Dr. Danny Parker, provost of Anderson University in South Carolina, was inspired to research mobile learning after observing his school-age children’s use of technology.
“It became really important to me to try to share with my colleagues here on campus what the future had headed our way in terms of young people and technology,” he says.
While many colleges and universities remain concerned about the potential for mobile technology to distract students, still others are embracing its power to enable flexible, modern learning methods.
Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada, focuses on training students in a trade and is using mobile technology to maximize in-class time.
“A lot of the learning has to be applied, hands-on learning,” says Glenn MacDougall, director of Algonquin’s Teaching and Learning Services. By migrating the theoretical portion of coursework to mobile, on-campus time is spent in labs, not lecture halls.
Stephen Baldridge, director of the Bachelor of Science in Social Work program at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas, has conducted research on ways to integrate mobile into the learning environment.
“Mobility, combined with things like social media, has already shown us the potential it has to engage students,” Baldridge says.
As for concerns about distraction, Benjamin Deaton, Anderson University’s director of instructional design, says, “Students have always been prone to distraction, even for Aristotle and Socrates. Our philosophy is that engaged, active learning greatly mitigates that concern.”
Deaton says he views mobile devices only as enablers of learning.
Bring on the Phones (and Tablets, and Laptops)
Approaches to building a mobile learning initiative vary. Often, the first question asked addresses how to ensure access to the required devices.
“In 2010 [Algonquin] decided as a college that we had reached a tipping point,” MacDougall says. “Ninety-five percent of all of our incoming students . . . had access to a laptop computer or mobile device.”
Only then — 10 years after the first mandatory laptops were introduced in Algonquin’s School of Business — was a policy of required student mobility phased in.
In 2007, administrators at ACU heeded studies that indicated 80 to 85 percent of college and university students would have smartphones by 2012. They decided to saturate campuses with them as a means of conducting research.
It was this “petri dish–like environment,” Baldridge says, that allowed the university to get ahead of the trend before eventually shifting to a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model last year.
All incoming students at Anderson University now receive tablet devices. The decision to use a single tablet model in its mobile learning initiative has helped to lighten the burden of network administration and course design, Parker says.
The administrators at all three institutions stress that adequate time was taken to ensure that each got its mobile learning initiatives right, whether that meant adapting building infrastructure, obtaining faculty buy-in, providing faculty and staff with professional development and support or, above all, ensuring a natural fit.
“Our general rule of thumb is not to force the technology into the learning experience,” Deaton says.
There are many ways to evaluate the success of any mobile learning initiative — student satisfaction, ease of use, and program retention and course success rates are all used to quantify the impact. Officials at each of the institutions mentioned here say the results look promising. Parker highlights one result in particular: “The ‘A’ students are still ‘A’ students, but the ‘C’ and ‘D’ students seem to be closing the gap in terms of their ability to master the material.”
The Pocket-Sized Future
As mobile technologies become an increasingly integrated part of the higher education learning environment, potential applications abound. MacDougall says he sees great potential for electronic textbooks, which are more portable and less expensive than traditional textbooks.
Deaton believes the integration of learning management systems is ripe for future improvement, while Parker says he is excited to help adult learners better fit education into their lives with mobile-enhanced online learning. The future of learning will look different, even as the goals of education remain the same.
“We’ve been stuck in this lecture-based pedagogy for so long, and I don’t think it’s necessary now,” Baldridge says. “There are better ways to help people learn.”
Algonquin College’s Journey to Mobile Learning
Sources: Glenn MacDougall, Director of Teaching and Learning Services, Algonquin College and algonquincollege.com/mlearning/.