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Mobile Device Use for Online Courses

by Dr. Sonja Burrows, DLINQ Instructional Designer

In March I attended a session at the OLC Innovate virtual conference entitled “Beyond Mobile Learning Design: Considering Students Who Self-Initiate Mobile Device Use For Online Courses” led by Karen Milheim and Christy Fraenza of Walden University. The session addressed the often-overlooked challenges faced by students who elect to use mobile devices for courses not designed specifically for mobile learning. The presenters shared current research in this area and how institutions might consider supporting this group of students toward an improved student experience.

This session interested me for several reasons: First, because as an instructional designer at Middlebury, I have gained a certain familiarity with the understandable tendency even seasoned faculty have to design online learning experiences without specifically considering how a mobile user might access and experience the environment — even though many learners may prefer mobile access or may have no other option. When online learning courses are in the design phase of development, it’s easy to unconsciously assume one understands exactly how learners will access content — and also to harbor an unintentional bias toward designing for computing equipment similar to our own. This, of course, is not always the case; we have no way of knowing what devices students will use to access courses.

One of the big surrenders of online learning design, as many of us have learned painstakingly over the last year if not before, is that teachers are tasked with creating experiences that are flexible first and foremost, experiences that will work when accessed from a variety of devices — and not necessarily from state-of-the-art computing equipment. Sadly, we cannot control what equipment students may use to access our content, so we have to let go, to intentionally design experiences that work from a variety of devices —  including the all-pervasive smartphone preferred by many students.

A second reason this session interested me was, quite simply, the way it was framed by the chosen title. At first, I didn’t think much about it, but upon closer examination I found myself a little intrigued at the word choices in the title that affected my perception of the session. Specifically, the term “self-initiate” caught my attention as a term to describe the way learners used their mobile devices to participate in learning experiences. By specifically naming students accessing learning content as “learners who self-initiate mobile device use” the presenters seemed to again underscore the reality that, as mentioned above, many learning experiences are not specifically designed for mobile access, and therefore this sort of access is only experienced when it is student-initiated. If learning experiences were designed for mobile access, there would be no need to describe students’ attempt to use their phones as “self-initiated” since this would be assumed. Again, this highlights the simple need, as hard as it may be, to consider all the different ways learners may access content, and to design specifically for courses to function as intended from a variety of devices.

In terms of how institutions might consider supporting this group of students toward an improved student experience, the presenters touched on just a few ideas; namely, the need to design flexibly, so that content can be accessed on mobile devices as well as more standard desktop equipment. In my own practice as an instructional designer, I tend to check everything I make on a variety of devices — making sure that content is fully accessible using a phone, tablet, laptop and larger monitor. Typically in my experience, if you design for the smallest screen, content will tend to function well on larger screens too; the reverse, however, is not as often true. It’s easier to start small and go big.

More than providing concrete solutions to the question of how to support learners who access content via mobile devices, the presenters of “Beyond Mobile Learning Design: Considering Students Who Self-Initiate Mobile Device Use For Online Courses” pointed toward the need for increased research to further explore this group of learners so as to better meet their needs.

For more information on this session and its presenters, please view the extended abstract link.