Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE)

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Students using the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment in Ghana

Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE) is a mobile learning management server software designed to help students study school subject matter, develop higher order learning skills and generate transparent real-time learning analytics.[1]

SMILE combines a mobile-based question application for students with a management application for teachers. The technology allows students to create multiple-choice questions on mobile phones during class and share these questions with their classmates and teacher.[2]

The main goal of SMILE is to develop students’ questioning skills, encourage greater student-centric activities and practices in classrooms,[2] and enable a low-cost mobile wireless learning environment.[3]


Seeds of Empowerment (Seeds), is a global non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2009 by Dr. Paul Kim. The NGO helped develop SMILE and also pilot studies around the world using the software since 2009.[4]

A major contribution to the initial technical design of SMILE was originated from a research study led by Dr. Paul Kim along with his research assistants at Stanford University. The initial research study named PSILAN (PocketSchool Interactive Learning Network) investigated a portable ad-hoc network solution that can enable a multi-user interactive learning environment in areas where resources such as electricity or access to Internet is limited. This research was part of multiple projects affiliated with Stanford's major interdisciplinary research program named Programmable Open Mobile Internet backed by National Science Foundation.

The latest developments on SMILE have been made by GSE-IT at the Graduate School of Education of Stanford University and partnering organizations such as The license of the trademarks, software, hardware, and its technical design remains with the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) at Stanford University.

Recently, SMILE has been listed as one of innovative tools for the schools of tomorrow by United Nations's Education Commission, chaired by Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of United Kingdom, in its 2016 report named "Learning Generation Report"

How it works[edit]

A sample question developed using SMILE

The software allows students to generate, share, and evaluate multimedia-rich questions.[2] The data management software gathers these responses and the time students take to respond, and saves them for the teacher to analyze. Teachers can also enter questions to test information.[2]

Finally, the software also allows for both teamwork and competition which teachers can use to promote a classroom environment that is either collaborative or competitive, depending on what will motivate students.[2]

Operating modes[edit]

SMILE has five operating modes. The facilitator chooses the mode for each activity.

Mode Description
Exam Mode Teachers post questions for students to solve, evaluate, and comment while the system presents the student performance outcome results in real-time
Brainstorming Mode Participants discuss, evaluate, rank, and comment open-ended questions
Open-to-close-End-Mode Participants generate, discuss, evaluate, comment, and rank open-ended questions and turn the selected open-ended questions into multiple-choice questions.
Student-Paced Mode Students generate, solve, evaluate, and discuss questions in an asynchronous manner so participants can typically participate in sessions without any time-constraint
Organizer-Paced Mode Organizers control different stages of sessions with specific time limits in each stage (i.e., generating, solving, evaluating, and reviewing questions).[1]

Question ratings[edit]

The instrument is designed to identify performance variations. It enables organizers to define five different levels of question quality. For example:[1]

Question Difficulty Description
Category 1 Students respond with minimum cognition involving simple recalls or simple arithmetic calculations
Category 2 Students conduct a simple analysis on question types and qualities (e.g., asking questions about questions) or solve problems with simple reasoning. These questions are designed to assess if students can recognize and make distinctions between low quality questions and higher order thinking questions.
Category 3 Students solve given problems with an intermediate level of cognition and analysis.
Category 4 Students solve given problems with a deeper level of analysis and reasoning.
Category 5 Students ignore distracting information and extract only accurate information to make a necessary inference. Students must formulate their own rational equation to arrive at a conclusion.

