Teen on Smarphone

Smartphone Learning

For the past several years the Horizon Report has listed mobile learning, in one form or another, as an emerging educational technology (e.g. mobile computing, mobile apps, social media, BYOD, mobile learning). Mobile technologies have changed over the years: from the early PDAs, Blackberrys and feature phones with texting capability and cameras, to tablets and eReaders to the ubiquitous smartphones of today. According to the ECAR 2016 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 96% of undergraduate students now own a smartphone. Smartphones have clearly emerged as the mobile technology of choice, while the tablet, eReader and wearable technology ownership has dropped off.

Chart showing rate of undergraduate smartphone ownership
Undergraduate Smartphone Ownership

Despite near universal device ownership, students have yet to fully embrace the smartphone as a tool for learning. The ECAR study indicates that most students (appx 80%) do use their smartphones for one or more classes while only 46% consider them “essential for coursework” compared to their laptops at 93%. This is understandable considering the fact that many online courses tend to be reading and writing intensive. The size of the screen and necessity of “typing” with a virtual keyboard, can mean reading and writing with the smartphone a laborious task.

The top three ways listed by students for using academic technology include making it easier to access coursework (72%), increasing communication with other students (65%), as well as with their instructors (60%) – in other words, student-to-content, student-to-student, and student-to-instructor interactivity. Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theorem states that “deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one (or more) of the three forms of interaction is at a high level”.

What if we were to design the course with the smartphone learner in mind? Not necessarily that the course must be taken using a smartphone, but that the learner who uses a smartphone as their primary technology would not be disadvantaged. What would we then need to do differently?

Considering student-to-content interaction, rather than delivering content primarily in text, the use of video and/or audio formats might prove more mobile-friendly. Smartphones are great for watching short videos or listing to music. Video and audio files (podcasts) can can be easily created using various mobile apps or web-conferencing solutions (e.g. Voice Recorder, Zoom.us, Skype). By using Google Drive or Archive.org, media can be made available for students to download offline, when they may be without a WiFi connection.

The ability to take photos, record and share images, audio and video via the smartphone camera can be a powerful tool for both student-to-content and student-to-student interactivity. By sharing or attaching photos, screenshots, video or audio files, learners can create authentic artifacts. Such media can be submitted to an e-portfolio or blog (e.g. Tumblr) for peer review or assessment of learning.

Most social media technologies (SMT) are designed to work with the smartphone as well as with desktop browsers. By replacing LMS threaded discussion with SMT (e.g. GroupMe), messaging, engaging in group discussions, as well as sharing news, scholarly articles, video, etc. becomes a simple and familiar process.

Scheduling virtual office hours using Skype, Zoom, or Hangouts can increase student-to-instructor interactivity and improve student satisfaction. Skype also can be used for asynchronous video and audio communication, supporting teaching presence and instructor immediacy.

Despite the pervasiveness of smartphone ownership by today’s undergraduate students, their use of the technology for academic purposes has not kept up with the rate of adoption. One reason students may not leverage their mobile devices for formal learning is educators have yet to fully “harness” the affordances of the technology for teaching and learning.


Brooks, D.C. (2016). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2016. EDUCAUSE.

ANDERSON, T (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. IRRODL

Cochrane, T., Bateman, R. (2010). Smartphones give you wings: Pedagogical
affordances of mobile Web 2.0. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.


Can Transactional Distance Theory inform instructional design for CBE?

For the past several years, online learning in higher education has focused on delivering a highly structured learning environment. Courses are typically designed to deliver content sequentially (week one, week two, etc.) with required reading assignments, discussion forums, quizzes, etc. This approach to online learning has served to help new-to-online learners navigate the online course, learn to use the most common learning management system (LMS) tools, and interact with their classmates in ways that have modeled the traditional classroom. However, with emerging deliver models such as Competency-based Educational (CBE) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) gaining traction in higher education, it may be time to consider design approaches to better support the autonomous learner.

