The truth about mobile tech benefits in classrooms

The embrace of mobile technology in higher education appears to now include at least a small majority of college instructors. In a recent survey of instructors conducted by Education Dive Brand Studio and Cengage, 53% of respondents said they used mobile to access e-books and other digital course materials, while 46% used it to research class topics.

Yet there are still plenty of doubters, and two issues seem to worry them the most. Among those reporting they do not use mobile, 43% said they were concerned that not all students would have equal, affordable access to the devices, and 24% said they were concerned it would distract their students too much.

While these are valid concerns that many instructors share, we’d like to lift the lid and explore the truth behind mobile in the classroom.

Digital Native Generation

A recent Pew Research Center report describes how, over the last several decades, digital technology has progressed from a novelty to a more normal part of the lifestyle of each successive generation.

“Generation X grew up as the computer revolution was taking hold, and Millennials came of age during the internet explosion,” writes Pew Research Center President Michael Dimock. “In this progression, what is unique for Generation Z is that all of the above have been part of their lives from the start.”

Gen Zers, born in the mid-1990s, are true digital natives. By the time the eldest of the generation reached their teens, Dimock notes, mobile devices, Wi-Fi and high-bandwidth cellular service had become the main vehicle for young Americans to connect to the web. They take constant connectivity and on-demand communication for granted.

College students, who now consist primarily of Gen Zers, never leave home — and some never go to bed — without their smartphones. “Students are using their phones for everything. It’s more than just to communicate,” said Courtney Doyle Chambers, marketing manager for digital solutions at Cengage Learning. “It’s how they transfer money to friends, research restaurants, make art and everything else — and, of course, sharing all of that through social media as well.”

Ryan Jenkins, speaker and expert on millennials and Gen Z, sums up the cohort this way in an article for Inc.: “Generation Z is a video and mobile-centric generation where their mobile devices serve as the remote control of their lives.”

Using the same technology to engage these students and keep your course content front of mind may seem like a natural transition for this generation.

Near-Universal Access to Mobile

Despite some college educators’ concern that using mobile technology might put many students at a disadvantage because of the cost, research shows that more than 90% of Gen Z is mobile connected. A recent Educause study reveals that 95% have access to smartphones and 91% have access to laptops. The authors note that their analysis turned up no patterns of inequity along the lines of ethnicity, gender, age or socioeconomic status regarding access to digital technologies that are key to students’ academic success.

Nicole Naudé, technical product manager at Cengage, has seen evidence of this near-universal access firsthand. “Every student that I’ve talked to in any research I’ve done shows that access to a smartphone is super common, largely because they are using apps for social media,” Naudé said. She added that many students seemed to prefer the combination of smartphones and tablets for mobile connection, rather than using laptops. “They really like that they can have cellular data as a backup to Wi-Fi, which is not something you can get on a laptop.”

Engaging Students Inside and Outside of Class

The results of the Educause study also run counter to the idea that mobile will entice students to spend more time posting selfies and playing video games than studying. Students surveyed said they spent more time doing homework and research online than using social media, streaming video, gaming or other online activities.

Many college educators who have adopted mobile technology as a teaching tool will attest that, far from being an inevitable distraction, it offers innovative ways to keep students more engaged with learning. In the Education Dive Brand Studio and Cengage survey, when asked to select the most important benefits of using mobile inside the classroom, 75% of respondents checked, “It provides new ways to energize my class and engage students in learning.” It was far and away the most popular response. The second top choice, at 44%,  being that “It enables every student to benefit equally from the sharing of digital resources and ideas for using them.”

Just as mobile tech facilitates engagement and access to digital learning resources within the classroom, it also provides flexibility and convenience to students and instructors outside of class. In the survey, 76% of respondents cited that “It gives students more opportunities to access digital content on demand, and study at their convenience.” Roughly equal proportions of respondents selected having more time and flexibility to connect with students outside class hours (60%) and the ability of students to use digital content for group study sessions and projects outside of class (58%) as key benefits.

Maximizing the engagement-enhancing benefits of mobile becomes easy when the digital learning app includes features such as notifications to help students keep track of assignment due dates and test scores, flashcards and practice quizzes to help them study, and polling tools to allow instructors to gauge student knowledge and spark classroom discussions.

Building Instructor Buy-In

The Educause report cites data from its 2017 study showing 70% of students saying their instructors were banning or discouraging smartphones in class, and 40% saying the same for tablets. Only 25% reported that their instructors encouraged smartphone use. Fifty-two percent of faculty reported they banned or discouraged smartphone use in class, while 24% said they banned or discouraged tablet use.

