How smartphones are making us smarter

The mobile phone is ubiquitous in our lives, even to the point of helping us get smarter. Education for children and adults alike is just a touch of the screen.
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The Chinese, who were adept at using the abacus as early as the 2nd century BC, are rapidly embracing “machine brains” to educate the young in this modern era.

Today, the “e” in education is becoming the “e” in electronic devices.

For the young, e-learning seems so natural. Zhu Xufei, 12, uses her parents’ mobile phone to study English every day when she commutes between school and home. She uses an application recommended by an English-language training institute she attends.

Via the mobile, she can listen to and repeat back words and sentences in English. The app even measures the similarity between her speech and proper pronunciation, providing instant feedback.

It’s the big trend nowadays, especially with parents bent on trying to give their children a leg up in the competitive education stakes. WeChat accounts of parents routinely post progress reports on how their children are doing. A typical post? “Day 30: My son Thomas has learned 99 English words on Talking Pets.”

Qooco, a mobile learning solution provider in China, currently works with over 400 schools in China, facilitating English learning for more than 200,000 students. Liulishuo, or “fluent spoken English,” an app offered by online education company Hujiang, has been downloaded more than 36 million times from the app store of Huawei, a Chinese smartphone maker.

It’s not only children using mobile devices to learn new things. Many Metro or bus passengers can be seen with earplugs tuned into app courses ranging from business management to preparing for the drivers’ license test.

Jiakaobaodian, an app aiming to help users pass driving test, has been downloaded over 170 million times from Huawei’s store.

Experts say the ever-accelerating pace of study, work and lifestyle makes time for learning more fragmented, with bits and pieces absorbed as time permits. Mobile education has the advantage of allowing people to personalize their learning in a flexible way, providing specialized courses.

Sun Dan, a Shanghai office worker who is learning to drive, said Jiakaobaodian gives her valuable driving tips and information on traffic laws.

“I don’t have to carry books around and try to turn pages on crowded public transit,” she says. “With just a touch of the screen on my smartphone, I can do practice tests whenever I have time. The app also records my mistakes and makes it easier for me to review them.”

Tao Yingwen, the mother of 12-year-old Zhu, tells Shanghai Daily that the convenience and efficiency of education apps ease fears that the use of mobile devices might harm her daughter’s eyesight and give her sly moments to play digital entertainment games.

“The apps have enabled her to learn and practice spoken English anytime, anywhere because wireless Internet is always accessible,” she says. “The apps also have been designed to use games to stimulate learning.”

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A boy learns math on an iPad via a learning app.

E-learning has been welcomed by most companies offering education services.

 Zheng Lili, owner of an English training school, says the learning apps help teachers better monitor the performances of students.

“Under traditional methods, it’s often hard to see how children are doing,” she says. “But now, we can track their performance and the time they spend on lessons via the apps. It helps teachers develop their curricula.”

App education has proven so popular with parents and children that Qooco is expanding its business to adult education. It has developed products to train hospitality staff and is launching programs for those who want to work on cruise ships, according to David Topolewski, chief executive of the company.

A 2016 report by the China Internet Network Information Center said that nearly 60 percent of online education users access classes on their mobile phones. It’s a market with considerably more potential.

Globally, the mobile education market is expected to grow from US$7.98 billion in 2015 to US$37.6 billion by 2020, and China’s digital English-language education segment is forecast to top US$1 billion by 2020.

But can digital technology really replace traditional teaching?

Xiong Bingqi, vice director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, says the concept of education goes beyond just absorbing knowledge. It also involves social interaction and physical exercise – factors that can’t be duplicated on mobile devices.

“Many of the existing mobile apps in China are actually ntensifying the very trend we are trying to change – test-oriented learning,” he says. “They make it more convenient for students to take more tests, thus adding a burden on them. Schools, teachers and parents really need to recognize that the concept of education should be ‘whole-person’ development and digital devices are just support tools.”

Topolewski, however, puts it a different way.

“I think of the app as a nurse and the teachers as doctors,” he says. “Nurses can do a lot of things to free up doctors’ time but they don’t replace them. You don’t need the doctor to take your blood pressure. A nurse can do that. Doctors then can look at the results and diagnose any problems. That’s what we do. We free up teachers’ time to let them focus on higher-value activities.”

Zhang Liming, a co-founder of online English teaching company 51Talk, says it’s inevitable that young students will prefer mobile devices for learning because mobile phones have become such a big part of their lives. They grew up in the digital era.

But, he adds, current technologies are not mature enough to replace completely the value of face-to-face lessons.

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