In an effort to encourage collaboration and independent inquiry among students, a Graduate School of Education (GSE) program founded in 2005 has leveraged mobile devices to offer an interactive learning experience to 23,000 students in 25 countries.
The Stanford Mobile-Inquiry Learning Environment (SMILE) program, which permits students to use mobile devices to create, share and evaluate questions about educational topics, was founded by Paul Kim, chief technology officer and assistant dean of the GSE.
After visiting schools in the migrant community in Baja California, Mexico, Kim realized that the classroom system was similar to that of many American schools, with students memorizing material presented by teachers in lecture form.
“Most students around the world are not being given the opportunity to make their own inquiries,” Kim said. “This a common challenge in every classroom. Most of the time it’s a teacher-dominated class where students are not given enough opportunity to reflect on the content and principles that they find interesting.”
SMILE has been piloted in developed and underdeveloped communities around the world, with users ranging from elementary school children in rural India to students at the Stanford School of Medicine. According to Kim, SMILE increases student engagement and encourages collaborative work, which can be lacking in schools with curriculums that do not emphasize “higher order learning activities” like critical thinking, analysis, creation and evaluation.
“I was frustrated,” Kim said. “Why are we not updating the pedagogy in the classrooms when everything else is evolving and changing, and we have 21st century children with 21st century literacy?”
Kim has recruited Stanford students, such as Aaron Sharp M.A. ’11, to work on SMILE pilot programs. Sharp was involved with a program at Ellis Elementary School in Palo Alto and traveled to Argentina on a SMILE trip with Kim last August.
“The kids were excited and engaged,” Sharp recalled. “[They were] particularly excited about using phones in class, but also excited about the questions they were making and the fact that immediately their peers were reading their questions and answering their questions.”
Both Sharp and Kim emphasized the value of community support in the program’s success, especially in foreign or underdeveloped areas, with Kim describing SMILE’s partners as the “most critical component” in the program’s work.
“They are the ones that know about the community, the culture and the people there,” Kim said. “If they do not value whatever you present, no matter how innovative it may have been in your lab, they’re not going to appreciate it, and they’re not going to use it.”
Arafeh Karimi, a SMILE research assistant who also worked on the Argentina pilot, said that she became involved with the program after meeting Kim at a conference in 2010.
“The ecosystem that SMILE creates is very unique,” Karimi said. “It empowers the community to work on its own and allows kids—especially street kids—to see education in a different way—not just sitting down, working and memorizing.”
Especially in underdeveloped regions, SMILE has faced several significant challenges. At some schools, students lack books or teachers, and electrical power can suddenly become unavailable because of inclement weather. As a result, Kim has created several pilot versions that allow for the use of the program without Internet or electricity, including a SMILE plug-in that creates an ad-hoc network for users.
Looking to the future, Sharp, Kim and Karimi said they aim to continue to improve SMILE technology and to make the infrastructure more easily accessible to students around the globe, as well as allowing students in different locations to collaborate through the program.
“Peers in the same classroom can use SMILE to evaluate and learn from each other within the community,” Karimi said. “But with global SMILE you can build bridges. Global SMILE would be communities teaching other communities.”