Teachers and M-learning: Needed changes in teacher preparation, training, and support

A plethora of research has been presented in the last few years which describes the great potential of mobile learning (m-learning), the use of mobile devices in academic instruction. While there are- and should be- debates as to the degree of benefit such practices offer, research has shown that m-learning has several benefits, chief among them a greater ability to customize and differentiate learning experiences, higher student engagement, anytime-anywhere learning, and a lower cost threshold as compared to desktops and other forms of instructional technology (Christensen, et al; Chiong & Shuler). Such promise, though, will amount to little change in educational outcomes if educators are not prepared to capitalize on it. If teachers themselves don’t understand the rationale behind and strategies for differentiating their instruction, there is little chance they will do so effectively for their students. If teachers don’t know the steps for creating a blog, podcast or other informational product, for example, then how can they guide their students through such a process?

There are, then, two different but parallel efforts which must be made in order for any education system, particularly ours here in the U.S., to progress to the point where it is ready to utilize m-learning and realize its potential. First, significant changes must be made to teacher preparation programs. Specifically, a much greater emphasis must be placed on helping educators learn to tailor instruction for different students with different needs. Also, teacher candidates must be coached in the explicit use of technology with students. While the modifications just suggested will hopefully help to develop a more modern and more effective generation of teachers for the future, it does nothing to address the current teacher workforce. Therefore, a dramatic effort will need to be put forth in order to aide existing teachers in developing an understanding, appreciation, and desire to use m-learning with their students. In crafting that effort, however, reformers and policymakers need to take into account what research has taught about us about successfully implementing change and use such knowledge to develop a plan which both respects and involves teachers as well as leads to more and more effective technology use by our students.

To begin, let us consider the need for educators to customize their instruction. This need arises from the amazing diversity which is present in the student body of the nation as a whole, as well as in any given classroom on any given day. Diversity takes many forms, however. One manner in which our classrooms show diversity is through culture and ethnicity. Beyond the obvious differences in primary language, culture and ethnicity can lead to a very important difference in students’ “participation strategies”, or ways of communicating. Gutierrez & Rogoff (2003) articulate how the forms of communication we are adept at is based on our cultural experience, stating, “Individuals’ background experiences, together with their interests, may prepare them for knowing how to engage in particular forms of language and literacy activities, play their part in testing formats, resolve interpersonal problems according to specific community-organized approaches, and so forth” (p. 22). When we consider what Evans calls the “unique heterogeneity” of American schools, we can understand the monumental range of communication styles that exist in our classrooms and how important it is for teachers to be able to make instruction meaningful for that range of students. Cultural diversity, though, is only one way in which our students differ from each other (p. 87). Learning styles is also something teachers must take into account. As Christensen, et al (2008) relay, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences provides a framework through which to understand diverse learning styles. Gardner’s theory explains that there are varied forms of intelligence, which provide varied skills, abilities and predispositions among individual learners. Within each of these intelligences, there are “different learning styles”, ways in which a student is predisposed to making sense of a certain type of content (p. 28). These differences among students have significant impacts on the way they learn. Educators need to be prepared to meet these differences with understanding, flexibility, open-mindedness and a toolbox of strategies which will allow them to facilitate learning for students of all participation and learning styles.

Sadly, research shows that teachers entering the profession do not – and feel they do not- have the expertise to make such differentiation. A study by Tomlinson, et al, demonstrated how teacher preparation programs focus on developing basic skills to “teach to the middle” as opposed to fine-tuning varied instructional strategies (1995). It’s not surprising, then, that we see in the observations of Holloway (2000), Dee (2011), and Christensen, et al that classroom teachers typically implement this type of one size fits all instruction. Thankfully, though, research has also shown us that incorporating an emphasis on differentiation in teacher education programs can have a dramatic impact. For example, Tomlinson, et al found that “even the modest intervention of a workshop raised pre-service teachers’ awareness of academically diverse learners and sustained their commitment to implementing practices to address those needs” (p. 88). Edwards, et al (2006) concluded the same. Dee offers specific recommendations for teacher preparation programs, arguing that, “Given the research results, it follows that teacher candidates need explicit instruction and guidance in implementing differentiation skills, strategies for remediation, in-depth understanding of IEP requirements, and they must intern with professionals well versed in such knowledge and who teach in inclusive environments. Additionally, teacher education programs must ask pre-service teachers to demonstrate course content in practicum experiences to ensure skills transfer to practice (p. 68)”. The need for differentiation in general is clear and it’s just as clear that such differentiation will not happen without a change to teacher preparation programs.

