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Go team: College coursework takes to mobile apps

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And if you're teaching current generations of students, that means making use of mobile devices and mobile learning applications.

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"Students do use these mobile applications," said Roopa Mathur, a professor at Irvine Valley College in California.

"All of my classes I do on Blackboard,” she said, referring to Blackboard Inc.’s Mobile Learn application, “even my in-class classes, my face-to-face classes. My classes are totally paperless. All of my syllabuses, all of my handouts, all of my assignments are put up in Blackboard."

E-learning companies have taken notice. Although they're encountering some bumps along the road, all the major course-management systems are rapidly being expanded to support mobile devices.

"We've met with many instructors, students, and administrators of both higher education and K-12 institutions," said Mark Suman, mobile product manager for Instructure, the maker of the Canvas course-management suite. "One thing we've learned from talking to them is that the students love their mobile devices. They've told us that the more we can involve their mobile devices in the classroom, the more engaged they are in the learning process."

Paul Terry, vice president for professional education for Blackboard., agreed. "We live in an age where everyone expects to be connected via mobile in all aspects of their lives—and the educational experience is no exception," he said. 

As a result, all of the major vendors — also including Desire2Learn and Pearson eCollege — have been moving to provide a slice of the functionality offered in their Web-based suites to mobile users.  Those Web-based suites offer notifications, calendars, document sharing, discussion boards, e-mail, assignment drop-boxes, and grade books, but the initial mobile applications from most vendors provided little more than notifications and the ability to check grades.

That, Suman said, was not good enough. "Some students tried the app when it first launched, and since it didn't have all the functionality in it they gave up on it," he said. As a result, Instructure just released a 2.0 overhaul barely six months after releasing 1.0. (The Android version of the mobile application is currently available.  The iOS version is awaiting approval from Apple.) In addition to receiving notifications and viewing grades, the new version allows students to take quizzes and exams, to turn in assignments, to access files and assignments, and to participate in discussion boards.

Blackboard, too, has released an updated Blackboard Mobile Learn application that, according to Terry, "recreates the experience of our online learning management system, Blackboard Learn, onto mobile devices. It gives learners the ability to create and view important course information in their pocket, including documents, announcements, discussion posts and content."  Students can also take tests via the mobile device, view class rosters and check to-do lists. Blackboard said its mobile app has been downloaded 6 million times.

Blackboard also offers its own set of social networking tools. "We worked with over 600 students over the last few years to observe how they want to interact with one another and what their expectations are," Terry said. Students told Blackboard that they don’t want to do their homework on Facebook — they want their social media life to be completely separate from their academic life. So, Blackboard built social media elements into Blackboard Learn. Students can create profiles and follow and message other users with similar interests. A feature called “Spaces” lets students set up their own study and work group pages to collaborate with others via the app.

Making the grade

According to instructors, students’ initial response to the new mobile tools has been very positive.

Mathur said students regularly use the mobile applications to check announcements and grades, and some students use the mobile applications to post to discussion boards. Surprisingly, she added, some students even compose assignments using the mobile application.

Kevin Reeve, an instructor in the information technology department at Utah State University, said his students liked what they found in Instructure Canvas' mobile application. "They thought it was cool," he said. "They would get an alert when there's something they need to pay attention to. It will also tell them when assignments are due, and they could participate in discussions."

Reeve is expecting even more out of the new Version 2. "It's going to be a huge benefit to students," said Reeve, who also leads the school's efforts in mobile development elearning. Students are asking for things like just-in-time information, he said. "They want to be able to do things on the go, walking between classes,  waiting for class to start,  those kinds of things. These mobile devices make it very easy. You don't have to wait for bootup of a laptop."

The mobile application, he says, gives students the kind of instant feedback they expect.  "Students are not into email. They see it as their parents' form of communication. They are into more instant stuff — text messages and instant messaging." In fact, Reeve said that when he comments on papers he sometimes gets virtually immediate response from students.

That’s the kind of engagement quality education depends on.

Mobile instructors, too

The reaction of instructors to the new mobile tools designed for them has been at least as positive. In addition to appreciating the way students are engaging, some instructors are excited by the flexibility it gives them in interacting with, and grading, students.

Reeve is especially impressed by Canvas’ SpeedGrader application, which lets teachers preview and annotate student submissions — all without having to download or upload files. SpeedGrader also gives instructors tools to highlight, comment or even draw on submissions. 

“Grading is one of the most unpleasant things I have to do,” Reeve said. “SpeedGrader actually made grading fun." And because it's mobile he can grade work while riding the bus, waiting for a meeting to start or during other downtime, he said.

Ryan Seilhamer, an instructional designer at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, seconds that notion. Instructors like it. It gives them of the ability to quickly grade wherever they are. “I even had a faculty member tell me that he bought an iPad specifically so that he could use that application," he said.

One for all?

Instructors are quick to point out some of the limitations of mobile class-management applications. One of the most-mentioned challenges is making sure students are staying focused when using computers, including mobile devices, in the classroom. Is that student in the corner posting to a class discussion or checking her Facebook feed?

"I stress to my students that while they think they can multitask, all of the research shows that we really can't," Mathur said. "Something is suffering when we try to do two things at once."

Another limitation is the variety and availability of mobile devices. For starters, not all students have a smartphone or tablet, or they might not have one with a compatible operating system. "Does every student have these devices?" asked Seilhamer, whose group is responsible for designing and maintaining the learning infrastructure. "If they don't, how can you possibly make an assignment that requires one?"

On the server side, some universities may have to add resources to service the growing use of mobile devices. 

According to Seilhamer, his school already had a sufficiently robust Wi-Fi system to handle the growing loads of traffic.  But the school did need to add Web servers to handle the increased usage.  As for security, IT chose to isolate the mobile activity.  "We implemented a bolt-on product that is read-only to our ERP system, and it follows our existing security policies," he said. 

At Central Florida, about 11 percent of students are using the Canvas mobile app that is offered with the Web-based Canvas course-management system, Seilhamer said. Some instructors conduct their entire class through the course management system, so students must have Internet access (not hard to come by on a college campus), but using the mobile app is optional.

The variety of mobile devices is also a challenge for developers writing native applications. "That's the trick of developing for smartphones now," Reeve said.  "There are so many different screen sizes. As we build mobile apps, we have to take that into consideration. At first we just worried about iOS and Android, but now Microsoft Surface is a hit."

Reeve predicts that developers will abandon native applications in favor of adaptive Web applications using cascading style sheets. "It will be just regular websites that adapt and you won't have the need to develop an application in all these different languages to work on the different devices," he said.

Either way, vendors and instructors alike expect rapidly increasing use of mobile devices at all levels of education. "As mobile phones get more advanced in the future, there will be more unique ways to use these devices in the class," said Seilhamer.

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