Supporting Students with Mobile Devices
Sept 12, 2021
Check out this podcast featuring me – overly talkative because I’m passionate – CEO of Hello PLATO Rachel Fisher with Monica Burns, Ed.D, the founder of a popular blog and resource site: Class Tech Tips on the topic of supporting students with mobile devices.
Would you rather READ THE TRANSCRIPT of “Supporting Students with Mobile Devices“? Yeah, we hear you. Gotta mix it up between reading, listening, and watching, right? We’ve provided the full transcript below.
Monica (HOST): Today, I’m excited to have Rachel Fisher join me for this episode of the podcast. We talk about all things mobile and she shares some interesting insights on what learning can look like when students can log in from anywhere. She also sent along some useful research and information on using mobile devices with students and I’ve included all of those links in the shownotes for today’s episode. Let’s dive into today’s episode on the importance of supporting students with mobile devices and this conversation with Rachel.
Monica (HOST): Welcome, Rachel. I am so excited to have you on the podcast – The Importance of Supporting Students with Mobile Devices – today. Can you start off by sharing a little bit about your role and your background in this space?
Rachel: Well, thanks so much for the kind welcome, Monica. Really excited to be here today and happy to share a little bit about my background. I tell people I’m a scientist turned teacher turned entrepreneur. I started my life wanting to be Jane Goodall and sit out in nature observing animals, and I went pretty far down that path before I decided that I wanted to study more things than just one thing, which science is very singularly focused. And so what I did in the next phase of my career was teach. Teaching science was something that I’d always done prior, and I returned to that love, although way before the time when we were focused on supporting students with mobile devices!
Rachel: For a couple years I taught middle school science, and then I got called into entrepreneurship by family members who started a business that was very focused on teaching and curriculum and training and facilitation. We worked heavily with government agencies and non-profit organizations. And over time, that evolved into our first business, which was EDTRAININGCENTER. We provided online continuing education, professional development, and onboarding for staff who worked in the K-12 space. Fellow teachers like my former self, as well as everybody else. The bus drivers, the folks that work in food service, the school nurse, whoever it might be that worked in that environment. So I’ve been in online learning and have been in the K-12 space for quite a long time.
Monica (HOST): I love hearing that story, and just that your background that brought you to even our conversation today around this importance of supporting students with mobile devices. And we’re talking both from a teacher perspective, you and I both having spent time in a classroom working with students. I know in my case, some of that was before every student had access to different tools in a classroom, let alone what they may or may not have had access to at home. But many students do have access to a mobile device like a smartphone when they’re outside of the classroom. And I’m curious with your experience in the online learning space, have you found that students tend to gravitate towards using a smartphone over a computer?
Rachel: Yes. Often, it appears that they do, even when they have a choice. There are studies that have been done and surveys. And often, students are asked, why do you like your phone if you have this nice laptop that you could be working with? And the phone is just their everyday device of choice. They’re always on it and it’s very comfortable for them. So, it’s not that the laptop’s uncomfortable, it just feels a little clunky compared to the smaller device that they carry around and they do everything. They tend to like that. And there were studies that showed that during the pandemic, over 70% of students were doing the bulk of their schoolwork on the phone, given the choice, and given the opportunity.
Rachel: And of course, there’s things where mobile’s not ideal. And one of the challenges and reasons that we built Hello PLATO is that EdTech, and particularly online learning, has not been built to be mobile native. Prior to COVID, EdTech and online learning were built primarily for what I would call the luxury sector of learners – those of us that have high speed internet at home, that have devices like laptops or very high-quality tablets, which are mobile, but expensive generally. Not everybody had those devices. And what schools concentrated on, and the EdTech providers that created software concentrated on, was in school, you have a high-speed broadband connection. The work that our country did to wire up schools was a 20-year concentrated effort and schools are heavily wired now. And to get devices into those classrooms which were typically desktops, and then now laptops, and now lots of Chromebooks.
Rachel: But the ecosystem they were focused on was the school, not the home. And so COVID now has made it really apparent, for everybody who didn’t know before, that the home environment may not have those high-speed internet connections and desktops and laptops available. Students seem to prefer their phone, given choices. But also, not every student has a choice. It’s on the providers of the educational technology to find ways to work with mobile because students have it and they like it. That’s our perspective on it and why we believe that it is so important to focus on supporting students with mobile devices.
