There is an interesting article in this month’s Fast Company magazine about how smartphones and hand-held computers are sparking an “educational revolution” with today’s youngins. Apparently, kids as young as THREE years old are able to figure out iPhones quicker than you can say, “Hey, how’d my cell phone bill get so high?”
The part of this report that really caught my attention: To take advantage of this natural aptitude, a technology lawyer turned social entrepreneur, Seth Weinberger, has created a hand-held computer called the TeacherMate, whose design, quality software and ability to connect with all the right audiences — kids, teachers and technologists — is making educational futurists totally giddy.
The low-down: The TeacherMate runs full-color educational Flash games on a platform partly open to volunteer developers worldwide, and it can record and play back audio. Kids report liking it better than their — GASP! — PlayStations, while teachers appreciate having a tool that allows them to track kids’ progress by downloading a record of their game play (games selected by the teacher who sets the precise skills, levels, and allotted time for the upcoming week) and gives the kids a feeling of freedom to be able to choose from these pre-selected games (which also sneakily educate them).
Most important, says one teacher named Kelly Flowers (awesome name), the TeacherMate works. She privately sorts her kids into three groups based on their reading skills — green (scoring at or above grade level), yellow (borderline), and red (underperformers).
“This year, with TeacherMate, I started with 11 greens, 2 yellows, and 7 reds. By the middle of the year, I had just 2 reds. I can move a red to a yellow on my own, but this is my first year moving a red directly to a green. I’ve never seen that much growth in that short a time.”
Flowers’s observations are backed up by preliminary University of Illinois research that suggests that reading and math scores in classrooms with TeacherMates are significantly higher than in those without.
Huh. How ’bout them apples?
TeacherMate devices are also cheaper and more durable than laptops, and teachers found their smaller size proved less distracting in class. Moreover, kids seem to intuitively understand how to use the simpler machines.
“We encourage teachers not to do any pretraining,” Weinberger says. “Pass them out, turn them on, and have the kid start.”
So why aren’t such machines more commonplace in the classroom? Well, they present quite a shift in the way we currently approach education. The same possibilities that make these technologies so exciting — the sight of children pushing the buttons, controlling their own learning and their own destiny — also make them threatening to the educational status quo. As Fast Company notes, “a system built around tools that allow children to explore and figure things out for themselves would be radical for most developing-world schools, which emphasize learning by rote. In the United States, which is currently so in love with state curriculum benchmarks and standardized tests, it could be just as hard a sell.”
One other major downside: Renders the ol’ “dog ate my homework” excuse totally moot. Unless you happen to have an Irish Wolf Hound with a taste for small laptops.