By Stefan Avey
In our increasingly digital world, mobile devices are ubiquitous. On college campuses, cell phone and tablet use by students and teachers alike seems to be increasing with respect to less-mobile laptops and PCs. As a 4th year Ph.D. student in bioinformatics, I spend most of my time in lab working on a desktop computer. When I am not in lab, however, I am likely to learn something by listening to a podcast or watching a video on a mobile device (often while driving, washing dishes, or folding laundry). Given the increasing use of mobile devices, can encouraging students to use mobile devices make learning more accessible?
Mobile-ready education requires adaptation of course material to formats a mobile device can handle, which leads to practical concerns.1 If you expect your students to use a website, is it mobile-friendly? Try Google’s URL tester to find out. If you use videos to teach, are they small enough to be downloaded on a mobile device or accessible as streaming videos? If not, have you considered that some students may not have easy access to a computer and are therefore at a disadvantage?
Beyond the practical considerations, how should we think of mobile-ready education? One useful framework is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (ACCESS Project 2011). UDL has historically been viewed as a design principle to make learning more accessible to students with disabilities (Tobin 2015). For example, closed captioning was created to aid people with hearing impairments, but it helps many people including, perhaps, college students who do homework after their children go to sleep at night. The idea is simple: putting content in multiple formats, and letting your students choose how to learn, benefits all students. Why? The UDL framework emphasizes giving students an extra option for encountering content, demonstrating learning, and staying engaged. (ACCESS Project 2011) UDL will especially benefit students whose success depends on utilizing multiple learning modalities or capitalizing on opportune moments to study (e.g. on their way to work).2 Indeed, the demographics of the average college student is shifting towards students who are older than 30, have children, or work while in college. A recent report from Georgetown University found that around 40% of undergraduate students work at least 30 hours per week. (Carnevale 2015).3
At this point you may be thinking, “well this is all great in theory but I don’t have the time to make professional videos and mobile apps.” One way to adopt UDL principles with minimal extra work is to use, or ask your students to use, existing technologies. For example, in a science class at Yale, an undergraduate recently gave a final presentation about the chemical structure and degradation of pigments used in oil paints. This student used a free app to demonstrate how a pink pigment that Van Gogh commonly used looked when fresh (Van Gogh’s intended color) and how it currently looks. This award-winning app, Touch Van Gogh, allowed the entire class to dive deeper into Van Gogh’s work without stepping foot in a museum.
There are many excellent resources available online that can be adopted for your course.4 In addition to representing information, mobile devices can be used to engage students and allow them to demonstrate learning. Some examples include encouraging your foreign language students to converse in the language by texting on mobile devices outside of class or giving course credit to your botany students when they post pictures of field work on twitter with a class hash tag.
While UDL aims to increase accessibility, the risk with any online learning is that the content may be permanently or temporarily unavailable. I recently taught an introductory course on Data Science that relied heavily on example websites for in-class demos. A few minutes before class, as I was setting up my laptop, I discovered (to my horror) that the site was down even though I checked that it was working a few hours prior. I scrambled and found a similar tool online but didn’t have time to change my slides to reflect the particularities of the new tool, making that section confusing for my students. I learned that when using online content, having a backup plan helps students be successful. If you give your students an assignment and the website doesn’t work, what should they do instead? What if it only stops working the day before an assignment is due?
A 2007 study found that 94% of distance learners but only 60% of faculty said they were ready for mobile learning. Since 2007, mobile technology has continued to evolve and our students are mostly “digital natives,” while faculty are not. (Corbeil 2007) Mobile-ready education has the potential to help bridge this gap by providing content to students in a more familiar, accessible way. Major challenges include building infrastructure to support faculty developing mobile-ready content and convincing faculty that this is worth the investment. To some extent, the infrastructure can be facilitated by a university-wide learning management system. The Canvas system, currently piloted by Yale, boasts mobile apps for iOS and android that allow easy access to content on the go. In addition, many universities, like Yale, have instructional technologists who support faculty in providing mobile-ready learning. Depending on the strategy, the time commitment can range from a few minutes per lesson to months of developing an app with a support team.
I would love to hear your thoughts on who benefits from a mobile education and how education can be made more accessible by making it mobile-ready?
1. For a more detailed analysis of techniques and frameworks for mobile content adaption, see Chapter 10 of Emerging Perspectives on the Mobile Content Evolution.
3. The Georgetown website describing this report gives a good model for mobile-ready education as it is mobile-friendly and represents content in a variety of formats (video, PowerPoint, text, audio, podcast, etc.).
Carnevale, A.P., Smith, N., Melton, M., and Price, E.W. (2015). Learning While Earning: The New Normal.
Quinn, Clark (2000). “mLearning: Mobile, Wireless, In-Your-Pocket Learning,” LineZine. (retrieved November 27, 2015). http://www.linezine.com/2.1/features/cqmmwiyp.htm
Corbeil, J.R., and Valdes-Corbeil, M.E. (2007). Are You Ready for Mobile Learning? Educ. Q. 51–58. (retrieved November 27, 2015). http://er.educause.edu/articles/2007/1/are-you-ready-for-mobile-learning
Thomas J. Tobin (2015). Everyone’s Future: Getting Faculty to Adopt Universal Design for Learning. (retrieved November 17, 2015). https://sites.google.com/a/podnetwork.org/wikipodia/2015-pod-conference/presentations-2015/ttobin
ACCESS Project (2011). Universal Design for Learning: A Concise Introduction. 1–4. http://accessproject.colostate.edu/udl/modules/udl_introduction/udl_concise_intro.pdf