Dec 11 2020

Mobile Devices Extend Students’ Access and Engagement

Colleges expand the role of mobile devices — and related security solutions — to ease students’ remote-learning experiences.

COVID makes the logistics of higher education so much harder. Students may be juggling in-person and online classes. They may suddenly find themselves quarantined at home or in the dorm. It may be hard to find study space on a socially distanced campus.

At The Ohio State University, mobile devices play an important role in helping students manage this complex environment.

“We have all this computing power in our pockets, it is omnipresent, and we want to help students to take full advantage of that,” says Cory Tressler, OSU’s director of learning programs. To that end, OSU has provided all undergraduate students with iPad devices and cases. “This is our third year of doing that, and we have over 36,000 students across all six of our campuses who now have these devices.”

At OSU and other colleges around the nation, students are using mobile devices to access course materials, to attend virtual classes and — equally important — to stay connected and engaged with one another at a time when social distancing limitations are reshaping the nature of campus interactions.

M-Learning Improves Digital Equity on Campus

At OSU, administrators start with the premise that we are living in a mobile era and that any degree of mobile connectivity will help students thrive academically and prepare themselves for the world they will encounter postgraduation.

“We want to make sure our students know how to communicate, collaborate, do all these creative things on the iPad,” Tressler says. “We are delivering workshops, training, technology tutoring — all fully mobile. That includes training around using the iPad for study skills and professional skills.”

To deliver classroom content, OSU relies on the Canvas learning management system, both the browser version and the mobile app, says Tressler.

“Students have access to that, and all of our courses are utilizing that to deliver course materials via mobile devices,” he says. “That can be a course that was traditionally online or a course that is hybrid, with video content, e-books, podcasts. Faculty are making all sorts of materials available for students to consume.”

The availability of coursework via mobile device has helped keep students engaged academically, says Jessica Phillips, OSU’s associate director of student experience.

“There are a lot of disparities in the kinds of access that students have. We’ve seen during COVID that students may access courses only through their smart phones — that is their only computing device,” she says. “It’s not an ideal learning experience, but it means it is critical that our academic content can work on those mobile platforms.”

Mobile Platforms Facilitate Higher Ed Engagement

At Michigan’s Montcalm Community College, administrators have similarly leaned into mobility as a strategy for driving academic engagement in the face of COVID-19 complications. Students use Microsoft Teams to join classes via mobile and Canvas to access course content, assignments, discussions and quizzes.

“We leverage Teams a lot,” says David Kohn, associate director of IT services. “We had rolled it out prior to COVID for collaboration, with staff and faculty training on that as a way to deliver education. So, we were in a good position to pivot when COVID hit, to leverage Teams and some of the other mobile applications to extend the classroom out to students.”

As a rural campus, MCC serves a large number of commuter students, many of whom must drive for more than an hour to get to class.

“When you pile that on top of travel restrictions with COVID, that could have potentially been problematic,” says Kohn. “Maybe they can’t find day care, or they can’t get off work on time to get to campus. Now, they have a way to remain engaged.”

In addition to supporting students with mobile platforms, the college has actively encouraged instructors to leverage mobile solutions to bolster their pedagogy.

“Even before COVID, our faculty were moving toward more mobile devices,” Kohn says. “In the past 12 to 18 months, we have been pushing out touch screen–enabled devices, moving them to Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Laptop, as well as iPads for those who prefer Mac.”

Along the way, Montcalm has looked to CDW to support its shift to a mobile-centric environment.

“We are a small community college, not a big university, and it’s important to us to have a partner who really understands what we are trying to accomplish,” Kohn says. “We have a very small IT staff, and they are able to pull together a full solutions suite for us, with access to the hardware, along with a solutions team to help us implement everything.”

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Asset Tracking and Security Solutions Optimize M-Learning Initiatives

To deliver a high-quality mobile experience in higher education, experts say, it’s not enough to simply put devices into the hands of students and faculty.

“Higher education administrators need to ensure that they select platforms that are responsive to mobile devices,” says Abbas Hyderi, senior associate dean for medical education and a professor at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, in California. “Administrators also need to take responsibility for determining if students have access to the hardware and Wi-Fi needed for m-learning.”

Hyderi’s institution has followed this path, equipping its students with school-issued iPhones and Microsoft Surface Book 2s. He describes them as “loaded with an array of educational apps, to enable classroom and clinical learning from anywhere students have access to the internet.”

As more students engage in learning via mobile devices, colleges may also need to take a more proactive role in supporting both network security and network functionality.

“Schools should invest in technology to monitor, manage and secure the expanded school network perimeter,” says SolarWinds Vice President of Product Strategy Brandon Shopp. “Application performance monitoring and database performance monitoring software can help IT pros ensure applications are working as expected and are properly powered by the data needed.”

For institutions that are able to provide students with devices, IT will likely want to take a proactive stance to managing those devices, he says.

“An IT asset tracking system can monitor each device’s lifecycle, perform root-cause analysis if something isn’t working and keep accurate inventory of what has been loaned or returned — which will save IT admins a headache down the line,” says Shopp.

In addition, any expanded use of mobile solutions will likely prompt IT leaders to take a closer look at security issues.

With students outside the firewall, bad actors “can try to steal data or credentials off of those remote devices as they are being used to access school infrastructure,” says Bob Stevens, vice president of Americas at mobile security firm Lookout.

“The most important thing is phishing and content protection. A mobile device can be phished in many different ways: through web browsers, through games, through messaging applications,” Stevens says. “You need a mobile security solution that can protect all those phishing vectors — something that takes it out of the human’s hands.”

These considerations highlight the fact that supporting a mobile-intensive learning environment may ramp up an already weighty IT workload — and to some extent, that may well be the case. But those who have gone this route say that it’s worth the extra effort.

“Even in a normal year, we see students using apps to connect and collaborate. In light of COVID, those things have become absolutely critical,” says OSU’s Phillips. “It’s hard to fathom what this experience would be like without the mobile component.”

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