“In some cases, faculty ban or discourage devices in classrooms on the basis of research that simply confirms their biases against those digital devices — that they are distracting, that student device usage implies disrespect or a lack of attention, or that students are not taking good notes,” stated the 2018 Educause report. But the authors warn that limiting the use of mobile devices may unintentionally harm certain groups of students who view them as especially important to their academic success. Research has shown these include students of color, students with disabilities, first-generation students, students who are independent and students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, Educause noted.

That is, the very issue of inequality that some college instructors wished to avoid by shying away from mobile, may be exacerbated when it’s banned.

For the reluctant mobile adopters, the most effective way to onboard might be to start with a narrow application and gradually expand. Initially, they may invite students to use some of the study and career-development tools available on a mobile learning app before exploring how it can enhance their teaching. For instance, they might discover how much easier it is to check attendance through students’ smartphones than trying to do a roll call while they drift in and mill about the classroom. Next, they might check out the polling feature to see how well students understand class topics and boost their active participation in class.

Students Leading the Way

For today’s college students, mobile technology is a constant companion. They crisscross the campus, enter classrooms and return home with smartphones and tablets in hand. College teaching and learning methods must evolve to meet these students where they are, allowing them to access course materials and other success tools with the same ease and convenience they get when connecting with friends or sharing photos. With students holding a learning tool with so much potential right in the palm of their hands, educators can’t afford to miss out on the opportunity to use it to capture their attention and create a more engaging learning experience.

Finding the ‘sweet spot’: 4 tips for moving classes online quickly

To help limit the spread of the coronavirus, colleges are taking instruction remote. But experts say careful planning and managing expectations is key.

Colleges and universities are canceling class meetings to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But taking instruction online can be a tough switch to flip — particularly for courses that haven’t historically included a distance-learning component.

“We’re all going to have to be a little bit flexible in situations like this,” said Katie Linder, executive director for program development at Kansas State University’s Global Campus, in an interview with Education Dive. “We want to make sure our students are having really quality learning experiences but also understanding that can look different based on what the situation is.”

On Tuesday, her team launched an online forum for educators worldwide to ask questions and share ideas about facilitating instruction remotely. It’s one of several resources developed by the academic community to help sharpen institutions’ response to the coronavirus’s impact on instruction.

U.S. institutions had a preview of what to expect as the novel coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, spread across China and other countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Momentum picked up in the U.S. in the last week, as more people were tested for the virus. As of Friday afternoon, there were more than 1,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and 38 related deaths, according to data gathered by The New York Times.

College officials here have said the situation is largely unprecedented, though some have experience to draw from.

In 2018, Pepperdine University, in California, closed two of its campuses for a few weeks due to nearby wildfires. Quickly shifting coursework online was “a big learning curve” that required faculty and staff to get up to speed quickly on using remote instruction tools, Christopher Heard, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and a professor at the university’s Seaver College, told Education Dive.

“One of the things we learned was that students are pretty resilient and that faculty are pretty resourceful and that with the appropriate support … we can help professors make these transitions pretty quickly,” he said.

Heard and Linder encourage colleges to stick to their learning outcomes but to be flexible and creative in how they achieve them. 

That can be tricky for courses that lean heavily on experiential learning, such as science labs or co-ops and practicums. But it’s not impossible, they and other experts told Education Dive. 

“What are the things you want them to learn how to do, and how do you want them to work? And then work backwards from there, to how you can do that when you are teaching remotely,” said Beth Kalikoff, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington.

Below, we’ve gathered their tips for colleges going online in a hurry.

Have a ramp-up period

Several institutions have opted to close for a few days or extend spring break to give faculty time to prepare to teach courses remotely. This also gives students whose residence halls have closed a chance to relocate and get settled. 

“To the extent that schools can build a longer rampway for faculty to plan, that’s going to be in their best interest,” said Kaitlyn Maloney, a senior director at consulting firm EAB whose focus includes strategic planning, in an interview.

The University of Indiana Bloomington is holding hour-long webinars about general concepts and tools for remote instruction to help prepare faculty to teach remotely for two weeks when students return from spring break later this month. One-on-one follow-up sessions will help instructors set up these tools, Greg Siering, director of the university’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, told Education Dive.

Giving faculty time to plan can also help manage expectations.

“We want to help them find that sweet spot where they’re not diving in too deep and causing grief for both themselves and their students in these first two weeks, but they’re ramping things up enough” so they are able to continue should they have to teach remotely for a longer period of time, Siering said.

That includes helping instructors understand what regular and substantive interaction, which is a federal requirement of most faculty, means when it is not done synchronously, as it is with real-time lectures. There’s also a difference between going online and going remote, Kansas State’s Linder notes. 

