Considering Mobile Learning For
Your Institution

A Campus Technology article this week highlighted both Abilene Christian University's development of a homegrown mobile learning solution a few years ago and their current expansion of that mobile learning initiative to include classroom management, blogging, and (soon) mobile podcasting.

While mobile learning continues to be a topic of interest among educators, very few institutions in the US have adopted it. We turned to Judy Brown, founder and former director of the University of Wisconsin system's Academic ADL Co-Lab and a key thinker in mobile learning strategies, for her advice on what questions institutions who are in the earliest stages of considering a mobile learning initiative should consider.

Start with the Key Question

When considering adopting a mobile device for your freshman class, or choosing multiple devices to support, the most critical question to ask is what you expect from your learners, from the users of the device.

  • Will they be consumers of content?
  • Are you looking to them to create content?
  • Or both?

Mobile learning can offer you more than just a means for students to consume course content at their convenience.

Brown cites the example of an art class studying typography, which included a week-long assignment in which students took photos of signs on their mobile devices, uploaded the photos, and discussed them as examples of the efficacy of various fonts. Because the students were assembling course content rather than merely consuming content, the level of engagement was high. In fact, the students were still posting pictures and discussing them three weeks after the assignment ended.

The question of what will you expect from your learners should drive both your selection of a device and your design of pilot projects.

Don't Try to Do Radio on TV

Brown notes that when we first adopt a new technology, too often we try to translate what we are already doing in a current medium into the new one, missing the opportunities that are unique to the new technology. She cites the example of early television. Early televised broadcasts often tried to transmit information in the same way information was transmitted by radio, and missed new opportunities presented by the unique capabilities of television. For example, broadcasts presented a static image without panning the camera.

In the same way, many early adopters of online learning missed the opportunities presented by learning management systems because they focused on trying to duplicate online the exact thing they were doing in the classroom. The same risk is present at the adoption of mobile learning.

"We need to look instead at the capabilities unique to the new technologies. Look at the devices students are using every day, look at what these offer."
Judy Brown, ADL Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst

A mobile device offers so many ways to consume, create, and communicate information -- camera, voice, keyboard, motion sensor, location, and a growing number of free applications. These devices offer the ability to have information instantly available, at a touch. You can:

  • Record lectures
  • Break lectures into smaller, quickly accessible components that students can review swiftly
  • Send reminders and speedy updates
  • Have students create and post content -- from any location and at any hour
  • Have students comment or vote

In cases where you do want to translate something you are doing already into the new medium, look for those opportunities in which the new technology can allow you to be quicker or more effective. A lot of colleges are buying clickers for use in the classroom and distributing those during a class, Brown notes, but many students already have mobile devices in their pockets, and there are free applications available that allow students to click in a response via mobile device.

"We need to think about what is different. It's not about the devices, it's about the capabilities. It's not about the technology, it's about the opportunities."
Judy Brown, ADL Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst

"Slow Drip" Learning

Finally, Brown recommends looking more broadly at opportunities for adoption. Most colleges that are considering mobile learning have the freshman class in mind. However, there are other opportunities to use mobile technology for learning and engagement -- for example, with alumni.

Mobile learning could be used to keep alumni engaged with your institution and to help your graduates stay current in their field. Suppose that you distributed content in a weekly or a daily update -- perhaps podcasts of mini-lectures -- that could be delivered wirelessly to an alum's mobile device.

"It's like an IV, a 'slow drip' of lifelong learning, keeping you current."
Judy Brown, ADL Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst

This could even be a subscription service with a small fee for alumni, which could help to cover the costs of adoption.

"We are at the very beginning of this new capability of having constant access to information. This is the exciting time, the time for creativity."
Judy Brown, ADL Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst

Getting Started

"Colleges need to look first at how students are already using these devices. Engage the students, get their input. Survey them, learn what they would find useful."
Judy Brown, ADL Mobile Learning Strategic Analyst

Brown also recommends involving not just IT, but bringing together faculty representatives, both "believers" and "non-believers." In this way you can facilitate an ongoing discussion of opportunities to use mobile technology, and the non-believers can challenge any assumptions that are being made too easily. Identify a pilot project or two, and do everything you can to support the faculty member in getting a grant to finance the project.

Mapping the Decisions You'll Need to Make

Academic Impressions has designed this seven-step checklist that you can consider with your team. This is a list of critical decision points along the road to adopting mobile learning at your institution.

1. Define Your Objectives

  • Why do you want a mobile learning project?
  • What unique result do you want to achieve?
  • How you will know when you have met your goals?
  • How will you evaluate your effectiveness?

2. Define Your Audience

  • For whom is your mobile initiative intended?
  • What user support do you need to provide?

3. Define Your Budget

  • What do you need to get the project done?
  • How are you going to fund it?
  • How long will you be able to sustain it?

4. Identify Your Instructional Strategies

  • Is it an interactive team / community network?
  • Is it a broadcast distribution framework?
  • Is it for formal learning programs or informal learning assets?
  • Who is going to produce the content (e.g. is it going to depend on community or commercially produced content)?
  • Where is the content going to reside?
  • Who is responsible for placing content in repository?
  • What content distribution methods will be used (e.g., web delivery, copyright, registration for use, charges, etc.)?
  • What content management mechanisms need to be in place?
  • How will you assess learning?

5. Identify Your Stakeholders

  • Who are your major stakeholders?
  • What will your stakeholders need to be successful?

6. Identify the Technology

  • Who will provide the service?
  • What kind of reception technologies will be used?
  • What content creation tools will be used?
  • What network will be used for distribution?
  • What security mechanisms will you have in place?
  • What kind of user interface will you use?
  • What user support will you provide?

7. Determine Intellectual Property

  • Who is going to own the work?
  • Who owns the right to content?