Piloting Mobile Learning

The Urgency of Going Mobile

Several recent reports have highlighted a rising rate of adoption for mobile devices:

  • Gartner, this week, released a projection that tablet devices such as Apple's iPad will see more than 19 million units sold worldwide this year, most of them in the US; Gartner also anticipates that this figure will grow to more than 200 million units in 2014
  • In September, International Data Corp. (IDC) upgraded its forecast for sales of smartphones, suggesting that the end of 2010 would see a 55.4% increase since 2009

In short, though most universities in the US are only in the earliest stages of implementing mobile marketing initiatives, and though few universities are actively piloting mobile learning, there is growing urgency in the need to do so.

"In a short period of time, much of what you do will need to be available on mobile devices. Don't think of this as just an experiment to try. The majority of your students, even your returning adult students, are using mobile devices to manage a large part of their communication and to access information. So your most critical educational activities and resources need to be delivered on mobile devices."
Lynne O'Brien, Duke U

In the next few years, those institutions who are best prepared to reach students in mobile locations and on mobile devices will have a competitive advantage. To learn how academic leaders can get started with piloting mobile learning, we interviewed Lynne O'Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services for Perkins Library at Duke University, an early adopter.

O'Brien suggests these guiding questions to help you identify where piloting a mobile learning program will make the most sense:

  • What mobile devices and applications is your student population currently using, and where is the market headed for your target population?
  • What specific advantages do you see in delivering educational content on a mobile device, rather than by more traditional means?
  • What new opportunities can you identify for either addressing current problems and challenges in instructional delivery, or for providing an enhanced and improved learning experience?

Deciding on the Device

First, design your project in a way that takes advantage of the devices your students are already using, looking for pilot programs that cross different carriers and plans (which reduces both the cost of purchasing and distributing new devices and the inconvenience of requiring students to join one carrier's plan).

You will need to survey your students regularly to learn what devices your student body has adopted. You will also want to review Gartner and ECAR reports regularly to monitor the projected adoption rates for smartphones and tablet devices among the demographics your institution serves. That way, you can get out ahead of the demand.

The Value Mobile Devices Add

Second, make sure that you are looking for opportunities where a mobile format does add value. "Certain resources and educational activities lend themselves to a quick experiment with mobile devices," O'Brien notes. "Others do not." Mobile devices usually add value to the learning experience when they can be used to facilitate:

  • Rapid communication between students or between students and faculty
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Access to information from off-campus locations

However, students are not likely to use their smartphones to access large quantities of information -- you want to focus on making information available that can be absorbed "on the fly." If, for example, you want students to have mobile access to a course website, rather than port over the entire website, identify those tasks students may need to complete quickly from a mobile location, such as checking the room location, course announcements, and grades. "Rather than just port over resources," O'Brien advises, "find opportunities to achieve something that is currently difficult more effectively via a mobile device."

What Opportunities to Look For

O'Brien offers these examples of specific ways to leverage the unique advantages of smartphones and other mobile devices to either make available educational content that would otherwise be more difficult to access while on the go, or to facilitate active learning and help achieve course objectives:

  • Use devices in a large class to get the instructor real-time feedback from students or for polling (Duke uses Poll Everywhere, and Purdue has developed its own tool, Hotseat); "students are able to send in questions, comments, and reactions from their cell phones," O'Brien notes, "so not only can you do more than you can with a clicker, but you eliminate the need to buy equipment, and you are using devices students are already familiar and comfortable with"
  • Offer a mobile app for your campus libraries, but provide more than simply access to a search function or the library website; Duke's mobile app (you can see a demo here or download the app here) gives students mobile access to digital collections
  • Use Flip cameras and video recording (on phones that fit into a student's pocket) to collect data outside the classroom walls and then bring the data into the class to add to a resource the students are building -- for example, students can conduct interviews with community members, capture photographs of plant life to add to a botanical database, or document locations that can be added to an online map

For example, the students in a biodiversity course at Duke made use of Flip Video cameras to create a short video that would explain to the local public the value of local biodiversity. According to the project's website, "students were required to identify their audience, investigate the audience's assumptions about biodiversity, and created a compelling argument for why that audience should care about local biodiversity. The videos were peer reviewed. Students were able to make more compelling arguments when their work had an authentic audience."

O'Brien cites the educational advantages demonstrated in projects like that one:

  • "Inviting students to be active and engaged learners"
  • "Requiring students to create projects that demonstrate new skills and understandings"
  • "Creating learning objects that area shared with a community outside the classroom"

When to Scale Up

O'Brien notes that there is no easy way to identify when to scale up or ramp up investment in mobile learning, but there are key indicators to watch for:

  • Progress on key metrics for the success of your pilot programs (measure the impact on student satisfaction, academic performance, or persistence)
  • A rise in demand from faculty for use of mobile devices in educational activities
  • Rate of adoption of mobile devices on campus and in consumer culture as the price point drops for a given device

For example, if you have had very successful pilot programs that leverage the abilities of a specific device or kind of device, monitor how many of your institution's students outside of that program are buying their own devices. Watch for a "tipping point" when enough students are purchasing and using the devices to make it unnecessary to invest financial resources in purchasing and lending devices to students. O'Brien suggests that when scaling the program up, you will want to invest the bulk of your resources into support of learning models, rather than equipment.