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Two years ago, four instructional designers in the University of California System decided to undertake a research project on “mobile learning.” Their first order of business: figure out what that is.

“It’s just so new that the researchers who have been trying to define it have found it so dynamic,” said Mindy Colin, an instructional consultant at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

They eventually settled on a definition from Educause: "Using portable computing devices (such as iPads, laptops, tablet PCs, PDAs and smartphones) with wireless networks enables mobility and mobile variation related to instructional approaches, disciplines, learning goals and technological tools." But they still struggled to define for themselves the parameters of their investigation.

One professor they interviewed helped them accept the ambiguity of their research subject. His students use iPads in the classroom because, unlike computers, they allow students to interact while working on assignments without a bulky desktop or laptop screen blocking their view of those around them. “He used this device not necessarily for the mobility,” said Margaret Merrill, instructional design consultant and educational technologist at the University of California, Davis, but because it’s “less disruptive to the look and feel of the classroom.”

This anecdote underscored for them that mobile learning means different things to different groups across higher education. Some instructors ask students to answer poll questions during face-to-face class sessions. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can serve as hubs of information and dialogue among students and instructors. Smartphones and tablets can also be used as platforms for creating projects integral to the learning objectives of a course -- graphic design on an iPad or journalistic interviews on a smartphone recorder.

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Professors and administrators at recent conferences report that some students write entire essays on their smartphones or complete homework assignments on the bus commute to campus. Increasingly, students expect course materials to be accessible to them on their mobile devices just as they would be on a laptop.

Beyond its function as a classroom tool, mobile technology is the primary conduit for some students' learning experiences. Broad data on the different permutations of mobile learning are hard to come by. In a 2018 survey by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research of 1,500 exclusively online students, nearly 80 percent said they complete some, if not all, of their course work using a mobile device. More than half of respondents said they access course readings and communicate with professors from their smartphones, and more than 40 percent said they conduct research for reports and access the learning management system on mobile devices.

Meanwhile, a 2017 Educause survey on face-to-face experiences paints a different picture: 70 percent of nearly 44,000 students reported that instructors banned or discouraged the use of smartphones in the classroom -- but more than a third of respondents did report using smartphones in the classroom "to make other connections with the material."

“Students are using mobile even if you aren’t,” said Ryan Seilhamer, program director of mobile strategy and innovation at the University of Central Florida. “It’s something you should be at least aware of.”

This new paradigm of teaching and learning also raises plenty of challenges new and old, from developing robust technology infrastructure to supporting skeptical faculty members, ensuring accessibility for all students and keeping up with the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancement.

It’s enough to make some professors skeptical or dismissive of digital technology, banning it from their classroom or at least frowning upon students using it. Proponents of mobile learning, like Meghan Sullivan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, don’t see much value in retrenchment.

“Finding ways to meet [students] halfway, using what feels normal for them and feels exciting can make your teaching that much more effective, rather than sticking your head in the sand,” Sullivan said.

Growing Interest in Tracking

Since becoming an instructional designer at UCF, Seilhamer has been paying close attention to students’ relationships to mobile devices. On the strength of his work developing the university’s mobile app, Seilhamer in 2017 was promoted to a new position overseeing the university’s mobile strategy. Few other universities in the country have someone in this role.

Seilhamer’s Tips for Mobile-Friendly Courses

  • Use LMS tools
  • Keep file sizes small
  • Inform students if a piece of content won’t be available on mobile
  • Include sample videos

A 2013 survey of 1,000 students at the university found that only four didn’t own smartphones, according to Seilhamer. In many cases, the survey found, students were more inclined to pay for a data plan and a smartphone than to invest in a laptop.

Seilhamer helps design mobile-friendly learning experiences and encourages instructors to adopt practices like “content chunking” that work for students in that format. According to Seilhamer’s research, students spend an average of five minutes continuously logged in to Canvas on their phones, compared with 14 minutes on laptops.

“If an assignment doesn’t work for 10 percent of the students, that’s a big headache,” Seilhamer said.

