It should come as no surprise to parents that as "smartphones" (cell phones with advanced capability such as Internet and full keyboard) become more popular, the number of children with access to mobile technologies is also increasing.

Carly Shuler, a Cooney Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and author of the report Pockets of Potential, estimates that almost 20% of children aged 5 to 7 use a cell phone.  Younger children, she says, are also getting in on the act. “It’s very common to observe what we call the ‘pass-back’ effect, where the parent passes their own device to the child," says Shuler. "And it makes sense - parents’ devices like phones have always been amongst children’s favorite ‘toys’, and as the devices become more functional for adults they simultaneously get more fun for kids.”

One look at Apple’s iTunes App Store confirms this trend.  Not surprisingly, as the number of apps (short for "applications") for children has grown exponentially, so have the number of apps aimed at making kids smarter.  Currently, there are over 3,400 education apps available for download at the iTunes store, with a large number of them targeted for children between the ages of two and five.  Shuler notes that the top selling iPhone education app continues to be Wheels on the Bus and that “13 of the 20 top paid apps in this area are clearly child-directed.”   

Which leaves parents and educators asking one question:  Will smartphones make my kids smarter?  

While some might view smartphones as yet another digital distraction, Shuler insists that the potential advantages of mobile learning outweigh any disadvantages. “First, these devices are mobile and allow the parent to encourage anywhere, anytime learning," she says. "The second advantage is that, because of their relatively low cost and ubiquity, these devices allow educators to reach underserved children that are geographically or economically disadvantaged. The third is that these devices can encourage 21st century skill like communication and collaboration.”  

Most promising, though, is that mobile learning technologies enable a more personalized learning experience. Shuler points to a Sesame Workshop program called iRead (Interactive Reading Experience with Adaptive Delivery) which is funded under the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn initiative. The program, which combines classic footage from Sesame Workshop’s The Electric Company and newly designed interactive games, uses student’s DIBELS scores to create individualized interventions where “each student is evaluated on their reading and gets a personalized ‘playlist’ of content that targets their individual reading challenges.”   

Still, some parents and educators are bound to be skeptical.  At this point, however, Shuler maintains that mobile technologies are here to stay. “These devices are a part of children’s lives today whether we like it or not, so we might as well be using them for good," she says. "Mobile devices aren’t going to solve our education crisis, but they are another tool in the toolkit that, if used properly, can enable meaningful learning experiences.”

Nabeel Ahmad, who teaches a class on mobile learning at Teachers College, Columbia University agrees: “At the end of the day, a lot of people focus on technology as being a solution as opposed to part of the process.” Instead, he suggests that parents and educators “look at the deficiency we might have, the process we want to improve, and then ask how can we use technology--in this case mobile technology--to help improve that process.”  As an example, he points to one student who is interested in using mobile technologies to create a curriculum for deaf education.

The greatest advantage of mobile learning according to Ahmad, however, is the instantaneous access to information that mobile technologies provide. Phones using the Google Android software platform, for example, now have barcode scanning which enables users to get instant information about products and services.  While this capability is primarily used in commercial settings at the moment, Ahmad envisions a day when the capability could be used in both formal and informal learning environments. Imagine a time, for example, when students on a field trip can simply scan a barcode next to a monument or place of interest and and have a wealth of information appear at their fingertips.

For parents and educators who aren’t sure what kinds of apps or podcasts are best for kids, Shuler recommends using the “Three C’s” approach originally proposed by journalist Lisa Guernsey to evaluate children’s media:

  • Content – What is the basic premise of the app? How is it designed?  Is it research based?  Is it age appropriate?  Does it come from a trusted source such as Sesame Workshop?  There are a few great resources to help parents evaluate content, such as Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review.
  • Context – Who is interacting with the child? How do parents talk about what's on the screen? Is the child learning through a game, then applying that in another activity? Is the child telling stories about what he or she has experienced?
  • Child – How much stimulation can this child take? What types of media trigger the most curious questions, playful reenactments, engagement and joy?  What is she missing out on by spending time on the device  – is she still exercising, socializing, and doing her schoolwork?

With a little common sense, Shuler believes that smartphones and other mobile devices can be useful learning tools for children of all ages:  “Just as Sesame Street introduced children and their families to the potential of television as an education medium two generations ago, today’s children will benefit if mobile becomes a force for learning and discovery in the next decade.”