Billiards Table - CC-BY by Oliver Clark on Flickr
CC-BY by Oliver Clark on Flickr

Transactional distance doesn’t refer to the distance between the instructor and student in regards to space or time but rather the distance in regard to transactions or interactions between the learner, instructor, and content. According to Transactional Distance Theory the “degree of structure and dialogue [required] in a course depends on the students’ ability to learn autonomously”.  Students who lack the necessary skills to self-regulate their learning may require a more structured learning environment, whereas autonomous learners are better positioned to succeed in a less structured environment (Koslow & Piña, 2015).

The inverse relationship between learner autonomy and course structure is important to keep in mind as we design for emerging distance learning models. In the CBE environment students enter a program of study at different times and progress at different rates. In order to support the flexibility required by CBE we may need to abandon the more traditional lock-step approach used over the past several years for designing online learning environments in higher ed.

Kozlow et al (2015) suggests that in order for autonomous learners to be successful they must possess self-regulated learning (SRL) strategies. The self-regulated learner has the ability to plan their own approach to learning as well as to review and evaluate their own understanding.

Online courses designed with SRL in mind might begin by offering pre-assessment opportunities for students to discover what they do or do not know on a given subject. Assessment feedback could include contextual links to additional resources / material for students to review. The use of practice quizzes along with digital badging systems and other formative assessment tools can assist students in measuring their own progress, as well as providing motivational support. Journals, blogs, and e-portfolios could replace the discussion forum commonly used in the “traditional” online course – providing an autonomous learning tool to assist with learner reflection.

As more colleges explore delivery models offering less structure and providing fewer opportunities for dialog, we need to consider instructional design approaches that can support student success in environments with greater learner autonomy.


A. Kozlow & A. Pina (2015) Using Transactional Distance Theory to inform online instructional design. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Vol. 12. No. 10  http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Oct_15/Oct15.pdf#page=67&zoom=auto,87,688

M. Weimer (2010). What it means to be a Self-regulated Learner. Faculty Focus, Magna Publications. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/what-it-means-to-be-a-self-regulated-learner/

The value of Student Evaluations of Teaching

A few years back a small group of faculty at our college were charged with redesigning a student survey of instruction for our online and hybrid courses. The resulting evaluation was a significant departure from the previous version with much more focus on student effort and expectations.

Teacher Evaluation Form CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr
Teacher Evaluation Form CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr

Instead of asking students questions along the lines of “Was you professor prepared for class?” or “How knowledgeable was your instructor about the course material?” – questions designed to evaluate instructor performance – the new and improved version took into consideration student investment: What grade do you expect to earn? How much effort did you put into the assignments? How much time did you set aside for course study each week? These kinds of questions help students to consider their own expectations and whether they align with their actual effort.

When asked about the quality of a thing (whether a product, service, or experience), we are actually being asked whether it met our expectations. These expectations may not be very realistic or accurate depending on past experience. When I talk with a group of faculty about innovating instruction in their courses, I suggest they tell students up front that they are trying something new and ask for their cooperation. I also suggest they warn their deans and department chairs that student evaluations may be negatively effected – students don’t always appreciate having to work at their own learning.

Unfortunately, student satisfaction surveys are all to often used as part of the faculty evaluation process. This is not only unfortunate but unfair as there is evidence that such assessments are not very useful or accurate for this purpose. A recent Inside Higher Ed article “Bias Against Female Instructors” reported on a study that showed male instructors tended to be rated higher than females regardless of the gender of the student.