Students remain reluctant to take quizzes and exams on smartphones because they’re concerned about losing access in the middle, Seilhamer said. But 20 percent of institutionwide Canvas traffic from students comes via smartphones. When developing course strategies with instructors, he often asks, “Is this how you want to be represented to 20 percent of your students?”


For courses that involve providing students with mobile devices, cost and resources can be prohibitive, according to the University of California research team.

Six years ago, Shahra Meshkaty, senior director of Academic Technology Services at the University of San Diego, forged a partnership with Apple that brought 50 iPads to the institution. Each semester, Meshkaty solicits proposals from faculty members who want to use them in their classrooms. Even now, with the institution’s iPad stock up to 200, demand always exceeds supply, Meshkaty said.

“The potential for creativity, we’re now touching the tip of it,” Meshkaty said.

An instructor who incorporates digital tools into teaching has to be prepared to change the activities in subsequent semesters, as technology loses its novelty and in some cases gets outmoded by new inventions.

A few years ago, Jenny Wakefield, an instructional designer and adjunct professor of learning technologies in the Dallas County Community College District, started using the PollEverywhere tool in her classroom, offering multiple-choice questions and posting the results to keep students engaged. But once the novelty of using the tool wore off, Wakefield realized she needed to try harder. In future classes, she split students into group and had them compete.

“I didn’t like the idea that they were just sitting in their seats,” Wakefield said.

For campus-based experiences, building a Wi-Fi network with enough capacity to support an expanding number of devices per student and per classroom can be a costly and time-consuming investment.

Meshkaty said the information technology team at her institution had to overcome numerous troubleshooting and network issues to project students' mobile device screens on a classroom Apple TV screen.

"There were challenges to start out with the deployment," Meshkaty said. "It was frustrating in the beginning, but we worked around it." The increasing interest in mobile from the tech team has facilitated more interest among faculty members in mobile tools, she said.

Administrators and instructors in the California system also encounter difficulty at times keeping track of classroom devices provided by the university.


At best, mobile technology can facilitate broader improvements to learning experiences. At Notre Dame, Sullivan revamped a general education Introduction to Philosophy lecture course, which used to be geared toward philosophy majors even though few students in the course planned to pursue philosophy afterward.

Instead of subjecting students to “14 weeks going through the intellectual history of Europe,” Sullivan wanted to emphasize the importance of leading an ethical life and the social value of philosophical inquiry. Digital tools played several key roles in making that shift.

More From “Inside Digital Learning”

Online students multitask more.

The implications of smartphone ubiquity on low-income students.

A campuswide ban on laptops and smartphones in classrooms.

Now, instead of perusing dense texts, students engage with philosophy writing via “interactive digital essays” -- mobile-accessible web pages attached to the online syllabus, with supplemental materials and clarifications embedded in the prose. Sullivan still offers a traditional PDF, but students "really prefer this method.”

Sullivan also introduced a live poll at the end of each lecture, in an effort to see whether students had grasped the lesson. A student then gave her the idea of offering the same poll at the beginning of class as well.

Not all attempts at facilitating mobile learning prove equally successful. Sullivan created a “dare” assignment in which students try out new activities with a philosophical dimension. She encouraged them to post their experiences on an Instagram account she created for the course. But results were mixed: some students weren’t particularly adept at taking dynamic photos for the platform, while a handful of others didn’t want to get involved with a proprietary social media platform.

The California researchers uncovered myriad examples of instructors innovating with mobile tools, from Pokémon Go for collecting samples in an ecology class to Snapchat as a flash-card tool to help students identify rare species of birds.

The value of mobile learning may differ from one context to the next. But one path to making a meaningful impact on student learning is to see the classroom experience from their perspective. The instructor who deployed Snapchat for bird-watching did so after noticing some of her students using Snapchat.

“She said, ‘I don’t know how to use Snapchat -- this is what I want to do,’” Colin said. “They showed her how, they set it up and she did it.”

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