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Student writing in a workbook while looking at a phone

Now Is the Time to Embrace Mobile Learning

Mon Jul 13, 2020 at 07:30 AM

We drive so little these days that letting my young kids play in our minivan is a favorite activity when the weather isn’t favorable. During our road trip to nowhere, I could read through some teaching and learning articles I had saved on Instapaper. Since I had reached my annotation limit in that app, I copied quotes of interest and pasted them into a Slack channel direct message to myself. I used voice-to-text to take more extensive notes, which I used to write a teaching resource for work later that day. 

Preparing dinner that night involved a couple of brief periods of downtime. I remembered I had saved a webinar recording about microlectures, so I watched that on my phone. I could get the visual input, but also keep following with the audio if I had to step away to keep dinner moving.  

Leveraging these small learning moments has been crucial in this disrupted time, what Sherri Spelic called the “smooshing” of work and life realms. I dearly miss longer and more frequent periods of uninterrupted work time, but having mobile options for learning has helped me widen the breadth of my work so that when I do have those precious few long work periods, I can focus faster with more resources at my disposal and groundwork set.

I am not typically glued to my phone screen, but I have come around to intentional mobile learning for two main reasons: it offers incredible untapped learning potential and reroutes mindless screen scrolling. Recent Pew Research data shows that we all want to use our phones for beneficial tasks like learning. People of color, who are smartphone dependent at a higher rate than whites, more often report wanting more training in how to better use the technology they have. Even teens report mostly using their phones to pass the time and learn new things. As Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling write in their book about universal design for learning in higher ed, when we don’t “meet the mobile learners,” we miss so many opportunities to leverage micro- and macro-learning moments that bolster other class learning activities. Put differently, we fail to seize moments when students want to learn and stay engaged with course concepts but simply can’t. As Barbara Oakley has described in a Learning How to Learn MOOC, learning is like building muscle: you cannot effectively build strength and endurance after one intense workout session--you must exercise steadily over time. Designing mobile learning opportunities in conjunction with more involved learning tasks makes greater impact on our learning.

I never expected to be a mobile learning proponent: as a literary researcher by training, I would be one of those instructors wondering why students can’t sit down and read a book anymore. But when we at least become curious as to what is possible by chunking instructional content for mobile learning, we find that our students can be more often engaged on a topic in a way that allows deeper learning to happen, from the 3- to 10-minute reading and review activities to longer audio files and voice-to-text dictations.

To support all learners during COVID-19, we should offer as many of these mobile learning opportunities to our students as possible. A lot is at stake for us when all academic work effectively takes place through a computer, so being able to have a backup plan that works on a variety of devices is crucial.

Designing a mobile-friendly course during a pandemic can seem like a daunting task, but these first steps in course decisions could better leverage existing mobile learning opportunities:

  1. Evaluate and reflect on your own phone use, how you currently use mobile devices for learning, and how you could increase learning. It won’t take long to see the benefits of intentional phone habits and other types of mobile learning, such as information gathering, article curation, notetaking, and others. Many of us turn to podcasts for personal learning, and we may be surprised to find excellent listening content to incorporate into our curriculum. Award-winning instructor Michael Wesch is a proponent of reading to students, and he compiles all multimodal content in a single-track audio format so that students can listen wherever. The more we plan our own mobile learning and see the results, the more likely we are to translate this practice to students.
  2. Browse pre-existing content that works well for mobile learning (flashcards, videos, podcasts, short articles, social media accounts).
  3. Create and select “neutral” modes of content (i.e. reading that is accessible on any device). Start by simply identifying how many of your readings and learning activities can be accessed on any device. When creating a document, choose a format that scales well to any device, such as a Google Doc or webpage. Can video and audio clips play easily, or do they require specific software and players? The more immediate and readable the format, the more likely they will engage.
  4. Provide reading time estimates, when appropriate. This practice can really help students gauge what they can do when. In the learning management system or wherever you house course material, include duration right in the names. Sometimes you will have to estimate, but even this promotes transparency in your expectations.
  5. On one assignment per semester, allow students to choose modes of expression beyond traditional writing (e.g. video, audio). If the learning outcomes allow for it, let students demonstrate their learning via audio, video, conversation, etc. I have found some students’ voices come alive and show incredible critical thinking when they can break out of double-spaced lines of Times New Roman text.
  6. Explicitly explain how students can use their phones to carry out learning activities. Suggest activities, tools, and duration while leaving options open. Example: “Throughout the next week, write four two-minute summaries or questions to share with the class on Twitter or save for next class session. Using voice-to-text in a Google Doc is a convenient way to record and save these summaries.”
  7. Offer an additional communication method beyond email (Twitter chat, LMS app, text, Google Meet). While many institutions are urging students to check their email often, they are more likely to read your messages and respond in alternative modes. Mobile-friendly office hours may also gain more traction.
  8. Ask students what apps they use for informal mobile learning (note-taking, podcast listening, curating content), and use this feedback to guide mobile learning choices.

All of these steps likely will not come together at once, but more opportunities may open up than expected. These strategies not only help us meet students where they are, but helps us more creatively and intentionally engage them in the type of learning we value.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Originally published in EDUCAUSE on June 22, 2020. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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