In my opinion student evaluations can be useful for helping instructors, departments and programs to improve course design and delivery but they need to focus not on student satisfaction but on instructional feedback. And, they need to be performed not at the end of the semester but much earlier in the process. By asking students to provide feedback on course delivery and design earlier in the semester, faculty have the opportunity to improve instruction and at the same time, get a sense of how their students are doing in regards to learning the material.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

Navigating the online course

After several trips to Pittsburgh in the past few years, I have learned to turn off my GPS navigation system while driving through the downtown area. With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr
With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical. Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O’Brien CC-BY on Flickr –

A colleague shared with me an incident with a student requesting a refund when, after week four of an eight week math course, they had yet to log into the publisher’s course site. According to the student they had logged into their Blackboard course and perused the course space but were unaware of the need to log into the supplemental publisher’s site, where the quizzes were to be completed. Of course, by week four, they were already halfway though the course and had missed several quizzes. When the instructor suggested they drop the course, the student stated they were not made aware of the second site and therefore should not have to pay for the course.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of concerns and it seems to me that this is yet another example of how important it is to make clear the expectations early on in the semester or term. One way to help avoid these problems is to consider the course interface from the student’s perspective.

In a Quality Matters research project, Does Findability Matter? – Findability, Student Motivation and Self-efficacy in Online Courses (2012), researchers found that time-on-task, student self-reported difficulty and frustration levels were significantly higher for students enrolled in control group (non-QM-recognized) courses. On the other hand, students enrolled in the experimental group (QM recognized courses) reported a significantly better experience in regards to ease of finding course materials and assignments. The were more likely to enjoy their course experience and to recommend the course to friends. Instructor ratings were higher and frustration levels, lower than for the control group.

“Findability” was rated using QM Standard 6.3 – Navigation throughout the online components of the course is logical, consistent, and efficient.

When preparing the course ask a colleague and / or student(s) who are unfamiliar with the course, to look over the homepage and provide helpful suggestions. Here are some questions for which they might provide feedback…

  • Is it obvious where to begin?
  • Can you easily find the course syllabus?
  • Is it clear how to contact the instructor, when they are available and when students can expect a response?
  • Are the course goals and objectives clearly stated?
  • Is the schedule of assignments and course activities easy to find and understand?
  • Can students easily navigate to ancillary materials (e.g. publishers quizzes)?
  • Can you see at first glance how to find both technical and course-related assistance?

Keep in mind that people are different and will intuit where to find things by their own experience with similar interfaces. Although you may feel that putting all of the important information in one place (such as the syllabus) should suffice, your students may benefit by finding the same information in multiple locations – or rather – multiple paths to the same information.

These considerations may seem obvious but getting a second or even third perspective can help to ensure students can easily navigate the course and focus on the learning, as opposed to getting lost along the way.


Simunich, B., Robins, D., Kelly, V. (2012) Does findability matter?. Quality Matters.org https://www.qualitymatters.org/files/webform/Quality%20Matters%202012%20Findability.pdf

eLearning and the Smartphone

Social Mediators by johnwilliamsphd
Social Mediators, a photo by johnwilliamsphd on Flickr.

We recently conducted a survey of our student body to learn what kinds of technology they have access to and use for their studies. We are interested in seeing how our students compare to the research on college students and technology.

For me, one of the more interesting finds was 65% of our students surveyed report they have a smartphone. This is precisely the same percentage as reported by Pew Internet’s recent survey of college students and technology for community college students – which by the way, is the demographic showing the highest percentage of smartphone ownership.

“College students are much more likely than the overall cell owner population to use the internet on their mobile phones, although all young adults do this at a relatively high rate regardless of student status.” – Pew Research Center

Considering that community college students oftentimes have access to fewer resources, it seems at first that this would be counter-intuitive. However, when you consider that the smartphone may be the main source of Internet access, it begins to make more sense. The cost of the smartphone is usually spread out over monthly payments within a contract. This means lower costs up-front and lower costs overall when compared to the combined costs of a cell phone and monthly Internet service to the home.

It raises an important question. Can the student who relies primarily on a smartphone for Internet access get the same experience as the student who uses a computer with broadband connection at home? Probably not.

If, in fact a large percentage of our students rely on their smartphones to access their education, we need to seriously consider how we can best accommodate these students toward the goal of providing the most successful experience.

Things to consider: Access to grades, ability to participate in online discussions, library services, student services, help desk services…