Course Materials for Mobile Devices:
Key Considerations

In the past term, Duke University piloted a course in introductory chemistry that replaced the standard textbook and course materials with online, multimedia content collected by the instructor from open repositories, as well as materials developed by the instructor under creative commons. The content included video clips from recorded lectures, ePUB texts and PDF files, and recorded whiteboard animations, all housed online. Students gathered at small tables during the course sessions and collaborated to solve chemistry problems, accessing the course resources as necessary during the class via laptops, tablets, and smaller mobile devices. Rather than lecture at the front of the room, the instructor circulated among the students, checking their progress, offering advice, and asking guiding questions.

The project was an experiment in selecting, creating, and using open-access educational materials on mobile devices, and in using classroom time to maximize collaborative learning, problem-solving, and application. The instructor piloting the project recognized that many students now access online course materials primarily through their mobile devices -- not through a desktop computer.

Projections by technology researchers over the past year confirm the immediacy of this trend:

  • In a May 2011 survey, Gartner Inc. reported that the amount of time people currently spend reading on a digital screen is nearly equal to the amount of time spent reading print
  • IDC reported a few months ago that by 2015 in the US, more people will access online content through mobile devices than through wired Internet connections

We are rapidly approaching the point at which most college students will access online course materials through their tablets, smartphones, or other mobile devices. Yet most faculty do not consider usability and accessibility on mobile devices when selecting or creating online materials and e-texts.

To gather a few tips for facilitating this shift, we turned this week to Rory McGreal, associate vice president and professor of computer technologies in education at Athabasca University and a UNESCO/COL chair in open educational resources, and Lynne O'Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services at Duke University. Here are some of the key steps they shared with us.

Design for Mobile First

The most significant step instructional technologists can take is to encourage faculty to design their course materials -- from the start -- to be accessible and navigable on mobile devices, rather than attempting to translate print materials or more traditional online materials into a mobile format later. "This is a fundamental shift in thinking," O'Brien remarks.

"Start by saying, "I assume students will be accessing this from a mobile device." It may be expensive and difficult to change content we've already created, but as we create new content, we can proritize mobile-friendly formats."
Lynne O'Brien, Duke University

"Instead of thinking of electronic courses as providing content to a student who is gazing at a big desktop monitor in a fixed location," McGreal adds, "encourage faculty to picture a student on a bus looking at the content on a small mobile device. Design course content for that, then translate it for larger devices if that's necessary. It is easier to move from small to large than from large to small."

This requires thinking about course content very differently. For example:

  • If you assume students are using a smartphone or tablet to access content, you might break lengthy textbook chapters into shorter pieces that are more searchable and quicker to access.
  • A PDF is difficult to read on a small screen -- so focus on offering content in formats such as ePUB, accessible on most devices
  • Rather than offer an hour-long recorded lecture online, focus on smaller segments

Provide a Checklist for Faculty

Besides making technology specialists available to help faculty with formatting course materials, O'Brien recommends issuing guidelines and a checklist to assist faculty in selecting new materials for their courses that will be mobile-friendly. This checklist needs to include:

  • The length of the content
  • The formats in which the content is available
  • Guidelines to clarify fair use and copyright as it applies to e-texts and digital materials
  • Items to check for in the licensing agreement (if the content is licensed from a commercial publisher)

O'Brien notes that licensing agreements in particular often poise challenges that are easy for faculty to miss. For example, access to some electronic texts may be set to expire after a given length of time. O'Brien recalls the example of one student who ordered an e-text a month prior to the beginning of the term in order to get a head start on his studies. Rather than an actual purchase, the order was actually a three-month licensed rental of the text. This meant that the rental expired and the student lost access to the course materials two weeks prior to final exams.

For a sequenced curriculum in which you hope to have students reuse a text in several courses, examining the licensing agreement in detail when selecting digital course materials becomes especially critical.

Additionally, make sure that faculty are aware that there is a wide spectrum in available formats for e-materials. Some electronic texts may simply be a PDF version of a textbook -- a large file with little indexing and minimal searchability. Others might look more like a mobile app, with interactive features. Some materials are available in multiple formats (which may vary by price). When selecting online course materials, faculty need to review what formats will be most usable for their students, and how many of their students are likely to have access to those formats.


Join us at this working conference in Houston, TX on February 20-22, 2012 to examine the decisions that need to be made when building and implementing m-learning and when creating interactive and collaborative learning activities for use on mobile devices.

The Open Materials Option

A number of instructional technologists have opted to encourage faculty to prioritize open source materials, and to make their own online materials available under creative commons, to help develop a larger pool of open, instructional content available to students.

Rory McGreal suggests approaching the question in this way:

"Show the instructor how much the commercial texts cost -- make the cost to the student transparent to faculty, many of whom are accustomed to selecting a textbook without checking the price. Then encourage instructors to look at open textbooks and open materials as their first step in selecting texts and materials. If they see material they like, go with that. If they don't see the material needed, then as a second step they can look for options among more traditional textbooks."
Rory McGreal, Athabasca University

Planning for the Long Term

Beyond designing course materials with mobile devices in mind, McGreal recommends taking a long-term approach to the question of accessibility. "Keep your material in a format that is independent of a particular application or device," he advises. "Design it independently of your LMS as well. The key to that is to put the content in an XML format so that any different type of device can access it. Then develop style sheets that recognize the type of device and will reformat the material for that device. In later years, as the technologies evolve and change, your instructors' content remains portable and accessible, because it is device-independent and application-independent."

McGreal notes the up-front investment involved, but recommends investing in an XML repository for all of your institution's open content. In this scenario, rather than have the original content reside in the LMS, you have the LMS access the XML database where the content is housed. McGreal advises that keeping your content completely portable is an especially strategic move for institutions serving students abroad.