Research on Mobile Learning Practice in Higher Education
- A university-wide survey on students’ mobile learning practices showed that ownership of mobile devices is high among students and that tablets are the most popular devices for academic purposes.
- The survey also found that mobile learning typically occurs outside the classroom, with only limited guidance from instructors.
- To improve mobile learning effectiveness, students and instructors need help adopting more effective learning and teaching practices across content areas.
Mobile technologies are playing an increasingly important role in college students’ academic lives. Devices such as smartphones, tablets, and e-book readers connect users to the world instantly, heightening access to information and enabling interactivity with others. Applications that run on these devices let users not only consume but also discover and produce content.1 As such, they continue to transform how college students learn, as well as influence their learning preferences, both within and outside the classroom.
The popularity of mobile technologies among college students is increasing dramatically. Results from the ECAR research study on students suggest that many undergraduate students bring their own digital devices to college, favoring small and portable ones such as smartphones and tablets. 2 Although students still rate laptops (85 percent) as the most important devices to their academic success, the importance of mobile devices such as tablets (45 percent), smartphones (37 percent), and e-book readers (31 percent) is noticeably on the rise. Increasingly, students say they want the ability to access academic resources on their mobile devices.3 In fact, 67 percent of students’ smartphones and tablets are reportedly being used for academic purposes, a rate that has nearly doubled in just one year.4
To successfully adopt mobile technologies across the university, however, we need more information about the student population’s mobile access and use. Here, we share the results of a campus-wide survey at the University of Central Florida (UCF) about ownership and use of mobile technologies among college students. We focused our study on students’ access and use of mobile technologies, paying particular attention to their use of mobile devices and applications, their learning practices, and their demographic characteristics. Our research sought to answer the following questions:
- What mobile devices do college students have for accessing and engaging with digital content? Do demographic factors influence this access?
- How do college students use mobile technologies (devices and apps) for academic purposes? What demographic factors influence this use?
Our goal was to provide a baseline of mobile technology ownership and usage on which to build future research. We expect that the results will guide potential initiatives to help students and instructors in adopting more effective learning and teaching practices across content areas. We specifically address the implications for student training and skill development and for instructor support.
Although some research exists on mobile technology use in higher education, many factors influencing this use have yet to be fully explored.
Multiple devices are available to and owned by students, which can complicate issues such as the design of training and provision of support. Although many students own mobile devices, ownership is not universal. Identifying specific student demographics that might relate to ownership trends is thus critical. It is also important to determine which devices are most helpful for academic use; mobile technologies afford new opportunities for learning, but their use does not guarantee that effective learning will take place.
Effective use of mobile technologies requires that students exhibit digital literacy skills such as being able to access, manage, and evaluate digital resources.8 Further, students might be informally using many different applications for academic purposes, making it difficult to determine what they use and how.
Research has shown that having a clearer understanding of students’ mobile practices encourages the university to implement more student-centered support and services.9 Technical training and skill development emerge as important factors, and students perceive both as more important than the technology itself.10
These issues of student access and use of mobile technologies also have implications for instructor development. Although students expect instructors to use technology to engage them in the learning process, only a little over half (54 percent) of U.S. students said their instructors provided training for technology used in their courses.11 Instructors generally are unprepared to integrate mobile technologies in learning, as most faculty professional development opportunities do not specifically focus on it. Also, because student performance is usually assessed by finished products, it is difficult to ascertain if using technology contributes to or limits students’ engagement and learning. Finally, technology use is further influenced by the modality of courses in which it is used. Understanding students’ mobile practices more deeply can guide informed instructor development in the future.
What’s worth our attention is the insight from the study that might be critical for promoting mobile learning.
The survey results suggest that the type of device makes a difference for academic use. The findings are consistent with the findings of the ECAR study in that tablets emerge as a potentially powerful mobile device in academia.18 Although tablet ownership was only 37 percent — and much lower than for smaller mobile devices — we found that owning a tablet seems to be beneficial for college learners. Of those who owned tablets, 82 percent used them for academic purposes (as opposed to 58 percent for small mobile devices), and academic use was universal regardless of demographic factors. Tablets emerge as powerful learning devices because they are small and portable (and thus easy to bring to campus), while the screen size lets students retrieve and compose information more easily than small mobile devices.
Given these findings, students — particularly younger and undergraduate students — need more access to tablets. For example, our university library loans them to students, but the number available and checkout time allowed is limited. In addition to increasing such lending opportunities, schools could work with companies to offer tablets to students at a reduced price, for example. Accessing the device is the first step in supporting and increasing students’ mobile learning practices.
Our survey results also indicate that students still need support in how to use mobile technologies for learning. In particular, students with lower GPAs reported using mobile devices, for academic purposes more frequently than higher performers. Similar trends were observed with the academic use of other emerging technologies, such as social media; Facebook users had significantly lower GPAs than non-users.19
Although our survey results do not infer a direct causal relationship between mobile device use and student learning, educators and researchers must figure out why innovative technologies do not fulfill the promise of enhancing teaching and learning. We also see a need to promote digital literacy curriculum or training among college students to help them adopt knowledge and learning practices and engage them with digital media for learning. In particular, this negative relationship between mobile use and learning calls for support for low-achieving students to help them use information effectively and efficiently via mobile technologies and to encourage them not just to become technologically literate but also to use these technologies to improve their learning motivation and performance.
Integrating Technologies into the Curriculum
There is a gap between students owning mobile devices and actually using them for academic purposes. Our survey results showed that 58 percent of small mobile device owners, 64 percent of e-book reader owners, and 82 percent of tablet device owners reportedly use these devices for academic purposes. How can we help to fill that gap?
One opportunity here is to facilitate specialized professional development to help instructors learn and integrate mobile technologies into the curriculum. In the survey, students reported that the academic apps that they used most frequently were information apps (Google, Safari), reference apps (Dictionary), school apps (UCF Mobile, Mobile Learn), and resource management apps (Dropbox, Evernote, Notes, word processing). We suggest that, as a starting point, institutions compile a list of these familiar and frequently used academic apps for instructors and help them incorporate these apps into their courses.
When integrating an app in the curriculum, instructors should consider relevant technical limitations and poll their students to see what devices they own. For example, most students own either an Android or iPhone device, so instructors should make sure that any academic app works on both systems. In addition, 9 percent of our respondents indicated that they do not own a mobile device. If an instructor requires the use of a mobile app in a class, he or she must inform students of this requirement at the beginning and provide university resources or other options for students who lack access a device.
In addition to technical aspects, instructors should consider using sound pedagogical practices to support their mobile learning activities. These activities should be designed to support a meaningful learning purpose, such as sharing current events and resources via Twitter and using polls conducted via text message to engage students in large classes. Integrating mobile technologies in the curriculum could start with designing an assignment. Instructional designers can help instructors deliver professional development training on innovative technologies and work with them individually to incorporate mobile technologies into learning.
Read the full article here: Exploring Students’ Mobile Learning Practices in Higher Education (The text of this EDUCAUSE Review Online article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.)
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