Does this device allow my students (no matter what their ability or learning style) to be exposed to the best, most inspiring content that I can think of?’


4 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Mobile Learning Device

  1. Hey! You’ve just written what I was planning to blog later this week! Seriously, I did want to discuss the ‘ no evidence yet’ point-and you make some great points in return. I think I would add, there is very little evidence, but if everyone sits around waiting for it, we will never have any! Go ahead and implement your mobile learning strategy, but plan it thoroughly and know what you want to achieve – and it may not come down to better results-there could be other benefits.

    1. Sorry Ros! Great minds and all that. You’re exactly right though, if we don’t get on and make a decision to try something new, then nothing will change and change is exactly what is needed.

  2. Thoughtful post!

    I have three comments.

    First, for all our talk of differentiation, universal design, and student choice, as educators we sometimes drift toward standardizing the device that students must use. We can’t let our adult device bias cloud the way we encourage students to leverage technology for powerful learning.

    Second, on university campuses across the world, students to a high degree self-select laptops for their device of choice for academic purposes. Bear in mind that this self-selection is done with minimal adult bias and in an environment of high-academic rigor. They may have a tablet in their dorms or apartments, but they bring their laptops to class.

    Third, standardizing the device isn’t as important as standardizing the browser or application. To minimize ragged time and to help with customary classroom logistics (especially with huge class sizes), a standard browser or a qualified set of applications can alleviate a significant amount of problems. Browsers are almost always free. Many applications are free.

    I love your focus on the learning and not the device. I also appreciate your thoughts on how technology amplifies our capacity to facilitate constructivist learning activities.

    1. Thanks for your comment Brad, it was really interesting. I agree with everything you said. My only argument is that free choice of devices works in a ‘free’ environment. At university students have a lot more choice of what they do, where they do it and how. I think maybe a schools position should be to train them up for this. At the moment we send them off with nothing but a pat on the back. If everyone has the same device at least teachers can help students develop the skills they need and an understanding of the workflow necessary to work effectively. Then, students will be ready to go and choose their own devices in a more meaningful way. And who knows maybe they won’t choose a laptop!

      Thanks again.

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