News flash, people: almost every college student has a mobile device, and most won’t leave home without it. And, not surprisingly, two words have recently combined to form a compelling phrase: mobile learning. And we’re not talking laptops. Mobile learning is about cell phones, smartphones, and tablets.
Mobile learning meets the students where they are
The students are on their phones. All the time—24/7. My dad once wrote me a limerick about a girl who talked so much on the (rotary) phone it stuck permanently to her ear. But I was only clocking an hour a night tops back then. These 21st-century kids may have an hour a day when they’re not on the phone. So since we are all interested in meeting our students where they are, why not make use of mobile devices to encourage continuous learning? Why not wean our students off of their Instagram feeds (partially, anyway) and get them hooked on their study flashcards in Studyblue? Why not ask them to take out their mobile devices for a real-time poll question during class as opposed to asking them to put the phones away?
Skeptical, are you? A note about the digital divide
It’s true, not all students own smartphones or tablets. But, a simple pay-as-you-go phone with SMS (text) capabilities is sufficient for many mobile-learning activities. It’s also true that some students do not have a cellphone at all. And, I’ve met a handful of faculty members who are sticking to landlines, thank you very much. But the best mobile-learning solutions include equipment workarounds. Students can form groups and use one smartphone between them, or simply use their web browser on a computer to complete the activity.
So, what does mobile learning look like in higher ed?
The possibilities are endless. Creative combinations of GPS, augmented reality, mobile cameras, and apps can create entirely new learning experiences heretofore unthinkable without mobile devices.
An example: I can’t say I fondly remember the days of art history survey courses when I was an undergrad in the last century. Unless my professor had Lady Gaga levels of stage presence, the lectures ran pretty dry. And the room was always dark, which worked well if one needed a quick nap. But imagine the student who signs up for art history in 2013. Instead of sitting in a dark classroom on a given day, she might walk over to the Art Institute of Chicago and listen to a podcast of her instructor speaking about the exhibits. Meanwhile, she tweets her classmates about her own observations. On her way out, she submits her answers to a quiz through her mobile device, and on the train home, she reviews mobile flashcards to prepare for her upcoming exam.
Still, as cool as all of this may sound, mobile learning will never supplant the face-to-face classroom, or the online classroom for that matter
Mobile learning simply augments the instruction that already exists. Clark Quinn, one of the leading mobile-learning pundits, drops the "augment" verb every three sentences when you hear him speak. And if he’s not saying it, he’s implying it. Mobile learning enhances; mobile learning enriches. It is the trim and the moldings, not the foundation. Perhaps that is one of the more appealing features of mobile learning in the instructional-technology domain: it does not, and cannot, claim it is an educational magic bullet. It is not the cure-all for your under-engaged students. It may only appear in the form of one or two activities each quarter. But if the mobile solution is placed in the right context, the results may be downright magical.
Mobile learning may be magical, but is the outcome higher achievement
Research has only just begun in this area. If higher levels of engagement lead to higher levels of achievement, it would follow that mobile learning is promising in this regard. Returning to the art history example: when all is said and done, do you think this student might have had better knowledge transfer via a traditional slideshow carousel in a dark lecture hall? Perhaps, depending on her learning style. We’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. But there is tremendous value in offering our students learning activities that engage students in news ways and incorporate the technology they are already using. Not just for them, either. Imagine the palpable delight when you ask them to power up their phones.
For more information about the Mobile Learning Initiative at DePaul University, contact MoLI.