In lieu of test scores, the ratings of the questions can be used to assess learning outcomes.[5] Analyzing a student's ability to rate other student's questions can be used to determine the student's level of critical thinking skills. The process of rating questions from their peers allows the students to think about the content in a deeper way.[6]


SMILE is intended for a wide range of educational settings. Not only is SMILE is content-agnostic, the pedagogical model behind SMILE is to encourage the student to make critical inquiries--the hard work, the investigation--instead of being told the answers by an educator. Many successful implementations of SMILE are implemented by teachers incorporating SMILE two to three times a week. [7] To address the rapidly advancing technological age, SMILE effectively allows schools and teachers to flip the classroom.[8]

SMILE in Elementary Classrooms[edit]

SMILE can be used by students in an elementary classroom. Students create questions which are then solved and rated by peers. The entire process is controlled and monitored by a teacher with an activity management application. [9]

In the learning process, students proceed through stages of Make Your Question, where students create multiple choice questions. Solve Questions aggregates the questions and sends them back to students to solve and rate on a five-point scale. See Results allows students to see the their score. [9]

The teacher has multiple features at his or her disposal. The Activity Flow window allows the teacher to activate the various stages of the activity. The Student Status window displays the current status of each student. The Scoreboard displays individual student’s responses. The Question Status window displays metadata about the question. The Question window displays the question itself and its predetermined correct answer. The Top Scorers window displays which student achieved the highest score and which question received the highest ratings. The Save Questions button allows the teacher to save the data from a given exercise to the server.[9]

SMILE in Math Classrooms[edit]

SMILE takes advantage of mobile devices to increase participation, engagement, and collaboration from the students. Students are creating their own math questions, including using the device's camera to take pictures of their questions. All participants have access to the questions during and after class. [10]

In a typical SMILE activity, students go through several phases of learning. They are: Introduction and device exploration, Prompt for problems, Student grouping and generating questions, Question generation, Question solving, Result review, Reflection, and Repetition and enrichment. Song, Kim, and Karimi describe this in their 2012 paper, Inquiry-based Learning Environment Using Mobile Devices in Math Classroom. [10]

SMILE in Participatory Action Research[edit]

SMILE can be used in participatory action research to engage participants in critical thinking and community engagement while eventually deriving solutions that are locally relevant. [11]

During the question generation process, participants can capture images from textbooks or take photos of environmental issues to address. Once the questions are generated, they are aggregated and redistributed to the participants. The participants then go through a period of reflection, response, evaluation, and verification. [11]

The process enables the participants to think beyond simple health-relevant facts. Also, SMILE leverages the collective construction of inquiries, leading to more reliable and accurate depiction of the reality as a whole. They are able to distinguish facts from opinions, verify sources, analyze cause and effect, determine faulty generalizations, and avoid oversimplification. [11]

By empowering the participants to co-evaluate and reflect their own phenomena, the external researcher's role is simply to facilitate conversation.[11] Examining the questions and answer choices generated by participants help researchers uncover important insights. [11]


SMILE Plug on Marvell hardware

SMILE Plug creates an ad-hoc network which enables students to engage in SMILE activities and exchange inquiries with peers in their classrooms or their own school.[2] Participants in the SMILE Plug model must be physically present and connected to the ad-hoc SMILE WiFi network. A SMILE Plug router contains the SMILE server software, KIWIX, Khan Academy Lite, various open education resources including open education textbooks, and four different coding language school programs.[1]

SMILE Global enables students around the world to exchange their inquiries regardless of their location.[2] People who are interested in a particular topic (e.g., for example, 'health'), they can search the keyword and also create their own questions, respond to existing questions, or comment on questions and answer.[11] The SMILE Global server is accessible in the cloud.[1]

Both SMILE Plug and SMILE Global allow students to incorporate multimedia components in their questions: SMILE Plug uses images, and SMILE Global uses images, audio and video.[2]


The cost of implementing a SMILE activity depends on the infrastructure available in the school, but at minimum costs: $80 per mobile phone (one for every 2-3 students), $300 for a notebook laptop computer, and $100 for a local router.[2]

Because of the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices, the low barrier to entry, and the modular growth potential, mobile devices provide a low-cost, high-reward alternative to the traditional computer lab model.[12]

