New case studies: Mobile learning

Posted on behalf of Dr Richard Walker, E-learning Development Team Manager

UCISA mobile case studies publicationHow can mobile learning enhance the student learning experience? What are the pedagogic benefits related to the use of mobile technologies in learning, teaching and assessment activities. What are the most effective strategies for engaging learners as mobile learners? These are just some of the questions addressed in a new collection of case studies on institutional approaches to mobile learning which has been published by UCISA’s Academic Support Group.

The publication showcases six different institutions and their approaches to the use of mobile technologies, focusing on support for on-campus learning activities, ranging from lab work and performance analysis to off-campus field work and placement activities. Attention is also directed to how we create resilient frameworks for mobile learning, supporting off-site activities at scale, and strategies for institutional deployment of m-learning approaches, embedding associated digital literacies within the curriculum and making connections with the digital competencies that are required for the workplace and beyond.

As part of an official launch for the publication, a UCISA event entitled ‘Effective use of mobile technologies to enhance learning, teaching and assessment’ was held at Imperial College London on Thursday 23rd January, at which representatives from the six featured institutions presented on their case studies. John Traxler, Professor of Mobile Learning at the University of Wolverhampton, kicked off proceedings with a keynote address, reviewing the development of mobile learning across the HE sector. John noted that whilst mobile learning had originally been presented in a false light – as a panacea for the shortcomings of traditional e-learning practice (addressing true ‘just in time’ learning on the go, rather than transmissive learning through static PCs) – a vision that could not be realised due to the complicated and fragile technology which academic staff found challenging to get working, things had moved dramatically in recent years. Indeed he pointed to a new debate that institutions are facing, which is no longer concerned with how to promote mobile learning by seeding projects and providing technologies for staff and students to try out. The ‘trickle-down’ metaphor for mobile adoption is no longer appropriate, given the ubiquitous use of these technologies in the real world, which has provided a new dynamic to the debate. Nearly all students own mobile phones -a recent UCAS Media survey reported that 82% of new university and college students own a smartphone and at least 20% have a tablet. In John’s view, the debate has shifted to how we support these learners and meet their expectations on making their devices work within campus learning spaces – less BYOD but more BYOT or BYOS – with the focus on supporting the technologies and services that students are using off-campus.  Whilst John’s description of disappointed students ‘powering down their devices’ when they arrive on our campuses may be stretching current realities on device ownership and their applications for learning (note Selwyn’s critique of students’ digital literacies) the trend towards universal ownership of these devices and an expectation that these technologies will be recognised as part of the fabric of university life (formal and informal study) is unmistakably there.

So where are universities in their current thinking on m-learning?  In John’s view, whilst modest progress has been made in pushing out services to students (for example, SMS texts used to notify students on cancellation of lectures), and more situated support has been introduced through mobile devices for fieldtrips and location aware applications (e.g. contextual information on artefacts, enabled at museums and art galleries), universities could do much more, transitioning from fixed-term, small-scale projects to sustainable services which transform student learning. Part of the challenge in making this transition is managing technical factors (scaling up and supporting resilient mobile services), but another part is in effecting changes in academic perceptions of the learning process, embracing a new reality of learning controlled and owned by individual learners who are using multiple devices.

iPads in the lab (illustrative image only)

The UCISA case studies offer some useful pointers to how institutions may negotiate this transition to mobile learning at scale. The University of Greenwich’s case study on embedding iPad usage within laboratory practice provides some valuable lessons on implementation strategy and the variables which determine whether the adoption of m-learning is enduring within an institution. One of the case study authors – Mark Kerrigan, who presented at the Imperial College event – highlighted the need for an institutional change agenda to be in place for m-learning to take root, moving beyond a limited project mode to a sustainable way of learning across study programmes. To this end, Mark noted how the University of Greenwich had established a clear digital literacy agenda across its teaching programmes over a three-year period, viewing the use of iPads as a vehicle for developing digital literacies for employability and the workplace  – which he pithily described as their ‘digital exit velocity’ from university to the wider world. Crucially though, this has not involved a prescribed pace of change, with staff and students offered flexibility in the way that they employ iPads to support learning activities. Mark spoke of different typologies of mobile users, from those ‘immersed’ in the use of digital technologies to the more ‘detached’, who were given latitude to choose the apps and use cases for employing technology in the lab environment. The case study offers specific details here on how the Jisc mobile learning toolkit helped to inform their thinking on a matrix for mobile adoption, which students used to determine their level of engagement with the technology. An implementation framework was also developed for staff to guide them through the introduction of iPads to study work, the pre-lab activities, through to lab work and data upload to desktops and their VLE platforms. Of course, by following this approach there is no guarantee that all students will be full engaged with this way of learning, and Mark commented that about a quarter of the cohort did not really move on from the apps that they were given in the introduction phase to experiment more widely with mobile devices to support lab work and other use cases in their study and personal life, highlighting the risk of generalising about digital generations and making assumptions about their preferred learning styles and the competencies they bring with them. To accelerate take-up for this grouping and to disseminate good practice across the cohort, a team of student change agents were engaged on scholarships, and they have helped to develop tailored guidance to their peers, which is designed to move them forward and scaffold their experimentation in mobile usage.

Manchester Medical School is another featured case study in the UCISA publication which addresses the transition to mobile learning at scale across an institution. Jane Mooney presented on behalf of MMS and highlighted some of the practical challenges in ensuring that NHS teaching hospitals bought in to this approach and had the requisite level of wi-fi resilience to support m-learning. Common to other UK medical schools, MMS has side-stepped the support issues related to BYOD / BYOT and issued students with devices, which they retain after graduation (with study prorgamme configurations of course wiped after they have graduated). The School has also looked to students to lead their peers in mobile adoption, and has provided an online forum for students to post videos on how they are using iPads to support their learning.

Facebook and Twitter logosThe University of Salford has taken a different approach and looked to provide staff with the opportunity to experiment with technologies and make their own judgements on effective use cases. Chrissi Nerantzi’s presentation highlighted the value of Salford’s PGCAP programme as an incubator for innovative practices, with staff encouraged to ‘learn by doing’, immersing themselves in Twitter, Facebook and use of mobile apps as part of their studies. As Chrissi acknowledged, the impact of such an approach is challenging to evaluate, and the true test will be whether any of her PGCAP participants go on to design learning activities using these tools, and can of course demonstrate a clear rationale for doing so in terms of the learning benefits and recorded outcomes for their students.

So what of the learning and the benefits for students? John Traxler in his keynote was quick to note the assumed benefits for m-learning, but the paucity of evidence to substantiate this view.  Case studies offer a tool to capture innovative practices and a means to shed light on different student learning approaches. The UCISA cases make a contribution in this respect, focusing less on replicating traditional e-learning practices ‘on the go’, but looking at transformational change in real-time data capture, data sharing and decision-making, from use of graph-plotting apps in lab work at Greenwich  to logging of results in controlled fieldwork studies (Northampton).  The challenge moving forward is to track how these cases of innovative practice are scaled up and disseminated more widely across an institution to sustainable developments in learning and teaching practice.

To access the case studies, please download the free UCISA publication at:

Richard Walker
E-Learning Development Team Manager
January 2014

One response to “New case studies: Mobile learning

  1. Pingback: Supporting off-site data collection, reflection and learning with Mobile Technologies | E-Learning Development Team·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s