Mobile Education: The Pros, the Cons, and the Unanswered Questions
Written by: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
Published On: May 11, 2012
"If you look at the students on campus, a third to a half of them leaving class immediately pull out their cell phone. We think, 'if we could harness that, it would be a good thing.'" This scenario, identified by Albert Ingram, associate professor of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences at Kent State University, repeats itself on campuses across the nation, and it is often the reason that distance education administrators contemplate adding mobile learning to their distance education offerings.
However, like all distance education technologies, the move to mobile devices has pros and cons, and incorporating these devices should be a decision made to support pedagogy, not simply to use a technology because of the coolness factor or the ubiquity of the device.
As an example, in the late 1990s, the author of this piece interviewed an educational device manufacturer who was enthused about the device's ability to take computing power out of the classroom into the field. One of the key attributes of the devices was a probe that could be used to measure the pH level of pond water and other naturally-occurring substances, record it, and bring it back into the classroom for analysis. This all seemed wonderful, until the author remembered doing the same exercise as an elementary school student with a highly portable device - litmus paper.
Mobile devices for distance education may be in a similar position. If universities can make the case that they allow for an advance in pedagogy, then they are worth the trouble to integrate into a program. If not, then they may well be the functional equivalent of an electronic substitute for litmus paper.
Con: Small screens mean small bites
Ingram has some serious misgivings about using mobile devices in electronic education, and one of the primary drawbacks is screen size typical of mobile phones and smart phone devices. "They have all of the disadvantages of a CMS and then some. You're chopping things up into little tiny pieces to fit on phone screens," he says. He further explains that universities should be in the business of teaching students to look at larger, more complex issues, and the need to divide content down into bite-size chunks may work against that.
And just because the mobile devices deliver small bites doesn't mean that the total impact is not overwhelming. Consider the students streaming from class, checking their text messages, tweets, and Facebook updates. Evidence suggests that this continual connection can be stressful. In a 2010 article in the Journal of Distance Education ("Mobile Learning in Distance Education: Utility or Futility?"), Marguerite Koole, Janice L. McQuilkin, and Mohamed Ally, all of Athabasca University, contend that "cellular telephones, in particular, can enhance social and emotional presence and lead to a sense of ambient co-presence, the sense of continuous availability. Indeed, learners can even suffer from too much contact and loss of privacy."Continuous connection can mean continuous anxiety.
"I love the iPad because of the screen," Ingram says. In fact, the iPad may be the device that negates the objection of small screen size endemic to mobile phones, although it loses something in easy portability as a result. (Think of a soldier stationed overseas; is it his iPad that is going into the trenches with him, or his phone?)
However, the functionality and ease of use of the iPad has inspired Ingram to consider what educational uses the device could be used for. "I've spent a lot of time thinking of what new apps we can develop," he says. "There is some very interesting collaborative software; we can connect with one another and create a concept map," he says of one app. He also sees the iPad as potentially improving upon educational approaches even if it is not being used for totally new functions. "We can do incremental things - better, in more places," he says. The collaborative software is an example of this; while collaboration among academics has always occurred, this software may make it feasible in more locations.
Con: Screen size is not the only limitation
If screen size were the only limitation, it would be easy enough to require students to buy an iPad on admission and continue with their studies. However, research identifies other challenges to using mobile devices, such as limited means of inputting and outputting data (think of those minute keyboards), a lack of processing power and resolution, and small memories. These limitations are currently being confronted by the healthcare industry, which is finding that, while it is easy to find an app that - for example - allows radiologists to view images on an iPhone or iPad, it is much more difficult to ensure the resolution and image clarity necessary to make a diagnosis.
Platform is also currently a consideration. Much as early electronic education struggled with making documents available in formats accessible to users of both PC and Mac, mobile device educators must think about whether apps are available for iPhone, Blackberry, and Android. Only time will tell whether there will be a coming together of platforms as happened with PC and Mac.
Pro: Constraints can be educational
Consider the tweet. This 140-character message sent out over Twitter can be seen as the ultimate in constraint of self-expression. However, at least one thinker has hypothesized that the limited character constraint of the tweet is ideal for teaching how to write pithy headlines and marketing messages that clearly convey the main points. Likewise, Koole, McQuilkin, and Ally suggest that "although one might expect that the limitations of typing speed and data transfer limitations would cause short, superficial interactions, researchers Batpurev and Uyanga in 2006 suggested that it may instead 'force the learner to prioritize his messages...possibly promoting higher-order thinking.'"
To be truly successful, the use of mobile devices needs to be spearheaded by the faculty members who will use them in their online classes. "How are you going to get faculty to use this and think about this in new ways?" asks Ingram, adding, "I foresee a lot of top-down kinds of initiatives." Using any new technology can't be mandated from above; rather, it must come from the faculty using it.
Pro: Information at learners' fingertips
The history of distance learning has been one of "anytime, anyplace" learning. Almost all types of distance learning have marketed the delivery method as important in freeing students from the constraints of geography and time. Mobile learning is no different.
According to Koole, McQuilkin, and Ally, "mobile devices allow learners to more easily carry reference and communication tools with them into real-world environments. This flexibility permits frequent dialogue with experts and peers, just-in-time retrieval of information, documentation of personal experiences, and integration of course-based knowledge into aspects of the learners' daily lives - all permitting learners to receive feedback and assess their progress."
Pro: Doing things differently
Ingram is in favor of using mobile technology not to recreate functionality that already exists but to give students experiences they could not otherwise have. For example, he suggests using the GPS function on mobile phones to allow students to explore nearby historical sites or to do exercises like impromptu needs assessments while in a restaurant. These exercises may not be as do-able with traditional technology. Adding to this set of scenarios, the article by Koole, McQuilkin, and Ally suggests that "mobile learning is particularly promising for health care professionals who are completing their practice in remote communities. Using mobile devices, supervisors can monitor, interact with, and assess a learner's progress when direct observation is not possible?
Instructional designers and faculty members, however, must avoid the temptation to adopt a technology just because it does things differently and ask themselves if it advances learning in the course. "We always want people to start with the education; which technologies are going to help you do that?" Ingram asks.
In fact, it is the potential to do more and do it more effectively that inspires some educators in thinking about mobile devices. In an article in a 2010 issue of Educational Technology and Society ("Defining Mobile Learning in the Higher Education Landscape"), Mohamed Osman M. El-Hussein and Johannes C. Cronje, both of Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa, contend: "Mobile learning opens our minds to the possibility of a radically new paradigm and encourages us to abandon the constraints of our habitual ways of thinking, learning, communicating, designing, and reacting." For these authors, mobile learning "can be viewed as any form of learning that happens when mediated through mobile devices and [is] a form of learning that established the legitimacy of 'nomadic' learners."
Will mobile devices ultimately be the next big improvement to distance learning? If the history of distance learning is an indication, it is likely that these devices will become integrated as delivery technologies even as the devices themselves improve and become more suited for the jobs they are asked to do. It falls to educators to be sure that they adopt the devices because they offer the potential to do something new to advance the pedagogy. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming a high-tech substitute for litmus paper.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 15.9 (2011): 1,2,7.The Distance Education Report newsletter is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.
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