Jul 08 2022

What Is Mobile Learning and How Can It Make Courses More Flexible?

M-learning tools can make learning more productive and offer students greater flexibility.

Online learning is evolving.

Ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic required a mass online migration for instructors and learners, the ability to learn through devices has become more appealing. Among the most turbocharged modes of online education is mobile learning, also called m-learning. However, despite the prevalence of smartphones and students’ interest in using them, m-learning is not always a consideration in course design at colleges and universities — even as its popularity grows as the pandemic subsides.

Those looking to join the emerging status quo of modern learning should understand what m-learning is, what benefits it offers and how to best implement it.

What Is Mobile Learning?

Mobile learning is a means of facilitating students’ education through personal electronic devices, most commonly smartphones. M-learning can involve making course content more accessible on devices (using PDFs for documents, for example), employing mobile-friendly learning management systems (LMSs) like Moodle or Canvas, or using survey or social media apps during lectures.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, m-learning was considered a “nice to have” addition to a curriculum. The year 2020, however, provided a turning point. Ninety-eight percent of online students own some type of mobile device, and they have come to enjoy the option to learn how, where and when they want. More than half of students want the option to do some coursework with their mobile devices. Twenty-one percent want to be able to complete full courses that way.

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Benefits of Mobile-Friendly Courses

M-learning has become a new educational standard because of its benefits. When instructors convert their courses to be mobile-friendly, it leads to improved student success. According to a Lynda.com report, m-learners finish courses 45 percent faster than those using traditional computers, and a Think with Google report notes that the majority of people say using mobile devices makes them more productive.

The other notable benefit of m-learning is that it affords students greater accessibility and control over learning within their everyday lives.

“The myth of the so-called traditional student who does nothing outside of school is no longer the norm. Students are juggling multiple jobs, childcare, elder care, sibling care and long commutes,” says Alex Rockey, an instructional technology instructor at Bakersfield College in California.

Students may not have two uninterrupted hours to study, but m-learning can ensure they can learn when and where they can.

“They do have these pockets of 10-minute periods of time where they can watch a short lecture video or read an article,” says Rockey.

How to Implement M-Learning

Rockey says “consistency and simplicity” are key to a successful m-learning program, and those qualities must be implemented both technologically and educationally.

“Good mobile design is actually just good course design,” says Margaret Merrill, an instructional designer and educational technologist at the University of California, Davis.

It’s important that m-learning is designed in tandem with the overall curriculum and not tacked on as an afterthought. This can sometimes require training faculty to understand how to better design their courses to be mobile-friendly.

Margaret Merrill
Good mobile design is actually just good course design.”

Margaret Merrill Instructional Designer and Educational Technologist, University of California, Davis

IT departments will also need to help teachers navigate those waters, especially helping to address any compatibility issues.

“One of the things that we have to think about when we’re supporting faculty is, are they using tools that are going to integrate well with the LMS?” says Mindy Colin, instructional consultant at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The idea is that the IT, the technology, the faculty training and the student affairs department as well as student services come together periodically. There needs to be a lot of communication.”

Good integration with an university’s LMS means fewer hiccups and a more seamless learning experience.

“We need to help make sure students waste no energy, no cognitive load, on figuring out what’s next, and just let them focus on the learning,” says Merrill.

Training for students also is key, especially since each school year or semester, they may find themselves having to learn apps all over again.

LEARN MORE: Understanding the digital equity gap in higher education.

Ensuring Tech Infrastructure Can Support Mobile Learning

Because mobile learning isn’t fully remote and can be partly facilitated on campus, good connectivity is required both in class and outside of it.

“Beefing up the Wi-Fi is absolutely crucial,” says Colin, especially given the number of devices that find their way to campus now.

“We found that many students were bringing between two and three devices,” says Rockey.

Embracing the cloud is also necessary for adequate bandwidth, security, ease of use and future-proofing.

“You see all LMS services — Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard — moving to the cloud and being supported by big cloud services,” says Colin. Because m-learning can employ streaming or uploaded video, such as lectures, cloud also offers instructors an easier way to bring content to students.

READ MORE: The benefits of centralizing learning and operations in higher education.

“Streaming services like Kaltura, Panopto and YuJa integrate with LMSs,” says Colin. “Having them on the cloud makes a big difference, because they have apps that students and faculty can use to record on their phones and then just upload directly to the streaming service, which is linked to their LMS automatically.”

Perhaps the biggest step universities can take is to embrace m-learning 100 percent. The more dedicated they are to adopting it, the better it is for everyone.

“Mobile has exponentially increased over the past few years because it’s no longer supplemental,” says Merrill. “It’s now the default.”

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