“There are actually some really low-tech options that could work very well for some of your students,” she said, citing email and general use of the learning management system. 

Stick to the outcomes, but be creative

A combination of video lectures, discussion board posts and email feedback may suffice for typical lecture classes. But what if the course relies heavily on classroom-based experiences, such as science labs, music performance or even language learning? 

Simple video tools could help. An instructor could share a video of themselves conducting an experiment and then give the resulting data to students to work with. In a performance-based class, students and faculty could use videos to share work and feedback.

Virtual labs available through platforms such as Merlot and Harvard University’s LabXchange can supplement online instruction. And some MOOC providers said they will make their courses more widely available. 

Reframing the learning experience may be necessary, even for typical assignments. A research paper based on data students collect may not be practical if they aren’t on campus. Instead, instructors could ask students to write a research proposal, which would force students to think through the methodology and what could go wrong, said Christina Smith, assistant director for undergraduate instructional development at Brown University’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, in an interview.

“It all comes to this idea of what are those outcomes and how can you be creative in your assignments and assessment in achieving those,” Smith said.

In certain cases, it may make more sense to reschedule the active learning component until later in the semester, or even entirely, experts said. 

Some are taking that option. Northwestern University’s journalism school is canceling students’ internship placements at media organizations for the spring quarter. According to its student newspaper, the school is waiving the related requirement for professional experience for affected students. 

Make sure students can get to class

As schools plan, it’s important to consider how students could access lectures and assignments “so that the quick pivot to remote instruction doesn’t hamper student success goals or create inequitable situations and learning outcomes,” Maloney said.

Even seemingly straightforward options like video lectures will need to account for students who can’t participate live, either because they are in a different time zone or because they lack sufficient internet access away from campus. That could include recording the lecture so it’s available later. Instructors should also be aware of accessibility requirements, such as ensuring captions for videos they create or stream are available and accurate and that other digital materials are compatible with screen readers.

Because most students are leaving campus and will be spread across time zones, Pepperdine is asking its instructors to emphasize asynchronous experiences, which don’t require students to tune into programming at a scheduled time. To help students plan, any synchronous activities should occur during the preset class time, Heard said. 

“One of the important points here is about equity. We know that students already may be going into inequitable situations with respect to bandwidth and access to Wi-Fi and the internet and so forth,” he said. “We don’t want to compound that by splitting the experience between synchronous and asynchronous.”

Some schools are rethinking remote instruction entirely. At Berea College, in Kentucky, many students live in rural areas that tend to have poor internet access. In response to the coronavirus, officials asked students to leave campus if they can, and they cautioned instructors against course adaptations that require students to stream content, Diverse reported

Faculty there are instead focused on finishing courses over email and even regular mail, administrators told the publication. 

Communicate and document

The U.S. Department of Education is giving colleges more flexibility to use online learning tools in a range of coronavirus-related scenarios so long as instructors maintain regular, substantive communication with students.

It gives an example of what that could look like: an instructor could provide materials over email and then use chat features to communicate with students, set up conference calls for group discussions and engage in other exchanges over email.

To help set expectations for students, Kevin Kelly, a lecturer at San Francisco State University and an ed tech consultant, suggests creating a schedule of announcements each week. That could include a Monday kickoff message, a midweek motivation note, and a Friday reminder of upcoming due dates, he said. 

Telling students to follow simple rules, like submitting their name and course name in the subject line of emails, can help instructors juggle multiple classes gone remote, he added.

The department also asked colleges to document “as contemporaneously as possible” modifications they are making to courses. Instructors should keep that in mind as they adapt their classes, Kelly told Education Dive, though he admits “there probably will be some reverse engineering.”

Heard said Pepperdine faculty are being asked to turn in revised syllabi that reflect changes in course scheduling, due dates and the modality of assignments.

Thinking ahead

Several campuses moving instruction online have said they’ll reassess the situation in a few weeks. If distance learning continues beyond that point, officials will likely need to address other concerns, such as the availability of test proctoring, tutoring services, and the need to stand up new tools and resources, Indiana’s Siering said.

“You can wing it for two weeks,” he said, “but what happens after that?”

How the situation plays out could also affect broader efforts to expand online learning tools, EAB’s Maloney noted. A negative experience within an institution could make it harder for officials there to get faculty on board with future online learning efforts, she said. 

But Robert Lue, faculty director at Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, is hopeful. 

“This is extremely fast-breaking and kind of evolving by the minute as we speak, so in some ways, I think the rate of change of this is going to be extraordinary,” he told Education Dive. “There is a part of me, though, that feels that this will finally help us think much more carefully about what digital means, and what we can actually do with it.”

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