Coupled with moving to focus more on understanding differences among students and how to differentiate for them, teacher education must also emphasize developing a greater understanding of technology and its applications within an educational setting. Interestingly, recent research has shown that learning with and about technology helps teachers to incorporate differentiation into their instruction (Murphy & Lebens, 2009). This research by Murphy and Lebens shares the same conclusion as Christensen, et al, Chiong & Shuler, and Johnson, et al (2011): m-learning holds great potential for improving learning. How prepared, then, are teachers to take advantage of such potential? As in the case of differentiated instruction, it seems that teachers are not leaving their credential programs with the knowledge and attitudes necessary to utilizing m-learning. Johnson observed that “training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and school district professional development” (p. 5). A recent study by Koc & Bakir (2010) went further. It revealed that the majority of teachers leave their programs with a feeling that they need more instruction on using technology in their classrooms and describe frustration at not receiving the instruction they feel they need. Furthermore, their study revealed that while teachers feel adept at using basic tools such as word processing, slideshow presentation, and basic internet software, they do not have the experience and knowledge of using more advanced programs which allow them and their students to create more dynamic knowledge products. As Resnick (2002) argues, true digital fluency is the ability to create knowledge products, not just being able to find information, and this fluency is not being developed in credential programs.

Thankfully, there are a myriad of both research studies and anecdotal examples which show that, when properly trained, teachers enthusiastically and effectively use technology in their classrooms. For instance, Keengwe, et al (2009) relays the positive results and engaging instruction that came from a group of student teachers being given iPods and training as to how to use them with their students. Chiong & Shuler and Johnson, et al both share similar stories. In seeing the benefit that arises from technology use and from instructing educators in technology use, it is now incumbent upon researchers to examine how best to structure this instruction. While this is a field of research that is just developing, there have been some helpful findings in the last few years. Dexter, et al (2006) observed that content-area specific experience and practice in using technology was of great help to student teachers. This coincides with the work of Mishra and Koehler (2006), who, too, observed that content, as well as other aspects of educational context, are important factors to consider when teaching pre-service educators about technology use. We can see the same underlying concepts in Christensen’s argument for more contextualized research in education. The importance of context is shown in another regard by Hernandez-Ramos and Giancarlo (2004) who demonstrated the benefit of instructing teachers in technology use with real students in working classrooms as opposed to strictly theoretical work done at a university site. It must again be emphasized that these are mainly preliminary studies done in a nascent field of research, but it is heartening to see that such research has been initiated. Hopefully, such research will continue and, building upon such findings, the next generation of teachers will be better prepared to utilize technology, allowing their students their fullest and richest array of educational experiences possible.

What, then, should be done with the current teacher workforce (of whom- in the interest of full disclosure- this author is a member of)? Obviously, these teachers are well past the point of being in a credential program and will not benefit from the specific changes suggested above. Just as obvious, though, is the notion that students in these teachers’ classrooms deserve engaging instruction which is differentiated for their needs and utilizes technology and all of its potential. Without the luxury of a multi-year teacher education program, how can our education system help these teachers develop the necessary skills? Unfortunately, much of the response from the public, pundits, and policymakers alike has been frustration and anger at teachers for “not changing like they should”. As Evans (1996) notes, “The typical pattern when reform fails has been to blame teachers rather than designers” (p. 9). This sentiment is part of larger trend of blaming teachers for the failings of the U.S. education system, a disturbing trend which could (and for this author, recently did) become the focus of an entire paper on its own. However, let us keep our focus somewhat narrow and consider the push for greater technology use and more thorough differentiation by teachers and how that effort needs to take into account what research has taught us about successfully implementing change in schools. Obviously, the changes proposed by Christensen, et al and many others call for a significantly greater use of technology and more personalized instruction in schools, which will require substantial change by teachers. The public and policymakers must understand what research has shown us about barriers to change in any workforce, especially teachers. Evans (1996) does well to describe the loss of social status and accompanying decline in morale that has plagued American teachers over the last twenty years. Research shows us that with declining morale comes a decline in willingness to try something new and maximize one’s effort in doing so (Evans; Hall & Hord). Evans notes, “As their public image and social status decline, teachers’ self-esteem diminishes, too, and with it their sense of efficacy and their confidence. And as their perception of shared home-school partnership shrinks, so too does their appetite for sacrifice. In times of psychological deprivation … resilience and generosity dwindle, rigidity and self-concern intensify. And when reform asks teachers to undertake the hard work of radically altering their practices and beliefs, it is asking for generosity, flexibility and sacrifice” (p. 124). Research has yielded two observable and related principles of change: change invokes a sense of loss of past practices as well as a challenge to existing competencies. Both of these observed phenomena involve a lack of psychological safety on the part of the individual implementing a change, teachers in this case. Research about change has shown that psychological safety is vital to making teachers feel comfortable enough to try out a new practice. Evans explains that “To succeed at change, people must be free to fail at it, to explore, err, and try again without penalty” (p. 85). Contrast that need with the severe, test score-based punishment mechanisms fundamental to the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), arguably the most powerful education reform in recent American history. With threats of “program improvement” and state takeovers of schools looming over teachers’ heads, is it any surprise that they (we) would cling to old practices and not feel the freedom to experiment? Therefore, before proponents of m-learning can reasonably expect teachers to implement the changes they suggest, they must first understand the political climate teachers find themselves in and how this climate makes effective change much less likely. Thus, I would call on advocates of m-learning to incorporate such an acknowledgment into their arguments and, hopefully, begin to see advocating for teachers and for changes to NCLB as just as important as advocating for the changes they want teachers to make.