Monica (HOST): I would imagine. It’s such a great point, what you said about just the emphasis being placed on setting up schools for success, for connectivity, and resources and energy being placed in that, and not just in a short-term, but over multiple decades. Just this idea that even without the shift to at-home learning that we saw this past year and a half, that interrupted connectivity that can happen when a student leaves even a school site to go home or to go to an afterschool program or somewhere else, I would imagine that in addition to some of the mobility or the preferences that students have, some of it must be because of interrupted connectivity or just the logistical constraints. Have you seen that in some of your conversations too? That students feel like, yes, I prefer this when I have an option? But sometimes that option, I would imagine, might not even be there for them.
Rachel: Yeah, exactly. There was research that was really solid done by a variety of organizations, but Common Sense Media came out with Digital Divide, and they’ve been focused on this topic for a while pre-COVID. Pre-COVID, there were kids who were going to wifi-enabled buses in their area because they lived in rural areas, for example, and gathering together and sitting in their car if they could get there. So COVID made it really apparent. And we know now that there are somewhere between 15 and 17 million kids that have either device or connectivity restrictions, although it’s mostly connectivity. Again, they have mobile devices, that’s why finding a way of supporting students with mobile devices is so important.
Rachel: A lot of money looks to be coming schools’ way, both in the form of ESSER funds and some of the money that may come with the infrastructure bill with the Biden administration. And that will help those sorts of things, the beefing up of funds for FCC programs for families that have the socioeconomic needs, that will really help with the socioeconomic need in areas where the infrastructure does exist. But in rural areas where the infrastructure does not exist yet, there’s still going to be a time gap here for us to lay wires and build towers and those sorts of things. And so what do students do in the meantime who aren’t connected? And that’s why Hello PLATO is a mission-driven organization in addition to being a really cool teach-by-texting tool.
Rachel: If you’re one of the fortunate students or fortunate teachers in a school that is well connected with homes that are well-connected and you have every device available to you, your students are still going to like learning by texting and learning using the phone that’s in their hand. They like that. But what’s equally important is for the two kids in your class or three kids in your class who don’t go home to connectivity, they can use this and enjoy it too.
Rachel: And here’s the big thing for a teacher. This is what I should probably tell teachers first. You don’t have to prepare a paper set of this homework separately from the quiz that you’re giving the rest of the kids through their computers, because all your kids can do this through their phones. So not having to prepare two homework assignments, the online and the offline, is nice. And a lot of teachers see this as beneficial for quick exit tickets as well. We keep hearing this. “This would be a great way to do quick exit tickets with my kids in class,” which we were not expecting at all. There’s a lot of applications for this, from “this is cool and this is fun,” to “this is a way for me to easily get rapid info from my exit tickets t0o”, and “I know this is going to reach all of my kids, even the ones that only have a cell phone connection at home.” That’s our take on why it’s important to focus on supporting students with mobile devices.
Monica (HOST): Nice. All those things you said, Rachel, are just so important to consider about gathering information from students, providing opportunities for them to be part of a conversation inside of a classroom, but also that extended piece. As much as it is encouraging to see some of the resources being placed, there is that time gap, right? So there is this need in the short term that might not be met with some of these bigger decisions coming down the line. So that idea, that ability, I should say, to leverage mobile devices is really crucial. I know from some of the data you’ve shared with me too, the number of students who do have that ability to participate in something that’s maybe SMS based or text message based, or relying on a cellular connection as opposed to the wireless piece. So there’s just a lot there to unpack.
Monica (HOST): And so before we dive into Hello PLATO a little bit more, because I want to make sure that we unpack what some of those pieces look like or what options teachers have, I would love to hear just about mobile devices more generally. Are there things that students can access on a mobile device? Maybe there are some things they can do just on Android or just on iOS. I’m curious as to what experiences you’ve seen kids have besides… And I was on TikTok this morning, so I’m in no position to toss anything aside. But what experiences or resources can kids access on different types of mobile devices?
Rachel: Well, the operating systems of all smartphones now, whether it’s a very affordable version of an Android phone versus your highest end iPhone, are super powerful. So as long as you have access to wifi and a higher speed internet connection, they can access anything, pretty much, on a mobile device. The limitations [besides connectivity] are really around screen size. Is the thing that you are interacting with on a smaller screen negatively impacted by the fact that it’s a smaller screen? And to some degree, if they’re using tablets or some of the in-between, a little bit more tablety kinds of things that are still around, that can be mitigated.
