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Mother using smart phone while with her baby in a baby carrier


Each semester, I survey my students at the beginning of the course to get a sense of who they are and how I can best support them in my class. When I first started doing so, I dutifully opened the “Notes” column in the Canvas Gradebook to keep track of which students were working more than 20 hours a week and taking care of children. I soon found out that it was pointless to make note of this. Almost every single student in my class was caretaking and/or working more than 20 hours a week. Many were doing both.

One might imagine that I would serve more so-called “nontraditional” students teaching an online asynchronous class at a community college. However, the reality is that more than one in five undergraduate students across higher education institutions are parents.

Students who are parents need courses that facilitate anytime/anywhere learning. When I first started grad school, my daughter was nine months old. My husband and I were both in grad school. He was nearing the end of his program and TAing and adjuncting at multiple colleges, so our schedule was constantly changing. We lived in a rural town with no daycare centers for babies. Even if childcare had been available, I doubt we could have spent more than two-thirds of our income at the time on daycare. So we jigsawed my schedule, my husband’s schedule and my mom’s schedule into one very complicated system that ensured our daughter was with one of us at all times.

Time was precious. I needed to make use of every single moment. On the hour bus ride to my campus, I would read academic articles. When I was sitting next to my daughter’s crib while she fell asleep, I would listen to ed-tech podcasts. As she got older, if she was busy with her blocks, I would pull out interview transcripts and read them over and over to dig into my data.

For student parents, “time poverty” is real. Student parents face many demands on their time. They work, grocery shop, go to school, help children with homework, cook, clean, study, take their kids to the doctors—the list goes on and on. How might we lighten their burden? I’ve found that a mobile-friendly course that students can take on their smartphones can transform access for students by allowing our courses to fit into their lives instead of students having to try to fit their lives into our courses.

Demystifying Mobile Design

Creating a mobile-friendly course that works on a smartphone can feel like a daunting task, but the eight principles of mobile design provide actionable ways in which we can easily minimize the limitations of smartphones for learning (e.g., small screens) while maximizing the benefits (e.g., anytime/anywhere learning). Eight principles of mobile design can help us to better serve all of our students by creating courses that allow students to leverage the technology they carry in their pocket for learning.

Principle #1: Create content for small screens. Using headers, chunking content and inserting descriptive links is an important step to create accessible course content. At the same time, it can also minimize the limitation of small screens and make it easier for students to work through course content on their smartphones.

Principle #2: Build trust. As educators, we can leverage mobile-friendly course design to build trust with our students by creating a sense of consistency. One way we can demonstrate such consistency is by ensuring the navigation of our courses is simple and predictable. For example, if we are using Canvas, consistent modules throughout the course can help to build trust while also again minimizing the limitation of small screens.

Principle #3: Leverage Moments. Designing mobile-friendly course content allows us to realize the benefit of smartphones for anytime/anywhere learning. This powerful benefit of smartphones can help us to transform how we serve students who parent, work and/or commute. One way we can design course content that leverages moments is to design for stops and starts. In Canvas, for example, we can add requirements to modules. This can help students easily pick up where they left off as a check mark indicates which portions of the module they have already completed. This is especially helpful for students who are using their smartphones to make progress on their courses in the in-between moments of their day.

Principle #4: Allow choice. By giving students choices, we can easily create mobile-friendly assignments. This could be as simple as giving students an option to write answers on a sheet of paper and submit a picture from their phone. We could also provide students the option between submitting a short video or writing a few short paragraphs. One benefit of allowing students choices is we can easily create mobile-friendly assignments without having to extensively redesign our course or assignments.

Principle #5: Integrate multimodality. Smartphones support multimodal assignments as they lend themselves well to taking pictures, creating videos and recording audio. When we create multimodal assignments, students can include inspiration from their everyday experiences, which can help to center their lived lives. One of my favorite ways to check in with students during the semester is to ask them to share a GIF that exemplifies how they are feeling. I usually like to do this on Discord at the beginning, middle and end of the semester. Such check-ins help me get a sense of how my students are feeling and create opportunities for students to connect with each other.

Principle #6: Leverage mobile-friendly tools. This principle allows us to work smarter, not harder. Many companies have invested time and money into designing mobile applications. By leveraging those tools, we can stand on the shoulders of giants and create mobile-friendly assignments. If we use a learning-management system that has a mobile presence, such as Canvas, we can create mobile-friendly assignments simply by moving assignments directly into that LMS. Instead of having students download a Word document, type their answers and then upload the Word document, we can simply move the questions into a Canvas quiz, which makes it much easier for students to use their smartphones, if needed.

Principle #7: Play. Designing mobile-friendly courses is not something that happens overnight. As we approach mobile design, it can be helpful to treat it like a journey in which we continuously take small steps to make it easier for students to use their smartphones to be successful in our courses. Taking a moment to test out our course on our smartphones can help us gain a deeper sense of our students’ experience.

For instance, when previewing one of the courses I teach on my phone, I realized how much the titles of modules can help students skim through the content of a module. After seeing the student perspective, I now take care to include descriptive titles of pages so students can easily see module content at a glance. When we approach the journey with a sense of playfulness, we can begin to develop an intuition for the user experience.

Principle #8: Communicate. It’s also important to communicate to students the mobile-friendliness of our courses. With persistent bans on smartphones in K-12 classes, it’s not unreasonable to assume that almost every one of our students has been told at least once in their lives that smartphones are not allowed in the classroom. Many of our students may not even realize that they can use their phone for learning, so we need to let our students know how and when they can use smartphones for our courses.

In conclusion, for student parents, developing a mobile-friendly course using these eight principles can transform access by allowing those students to make the most of moments in their day for learning. A student could read an article while watching their kids play at a playground or review lecture videos to study when cooking. Student parents don’t always know when they will have found moments, but being able to easily pull out their phone and make use of the five minutes while they are waiting for their child to brush their hair can be powerful opportunities to make progress in their coursework.

As a student parent, my campus experience for the first few quarters of my program consisted of lugging around a breast pump, memorizing the codes for the lactation rooms, and trying to read articles while hazy from lack of sleep. I had a desperate need to make use of every minute when I wasn’t with my daughter to work on my classes.

I was driven. I had seen the impact education can have on a child’s life. My grandmother had to stop school after fifth grade to work on the farm. Later, when she had children, hunger was not a stranger in their lives. Education was a way to a better life, and my mom was able to graduate high school. My life was markedly different, and I did not know hunger. I wasn’t driven to finish grad school for me but rather for my daughter’s future and for my mom and grandmother’s past.

For student parents, a degree is more than a piece of paper. It is a path towards a life with food on the table, insurance to cover doctor’s visits and paid days off to care for kids when they get the flu. By creating mobile-friendly courses, we as educators can help remove some of the barriers such students may face on their path toward a degree. If we do so, student parents can move fluidly between their courses and busy schedules to transform their life and the lives of their families.

Alex Rockey is a professor of academic technology at Bakersfield College.

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