Mobile Learning Evolves from Initiative to Ecosystem

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership November 13, 2014

On November 6, 2014, I organized a meet-up during the 2014 World Innovation Forum for Education. The audience was small, but diverse and active. Participants came from Egypt, France, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, China, as well as Qatar, where the summit was held. A variety of mobile phones were used by participants of this session, including iPhones that are often seen in the US, Huawei’s Mate used in China, as well as some “dumb” phones used temporarily during travel.
Curious what people do with their phones, I asked everyone to recommend one favorite mobile app. Participants from France and Canada both recommended Uber, an app to help get a taxi. A participant from Egypt said she used whatsapp. Professor Jiao Jianli from China recommended Zite, an app to gather and curate mobile content. A participant from China recommended a Chinese app that provides recipes and tutorials for cooking Chinese food.  Almost all of us use some kind of social media tools such as Wechat, Twitter, or Instagram.  Of course, Skype is everyone’s favorite app as well.
I gathered from the enthusiasm of the audience that mobile apps are entering many spheres of our existence, from kitchens to crossroads. Who would object to a little extra convenience when life is hectic as it is? Your mom will not throw your phone in the kitchen sink because you use a cooking app to “cheat” in a culinary task which had taken her a long time to master. Yet there were professors who dumped a laptop in liquid nitrogen, or smashed phones in the front of classrooms to make a declaration: that in their classes, such devices are simply banned.  
To be fair, videos of device destruction went viral around six or seven years ago, when some devices, especially smartphones, were still novelties. Attitudes have shifted since then. As I review syllabi for professors, I found that they are more diversely divided in the uses of devices in the classroom. Some still ban any devices. Some unconditionally welcome the use of mobile devices in the classroom. The rest are divided among using devices at students’ own discretion, or at the teachers’ discretion.    
In my observation, those who make use of mobile devices in learning are steadily on the increase. I would even venture to say that they are becoming the mainstream. These educators use apps like Kindle, iBook, Gutenberg, Audible, Hoopla for students and themselves to consume content, which offers tremendous economic benefits as digital equivalents of books are often cheaper, or completely free. For universities struggling with economically disadvantaged student populations, offering course materials using free online resources can translate to boosts in enrollment, which is essential for institutions that are run on shoestring budgets. Tidewater Community College, for instance, goes so far as to offer “textbook-free” degrees to ease the “pain of soaring textbook costs”.  
I am also seeing that educators use mobile apps to make their own work efficient or productive. For instance, professors in our university (Abilene Christian University) use Notability or iAnnotate to grade papers, giving students quick and media-rich feedback. Instead of sending papers around, teachers use shared Evernote “notebooks”, Google Doc files or Dropbox folders to share content, provide feedback and collaborate on projects.
Innovative teaching practices mushroom once teachers and students find the benefits of such apps. Students may go out into the fields outside of schools to take pictures or record interviews, while sharing these objects with cloud-based storage apps. All of a sudden, experiential learning becomes real and easy, due to the uses of context-aware, GPS-enabled smart phones and the apps that go with them.
Mobile apps also lend themselves to the production of learning objects. With affordances for voice or video recording, professors can use Explain Everything or Showme to produce instructional videos. Voice functions can be used produce podcast episodes that used to be possible to accomplish only with special programs on a laptop, if not with facilities in a recording studio. As digital learning objects grow, an online course is sometimes only an instructional designer away from a traditional class.  
As educational uses of apps grow, it is no longer a good idea to build “native apps” to cater for all the educational needs of all the university. The marketplace of mobile apps seem fragmentized and overwhelming, but it offers infinite possibilities for individual educators or students to combine or even “smash” best apps for their own needs. “Educational apps” locally developed lost favor among users as they are notorious for being outdated or “buggy” as educational institutions usually lack dedicated development teams or financial resources to keep these apps reliably functional or quickly updated for a university’s more current needs. It is far better to find educational uses of existing mature consumer apps that have a team behind them for constant improvement. Most universities find it wiser to focus their money and energy on responsive designs of their web pages or intranet sites, things that cannot be easily outsourced, while leaving app development to those who have the time, money or people to do it better and quicker.
Few educators on the same campus use exactly the same apps. Some risk using expensive apps that are downright inferior when their colleagues may know something better. Some may feel extremely reluctant to use anything at all. How do we help teachers adopt mobile learning? There is much a school can do to harness the hidden powers that can grow out of varied and fragmented uses among teachers. Some advanced users among teachers may discover and recommend apps and best practices in using them, while educational technology and staff development professionals can help in the screening, selecting and sharing process. My colleagues and I constantly scout for teachers doing innovative things with their mobile devices. We invite them to share what they do with particular apps to their peers so that best practices can disseminate. Students sometimes cause reverse peer pressure among teachers. For instance, students in one class may use Quizlet to prepare for final exams. When they share it with students in another class, these students in turn will tell it to their teacher and their teacher end up adopting Quizlet as a teaching tool as well. Generally speaking, mobile learning becomes less and less of university initiatives run through top-down decision structures. Mobile learning has instead become an environment, an ecosystem, in which students, teachers and staff members have influence on, and collaborate with, one another.

Access, however, remains an issue. During the meet-up, I heard that in some regions not all students have smart devices. However, creativity flourishes in such areas as well. For example, WISE Awards winning project BBC Janala facilitates the learning of English through older cell phones. Students can dial 3000 to listen to English lessons. Innovation in mobile learning does not have to be high-tech. It can be low-tech and high-touch. Human touch combined with the potentials of technology produce miracles in education. With the ubiquitous uses of mobile phones throughout the world, mobile learning does not wait at the summit for technology laggards to catch up. With creativity, mobile learning can meet users where they are.