In many cases, business leaders provided local telecom network infrastructure and equipment such as mobile devices and computers, while local educational administrators facilitated the participation of local schools and offered teacher workshops. University staff conducted research on strategies to enhance the model within the local context and NGO partners provided localized knowledge, program oversight, and project coordination. This approach brings together many stakeholders, without exhausting the limited resources of any one sector.[2]

In 2012, the SMILE team partnered with Marvell to create SMILE Consortium.[13]

SMILE Plug on Raspberry Pi[edit]

SMILE Plug on Raspberry Pi

In 2016, the SMILE Plug was implemented on a Raspberry Pi 3. SMILE will boot in one minute when plugged into USB power. In developing countries with limited access to electricity, a USB battery pack is required. The Pi, designed for use in areas of low internet connectivity, provides a local WiFi access point. Students and teachers with mobile devices, tablets, laptops, and computers can connect to the Plug.

The Plug requires a microSD card which acts as the hard drive and local repository of the offline resources. In order to update the SMILE Plug, one will swap out the previous microSD card with a newer microSD card with updated resources.

The total cost of a SMILE Plug varies depending on the material parts used to build the device. The base price is $85, including $35 for the Raspberry Pi motherboard; $10 for a case; $40 for a 128GB Class 10 microSD card. A battery pack for 12 hours of use costs an additional $25; the LED screen an additional $40.

SMILE Global and Natural Language Processing[edit]

In 2017, SMILE Global will interface with a natural language processing API. The SMILE team has prepared a databank of questions pre-categorized according to the question quality rubric. The API will return a rating for each question that is submitted on SMILE Global. The immediate response and feedback will give students a chance to make improvements to their questions in real time.

The question quality rubric will allow teachers to gauge the level of learning from their students. [14]


SMILE has reached over 25 countries, including North America, India, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nepal, China, Uruguay, Indonesia, South Korea, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tanzania.[2]


Students used SMILE to think critically about what it means to be an engaged citizen in their community, generating questions for their peers about such potential moral dilemmas as homelessness, suicide, stealing, and school bullying and violence. One student addressed the increasing incidence of suicide locally and asked their peers for the major cause. This revealed additional benefits of SMILE—not only is it a tool for managing student learning and assessment, it also facilitates discussions of issues that students see as important.[2]

In 2012, the Ministry of Education in Buenos Aires looked into modifying the cell phone prohibition use in the classroom, in effect since 2006. In addition to using SMILE, educators can now create executable programs on mobile devices to help facilitate learning in the classroom. [15]

SMILE workshops on Music, Language Arts, and Mathematics was implemented in Misiones and Talarin August 2011. By using an exploratory learning pedagogy, students were able to compose songs. The power of mobile devices to reach the last mile and the last school is most evident where electricity and internet access is not guaranteed. [16]

In rural settings, desktop computers may be too cumbersome and have too high of an overhead. Mobile phones and tablets, on the other hand, are portable and battery-powered, making for a flexible mobile-learning environment. One of the keys in deploying mobile technology is a focus on bringing the desired content with a strong pedagogical foundation. [17]


Due to the centralized nature of Chile, it is harder for education to reach the poorest areas of the country. The concept of a mobile classroom, or "pocket school," connected and tied together by a network of mobile phones, is an attempt to take advantage of the resources already available in the most underserved communities. [18]


Students were asked to generate math questions covering a wide range of topics, from triangle angle sum theorem, to fractions, areas and diameters. Teachers were surprised at the students’ enthusiasm. They were also surprised at the students’ ability to adopt the technology by themselves and to train each other and even their teachers.[2]

South Korea[edit]

SMILE Global was tested with medical students at Chungbuk National University. Criteria for high-quality questions, criteria rubrics, and examples of high- and low-quality questions were discussed with students first. This initial overview seemed to be important in promoting deep inquiry. As the students were already very experienced in using technology, they spent 60% of their time on the inquiry-making task.[2]


The pre-service teachers reported that SMILE makes student thinking visible. Younger students are better at creating higher quality questions. Older students are already used to the traditional learning model where fact-recall is the major theme of classroom activities.

