Incredibly portable and simple to use, yet possessing the computing power and presentation ability to rival a desktop machine, tablets are tools that will aid education as no digital innovation has before, attendees were told at a conference on mobile learning in the United Arab Emirates.

An added message, though, was that educators that do not integrate the platform into curriculua and classes would soon find themselves left behind. “We can ignore technology and trends like Tower Records did, or embrace it and bring it in,” said John Couch, vice president for worldwide education at Apple.

Couch was among the speakers at the Annual Global Mobile Learning Congress 2012 at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, an event organized in conjunction with the unveiling of an ambitious plan by the country’s higher educational institutions to equip every student with a tablet, and deliver education through the devices.

At the start of classes in September, 14,000 students at The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), United Arab Emirates University and Zayed University received iPads to conduct coursework. HCT also sponsors a center in Abu Dhabi with the Wharton school, and Arabic Knowledge at Wharton.

Professors at HCT had noted that increasingly, the best way to reach their students was not even by e-mail, but rather text messages sent to their mobile phones. According to June statistics provided by telecom providers, the Arab country has a mobile phone penetration ratio of 155%, among the densest in the world. It was one reason why the colleges were investing in such a rollout, which they described as the “largest nationwide mobilization of mobile learning in higher education anywhere in the world.”

“Our students, along with other people their age, have been called digital natives,” said Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan, UAE Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, in a presentation at the event. “Technology is a natural and integral part of their lives. Smart teachers will partner with their digital natives in identifying and experimenting with ways in which the iPad might nourish the growth of an educated person. Faculty members must create and foster those partnerships.”

Mental Bicycle

Couch told attendees that the tablet device such as the iPad is a “mental bicycle” that can amplify the ability of a student to learn. “We look at technology as a tool, but they look at it as an environment,” he said. The objective in developing mobile learning as a platform, he added, was to “change the behavior of the classroom. Each student is uniquely gifted. We wanted to help them find that passion for learning.”

Couch recalled how earlier computing innovations didn’t affect education the way that his colleagues at Apple wanted. Computers didn’t change learning in classrooms, he said, because they were largely kept in separate rooms, and used only for a specific period of the day or research. Neither did laptops bring the desired change, he added, as again they were not utilized as a central tool for learning. “We knew we had to invest in a new platform,” he said.

The touch screen technology now widely used in mobile devices was first developed for an educational tablet, Couch noted, before Apple’s founder, the late Steve Jobs, decided it was to be more broadly applied. “The mobile world is truly transformative,” he said.

Demonstrating that notion was David Baugh, a teacher recognized by Apple as a distinguished educator. Baugh reviewed his experience taking iPads this summer to a remote mountain village in Nepal, part of an initiative called “School In a Box.”

Baugh showed how these rural students, who had never seen tablets before, were quick to learn how to use them in creative and surprising ways. Their education seamlessly expanded into multimedia, as they created video content and used graphical information to learn about their country, as well as math and English courses.

The challenge for educators is to learn to adapt as quickly, Couch noted, as the tablet device has spawned its own infrastructure of education applications and online learning initiatives, many of which are even being offered for free by top American universities at Coursera, including a course on gamification that is taught by Wharton associate professor in legal studies Kevin Werbach. Additionally, all executive education students at Wharton now receive iPads instead of textbooks. The tablet was already affecting the educational publishing industry in the United States, he added.

“It’s leading to a learning environment where the walls of classrooms are coming down,” Couch said, describing the current difficulties of students in the U.S. who are struggling with large debt after attending college, and schools without the infrastructure to support a mobile learning environment.

“We have faculty members that teach the same material, year after year. If all the faculty member is doing is distributing traditional content, not putting that in a relevant context, then why do I want to pay US$50,000 a year to go to that university, when I can access that same content free, from MIT, from Open University?”

Proper Application

It would be unfair to attack teachers for not applying mobile learning tools without showing them how to do so properly, said Ruben Puentedura, founder and president of Hippasus, a Massachusetts-based consultancy that focuses on learning technologies and education. “That’s why we need models,” he said. “Models provide structure. They provide ways to think about design.”

By asking how such mobile technology will affect their teaching, educators can see applications to enhance the learning experience, Puentedura said. For instance, a tablet can be taken into a field study environment. “Technology allows us to see data in different ways, to connect it in different ways, visualize it in different ways, and share it,” he added. “The change can be dramatic. You start thinking in ways you didn’t before. You start to look for nuance that wouldn’t have happened without technology.”

Puentedura suggested that teachers tasked with adding mobile learning to their classrooms do so at a gradual pace, phasing out older technologies, while first applying tablet devices to make some classroom tasks simpler and faster. Once a teacher is confident in the use of the technology and has seen good outcomes from its use, he said, she then would be able to redefine her practice entirely.

He added that the best practice was a combination of technology, content and pedagogy. “Not viewing any one of these as being the most important. Some say that it’s the learning that counts, and that technology is only the way to get there. But the research has shown the goals we want to accomplish can only be done with technology. It’s not just the way; it’s the way that allows us to get to the goals we couldn’t get to otherwise.”

Among the UAE colleges, the mobile learning initiative calls for faculty to engage in new learning outcomes over the next two years. The three schools have formed a consortium to push that goal, and promote faculty use of technology in their classes. One of the first steps the schools are taking will be to introduce “paperless classes,” that are being developed by the institutions, Apple and educational publishers including Pearson and Oxford University Press.

The colleges will also fit their classes with the infrastructure to support a mobile learning environment, and to further support faculty, HCT is launching a training center in mobile learning at its entrepreneurial arm in Abu Dhabi, CERT (Centre of Excellence for Applied Research & Training).

“With this emphasis on innovation in education we are ensuring our students will have the necessary skills of adaptability, information technology and analytical thinking so that they make important contributions to the United Arab Emirates and enable them to succeed in a changing world,” said HCT vice chancellor Tayeb Kamali.

Technology Or Engagement?

New technology means spending, whether buying new equipment, training, or altering curricula and even hiring new faculty. The students enrolled in the UAE tablet initiative paid US$627 for their iPad. Speakers at the conference, while praising the technology, raised concerns grounded in the practicalities of day-to-day teaching.

Peter Scott, director of the Knowledge Media Institute of the U.K.’s Open University, told attendees that fancy, costly technology was not going to be better for students without engaging them. “You start with great content, but it’s about great interaction,” he said.

Ed Grier, dean of the business school at Virginia Commonwealth University, noted that despite the discussion of technology disrupting traditional college models, an educator was still at the core of any classroom. “If you don’t have the professors and faculty involved in the process, mobile learning for mobile learning’s sake will not be successful,” he said.

To answer some questions regarding the efficacy of mobile learning, the technology does allow students to rate themselves and their learning, and give them goals to accomplish, said James Ashby, president of research and development at CORE, an Atlanta-based education consultancy.

Ashby gave the example of the multitude of apps now available that compare and rank a user’s performance against a shared cloud of data of others, and provide them with virtual badges for attaining levels and special accomplishments. “How can you leverage the cloud to harness student assessment then?” he asked.

Ashby also left the audience with some advice: “Don’t forget the dynamic of your classroom.”