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How Is Mobile Learning Being Used in Higher Education in the United States?

May 25, 2011

Eager to Experiment

Despite the fact that only eleven colleges are requiring students to use iPads or iPods during the 2010-11 academic year, Campus Technology reports that over 70% of surveyed CIOs and senior IT leaders have included mobile learning (mLearning) as an important part of their future campus technology plans. One school official at Buena Vista University was quoted as saying “if [the iPad] develops over the next several years on the trajectory that appears most likely, it may eventually replace laptops for most applications on campus.”

Campus Technology indicates that the majority of mobile apps currently available on campus are extensions of the school’s commercially developed learning management systems, however, this is changing as more apps are developed and shared by students, educators, and the educational institutions themselves.

Early Adopters

One of the early mLearning trailblazers in higher ed is Abilene Christian University. In 2008, ACU launched an mLearning initiative that distributed an iPhone to all incoming freshmen. Since then, they have expanded the program and shared their findings. ACU’s 2009-10 Mobile Learning Report provides specific details on the ways in which teachers are using mobile devices in their courses. Some examples include a business professor who uses ResponseWare during class to poll students on their understanding of the material and a chemistry professor who has created podcasts to explain laboratory procedures so that she can reserve valuable class time for the discussion of more advanced concepts. Another professor created podcasts of herself interviewing the major theorists in her field.

William Rankin, an ACU English professor, describes how students stopped taking notes in his classes about five years ago because they could find the same information on the Web after class. As a result, Rankin changed his teaching strategy. Rather than standing in front of the class and lecturing for an hour, he now instructs his students to use their iPhones to look up information and then leads a discussion in which he assesses and evaluates the information sources, helping them find the ones that are most accurate and useful.

The University of Maryland has also been experimenting with mLearning. In the fall of 2008, they launched a pilot program with the goal of enhancing classroom learning, promoting student and teacher interaction, and providing tools for navigating the campus. Their Mobile App Directory includes apps for finding campus locations, searching university staff, accessing the learning management system, and receiving university news.

For students, the affordability of mobile devices, apps, and digital content will be a driving factor in their adoption. There’s well-documented frustration with the cost of printed textbooks, and e-textbooks downloaded on a tablet PC promise to be a more affordable option. At Oklahoma State University, students who used an iPad in the University’s pilot program found that the cost of an iPad was equivalent to roughly two semesters’ worth of textbooks, and was therefore a cost that was easily recovered. Students can download textbooks and a free reader app from CourseSmart as an alternative to visiting the college bookstore.

In fall 2011, Buena Vista University expanded their pilot test to a fully implemented program in which all students received an iPad. Jamii Claiborne, a Buena Vista professor of media studies, was quoted as saying “the iPad means we can gather, create, edit, publish, promote, and then consume what we make from one small, mobile device.” This is a fitting summary of the transformation instigated by devices that bring the power of connected creativity to students and teachers for a higher level of portability, personalization, and ubiquity.

Key Take-Aways

  1. College campuses are natural incubators for exploring and inventing effective uses for mLearning.
  2. High textbook prices are a driving factor in student demand for e-textbooks on mobile devices.
  3. The availability of information on the Web is changing the way college professors teach their classes and employ educational resources.