Even in a more supportive environment, however, there still exist barriers to change which must be addressed. One, and debatably the most important, is that change in schools requires significant new learning on the part of teachers (Evans; Hall & Hord). The research shared above offered suggestions how to- when given ample time- help teachers master these skills. A major impediment to current American teachers (as opposed to pre-service teachers enrolled in full-time credential programs) receiving the training they need is the little amount of time they have to spend on developing new skills. A study by the NEA showed that teachers in countries with more successful education outcomes spent significantly less time teaching in the classroom and significantly more time working on professional development than their American counterparts (Evans, p. 139). Koc and Bakir share that teachers currently in the workforce don’t receive the support they need in order to use technology well. Two recent studies, one by McGraw-Hill (2010), the other by the National Center on Education and the Economy (2010), both recommend that teachers be provided more and better training as well as more time for it (Paine, et al; Koebler). Reformers must acknowledge that more time for training is a systemic requirement, not a temporary need and, thus, it should become a systemic quality, not a temporary fix. Research also tells us that “followership”, more commonly called “buy-in”, on the part of teachers is key (Evans, p. 18). If a proposed change is going to be successful, teachers must believe in and be willing to go down that road. Going further, research also shows that “followership” is best developed by involving teachers in crafting policy about change (Evans). Lastly, if these ideas about change are followed, then hopefully the gap between reformer’s expectations and teachers’ frustrations will shrink. Let us avoid, however, grandiose claims that m-learning, differentiated instruction, or any single reform will suddenly solve all of our problems. Evans relays how much of the public’s displeasure with our education system arises from some of the unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) promises made by educators and policymakers in the past (p. 134-135). Reformers would do well to promote their proposals while somewhat tempering their promise. M-learning and differentiated instruction hold great potential, but research tells us that change is “a process, not an event” (Hall & Hord, 8). Hall & Hord write about the need for an “implementation bridge”: a long-term program of support for teachers implementing a change in their practice. This notion holds two important aspects: implementers of changes (teachers) need long-term support to make that change successful and that true success takes time (p. 11). The public should expect more, but accompanied by high long-term expectations, they needs to come a realistic understanding of short-term realities: change needs to come, but it cannot come over night.

In all, one can see many promises in the use of m-learning as well as challenges to its adoption. Clearly, the existing teacher workforce is not currently prepared to utilize m-learning, or to capitalize on one of its greatest potential benefits: facilitating differentiated instruction. If however, dramatic changes can be made to teacher education programs, then the next generation of teachers will be better prepared. Furthermore, if reformers can take into account what is known about principles of implementing change in schools and can give teachers the political and educational support they need, then hopefully the current generation of teachers, too, can capitalize on such promise as well.

I would now invite the reader to watch the following brief video to, in another context, understand the need for reform that is facing our schools.


Chiong, C., & Shuler, C. (2010). Learning: Is there an app for that? Investigations of young children’s usage and learning with mobile devices and apps. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Christensen, C., Horn, M., & Johnson, C. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dee, Amy Lyn (2011). Preservice teacher application of differentiated instruction. Teacher Educator, 46 (1), 53-70.

Dexter, S., Doering, A., & Riedel, E. (2006). Content area specific technology integration: a model for educating teachers. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(2), 325-345.

Edwards, C., Carr, S., Siegel, W. (2006). Influences of experiences and training on effective teaching practices to meet the needs of diverse learners in schools. Education, 126(3), 580-592.

Evans, Robert (1996). The human side of school change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gutierrez, K., & Rogoff, B (2003). Cultural ways of learning: individual traits or repertoires of     practice. Educational Researcher, 32(5), 19-25.

Hall, G., and Hord, S. (2011). Implementing Change. Boston: Pearson.

Hernandez-Ramos, P. & Giancarlo, C.A. (2004). Situating teacher education: from the university  classroom to the “real” classroom. Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 20(3), 121-128.

Holloway, John (2000, September). Preparing teachers for differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 82-83.

Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Haywood, K., (2011). The NMC Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Keengwe, J., Pearson, D. & Smart, K. (2009). Technology integration: mobile devices (iPods), constructivist pedagogy, and student learning. AACE Journal, 17(4), 333-346.

Koc, M., & Bakir, N. A needs assessment survey to investigate preservice teachers’ knowledge,   experience, and perceptions about preparation to using educational technologies. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 9 (1), 13-22.

Koebler, Jason(2011, May 25). U.S. Can Learn from Other Countries’ Education Systems. U.S.   World News and Report, online posting.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M.J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: a framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

Murphy, J., & Lebans, R. (2009). Leveraging new technologies for professional learning in education: digital literacies as culture shift in professional development. E-learning, 6(3),  275-280.

Paine, Dr. Steven L., et al (2011, March). What the U.S. can learn from the world’s most successful education reform efforts. McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. 14 July 2011 < http://www.mcgraw-hillresearchfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/pisa-intl-      competitiveness.pdf>.

Resnick, M. (2002). Rethinking learning in the digital age. In G. Kirkman (Ed.), The global information technology report: Readiness for the networked word. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Tomlinson, et al (1995). Preservice teacher preparation in meeting the needs of gifted and  otherwise academically diverse students. National Research Center on the Gifted and   Talented.

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