Rachel: But the thing I’d like to say before I go into more of what they can access or can’t access is, as a teacher, one of the things that I found frustrating whenever we discovered new ways of doing things or explored new ways of doing things is we would immediately decide that the old way of doing things had to be tossed out. Instead of saying, well, what value was there in the old way of doing things? And does this new thing bring that same exact value and just replicate it, or is it different? Because if they’re different, maybe they both have value. And as a teacher, I want to employ all the tools that are available to me. So while there are drawbacks in some scenarios to being on the smaller mobile device, there are advantages. And as a teacher, what you want to think about and work with your colleagues and your learning teams and professional development teams on is, when do I use this tool and why?
Rachel: One of the reasons for using mobile is because your students have it and they like it. And that is a pretty good reason for using something because we know student engagement is the gold we’re all going for, is to keep them interested and excited. So doing that, using the things that they like and they have, is really important. But it won’t be ideal in every situation. I know some parents are very concerned about screen time, and they’re concerned about the distractions of that kind of device. If the device isn’t locked down and a student can be midway through homework and get sucked into TikTok instead, or Snapchat, what about that?
Rachel: The truth is that there’s great research that shows that all in, net net, when you look at children’s screen time, that even when they have access to the distractions and they have access to those other types of things in addition to the educational things, there is a net benefit because they enjoy it and they spend more time. And that overall, kids spend a lot more time learning things and exploring things that are valuable to them than we would ever suspect. We think it’s all trash. And actually, they go learn a lot of really important things.
Rachel: That’s why children that don’t have the connectivity and don’t have the online devices suffer a negative effect. If the distracting toy was so bad, then they should see academic benefits of not being connected to the distracting toy. And instead they don’t, because the kids that have the connectivity, they do go explore educational resources. They do go teach themselves. They spend tremendous amounts of time on YouTube learning new things. And some of it might be a makeup tutorial or how to plank or [inaudible] I’m so old now. I’m showing how old I am. But they may be looking at those silly things, but they also look at all kinds of really, really educational things, which is why they are so sharp and informed these days.
Rachel: They can access almost everything, good or bad, on their mobile devices. With low connectivity, that’s the barrier. A lot of the EdTech tools right now, there’s different reasons why there’s barriers. It may just be too heavy to really download and work. It may be that they’ve built a mobile app, and aspects of the app work, but when you really have to get that backend application, that’s that bigger software application it’s attached to to work, it’s slow or it doesn’t fit the screen well, it’s not responsive. It wasn’t built to be mobile in the first place the way text messaging or WhatsApp was built to be mobile in the first place. There can be real problems with it working well if it wasn’t really native mobile build in the first place. And then with low connectivity, you add to that problem with slow load times and that sort of thing.
Monica (HOST): There’s just so much to unpack there, Rachel, about what it means to have access to a device. And just that ability for someone to go out, for students to learn about something that they’re interested in, go out searching for something, in addition to or right next to some of the more academic experiences that we might be thinking first when we jump into this conversation. I know you mentioned just some of the how-to videos, the things you might search for or look for or find. And just to be able to set up students for success in these spaces that they’re able to have that connectivity, that they can go out and look for things that they’re interested in, and just build these muscles in these digital spaces that they can apply in different ways. So such just great gems there and reminders, even just knowing that there may be things that we pick out to share with students that are not going to be mobile friendly. But is there another option if we know that that’s the primary mode, the way that they’re interacting with content? So just so many great, great tips there.
Monica (HOST): I want to talk a little bit and ask you a little bit more about Hello PLATO, which you mentioned. And if there’s listeners who saw my blog posts from earlier this summer featuring the platform, they already have a little bit of background. And I’ll make sure to link to that blog post in addition to some other resources in the show notes today. But what exactly does Hello PLATO do; how can someone get started using this platform?
Rachel: Well, thank you. I can’t wait to share about Hello PLATO. It was fun doing the blog posts with you. So Hello PLATO has a really simple FREE creation tool for teachers to create lessons or quizzes. This is ideal, as I said earlier, for something like an exit ticket or a formative assessment, or maybe flipping your classroom and doing a little pre-lesson the night before. So small things in class, homework, practice, it’s great for that. Test prep, those kinds of things.