Quote from "Preservice teachers’ uses of SMILE to enact studentgenerated questioning practices" [19]

Studies suggest that SMILE could be implemented relatively easily in a wide range of classroom settings; it was adopted by students relatively quickly; and it increased the use of inquiry-based pedagogies.[2]

As students evaluated each other’s questions and understood which ones got higher ratings, over time they developed questions that were more conceptually difficult and of higher quality.[2]

Teachers need an initial training period and some follow-up mentoring so they can facilitate questions.[2] Tailoring the content of the trainings to the local environment is crucial. Without putting the benefits of SMILE into the local context, teachers and students will find no compelling reason to adopt the pedagogy. [20]

Finally, local education officials must be on board. SMILE worked best when officials, along with civil society organizations, universities, and local businesses, worked together to bring it to classrooms and supported different elements of its implementation.[2]

Cohesiveness of Integration[edit]

The most important lesson here is that the process of developing critical thinking skills is probably not too different from the process of language acquisition: It takes time and good guidance along with ample exposure.

Quote from "Using Technology to Teach the Art of Asking Questions" [21]

The success rate of implementing SMILE is dependent on how cohesively inquiry-based pedagogy is tied to the curricula taught at a school. While SMILE can be implemented with the existing curricula (for example, with students asking simple recall math questions), it is most effective as an additional platform to foster critical thinking. This could come in the form of a regularly scheduled SMILE class each week to discuss questioning. Although many students shy away at first, repeated practice learning how to answer, rate, and create questions within a comfortable space will allow them to grow their higher-order thinking skills.[21]

Higher teacher motivation, better classroom integration, and higher frequency of use are three factors that increase SMILE retention. Teachers are encouraged to help students become knowledge-holders and questioners; teachers themselves are encouraged to challenge the status quo of rote memorization inside the classroom. Though question-and-answer sessions may create uncomfortable situations where the teachers sole authority is questioned, the additional transfer of knowledge and learning happens in this discomfort and is beneficial to the student's growth.[21]

Student Engagement[edit]

For online classrooms, SMILE helps drive student engagement with the content, the community, and the instructor. A study on pre-service teachers meeting remotely showed positive correlation in using SMILE and achieving higher levels of collaboration, higher sense of autonomy, and optimizing content relevance and authenticity.[22]

Relationships between students and teachers changed during the SMILE workshops. Teachers were not simply transmitting information to students; rather, students were drawing on written or digital resources to formulate their own questions. The teachers played important roles in guiding students through the solutions to difficult questions, correcting any mistakes, and elaborating on student-generated questions.[2]


School and country contexts highly influence students’ initial abilities to form deep questions. In the developing world, many teachers lack adequate teacher training. Their training is often limited to content, rather than pedagogical practices. In some cases, when teachers were asked to use new technology before they were comfortable with it, their discomfort led them to stifle students’ questions. Cultural norms governing relations between adults and students, and socialization into situational authority roles, may also inhibit student questioning.[2]

SMILE was more difficult to implement in areas where rote memorization pedagogies were typical. Some students found it hard to generate their own questions, given their previous classroom experiences with rote memorization activities.[2]

Additionally, students with little experience manipulating smart phones took longer to understand and use the technology, but eventually adjusted after exploration.[2]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Buckner, Elizabeth; Kim, Paul. "Integrating technology and pedagogy for inquiry-based learning: The Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE)". doi:10.1007/s11125-013-9269-7.
  3. ^ "Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE) - PATENT". Stanford University Office of Technology Licensing. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  4. ^ "Our Vision". Seeds of Empowerment. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
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  14. ^ Vander Ark, Tom. "Stanford CTO Provokes Good Questions Online (And Off)". Getting Smart Podcast. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
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