Rachel: You create a lesson or activity using the creator tool. And then the way that your students are actually going to engage with and access your lesson is using WhatsApp. So the WhatsApp messaging application. It works just like text messaging. You download the WhatsApp application. That’s free. And it’s a highly encrypted application as well, so it’s got a lot of security around it, which is always comforting to teachers and parents. And students will add our phone number as a contact very simply. There’s a Hello PLATO phone number, it’s on our website. And once you add that, then you can start chatting with our learning assistant, PLATO. So students will chat, hello or hey or hi or start. It’s just like saying Alexa or okay Google. And PLATO will wake up and start chatting with the student.
Rachel: It will ask for information from the student, and one of those things it’s going to ask for is the code that goes to the lesson or activity that you created as a teacher. So all you have to do is distribute those codes to your students, and they will be able to engage with that lesson, which means a student can go home… It can be in your class. You can do an exit ticket in class. But they can also go home with a code as their homework assignments for the night, and just say hi to WhatsApp, and PLATO will wake up and prompt them for that code. And then there they are, getting a lesson from you.
Rachel: So maybe your lesson is about participles because you are an English teacher and you’re doing a grammar section. And it’ll say, “Do you want to complete the activity participle party?” Because that’s what you called it as a teacher. And the student says yes, and then they start engaging. As a teacher, you can add images and video clips and text and emojis and questions. True/false, multiple-choice, multiple-response. So you can really build a nice little lesson or quiz. And that student is experiencing that on their phone as a text experience back and forth. But you get all that data, as the teacher, on your dashboard. You have a nice, lightweight browser-based app. So you just log into that and you’ll be able to see which of your students completed it, what score they got, how long it took them, what they got right, what they got wrong. So it’s just a really nice lightweight little learning tool that’s built into your students’ phones.
Rachel: And you mentioned, Monica, having access to a phone. Even pre-COVID, access to a smartphone was very high in the US. Particularly, we’re talking about middle school and high school students. I will say, we aren’t really trying this so much with elementary school students because there is a literacy component to it, and also access to phone component to it. But for middle and high school students, access, and even increasingly, ownership of their own phone is pretty ubiquitous. But even if a student didn’t own their own, access is super high. And the nice thing is you could borrow a phone from mom or dad for 20 minutes and complete a homework lesson, and your teacher has all of that data. All the more reason to focus on how we can be supporting students with mobile devices…it’s what they already have available to them.
Rachel: And then PLATO is artificial intelligence. So over time, PLATO is going to learn and be able to make suggestions to teachers. That surface information about student engagement, about student progress, about their content and its performance. Are there questions that every kid got right? Are there questions that every kid got wrong? Maybe we need to look at those questions and how those questions were built again. Can we make suggestions for how to build questions? So those are all things that PLATO will grow to do and increasingly serve as a support system to the teacher and students over time.
Monica (HOST): Lovely. All those pieces that you mentioned, the ability to give students something where they’re really set up for success. They can use it on a variety of different platforms they have access to. Teachers are able to gather information really in real time to make decisions for what they’re going to do the next time everyone’s together, whether that’s in an asynchronous or self-paced distance learning environment, or whether it’s everyone together in a classroom. So just a lot of things there that I think make it very doable. I like how you said, the lightweight, I think was the term that you used to describe that this is something that is not going to be a heavy lift, but it’s definitely going to pack a punch, and just making sure that students can access all of this content.
Monica (HOST): I want to make sure everyone knows where to go to learn more about this work. I’ll, of course, put links in the description. So anyone, as you’re listening now, if you’re on the go, maybe not driving or on a treadmill, but if you’ve got your phone nearby, you can expand the description and you’ll see the links that we’re talking about. But Rachel, where should people go to learn more about Hello PLATO?
Rachel: Thanks so much. One of the things I want to make sure teachers know is that this is free to you as teachers. We are eventually going to have a pro version, and schools and districts that they want to do it on a larger scale, we’ll have a paid version. But for you as a teacher, just go try it, and it’s totally free. We also have an incentivized pilot. So for teachers who want to do our, we say DIY, except that we’re totally here to help you, so you can do it on your own but you don’t have to. We can help you as well. If you want to try our pilot as well, just go to helloplato.com. Information about the pilot is helloplato.com/pilot. Very simple. If you go to either one of those pages, it will have buttons there to lead you to our login page so you can create an account and get started creating activities in Hello PLATO immediately.
Monica (HOST): Well, that’s so wonderful. I’ll put all the information for people to be able to find and try out Hello PLATO for free as a teacher. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Rachel, for being on the podcast today.
Rachel: No problem. Thank you so much for having me, Monica. It’s been a lot of fun.