Going Mobile with Teaching and Learning

“The iPad finally has serious competition.” Sam Biddle of Gizmodo shared that observation in response to the release of the much-anticipated Kindle Fire, which Amazon started shipping last week. A successor to the popular Kindle e-reader, the Fire is much more than a platform for electronic books; indeed, Fire owners have access to an array of new Kindle features—like high-speed Web browsing, media storage space in the cloud, and a robust app store—all built atop a multi-touch interface that establishes Amazon as a new player in the market for mobile tablet devices. What’s truly amazing about the Kindle Fire is the price tag ($199), which is more than an indication of Amazon’s ability to compete—it signals that mobile technology is quickly approaching ubiquity, which will continue to rapidly change how we work, communicate, and learn.

The current landscape of mobile technology at Georgetown is dotted with exciting opportunities and compelling stories. At the infrastructure level, the Saxanet wireless network (and its predecessor, HOYAS) offers students and faculty a fast and secure connection to the Web from over 40 buildings on and off-campus. At the course level, Georgetown recently added a mobile component to the Blackboard course management system, which delivers mobile-formatted content to smart phones and tablet devices.

Mobile technology is present inside the classroom, too. For example, many teachers use clickers—hand-held devices that allow instructors to gather student responses immediately—as a teaching and assessment tool during class lectures. You can find other examples of classrooms using mobile technology all across campus, from the Communication, Culture and Technology Program (Professors Tinkcom and Turner assign students to design mobile applications in the program’s introductory course) to the School of Nursing and Health Studies (where students use Apple iPads during class simulations).

While mobile computing can be a tool to further the academic goals of the University, we recognize that it opens opportunities for a few concerns. Aside from the obvious issues—students tweeting and facebooking through class periods or searching the Web for test answers—it can be difficult to find meaningful ways to use mobile technology to support teaching goals, and, as with any nascent technology, successful models and rubrics for assessment are difficult to find and adapt. To start addressing these challenges, we found it helpful to break down the possibilities of mobile technology, specifically as they relate to teaching and learning. We came up with four categories:

Productivity: This includes technology for taking notes, facilitating class administration (like collecting student work), and enhancing research. Delivering course content falls into this category as well, with e-readers being one of the more practical ways to increase personal productivity among students and teachers alike.
Examples: Amazon Kindle, Blackboard Mobile

Presentation: Some platforms offer an easy way to create slide presentations and manipulate them on the fly. Other technology can add a dynamic layer to traditional classroom tools (like whiteboards). If you want to rethink classroom presentations entirely, mobile technology offers a lot of exciting possibilities.
Examples: KeyNote Remote, AirSketch

In-Class Response: In this category, we have technology to take attendance, poll students, and offer opportunities for students to interact with course material synchronously. The possibilities might be especially helpful in large classes, where students could be reluctant to ask questions or engage their teachers directly.
Examples: i>clicker, Smart Seat

Assignments: In the context of teaching and learning, the prospect of integrating mobile technology into out-of-class assignments might be the most exciting area to explore. Tapping into new device technologies offers unprecedented opportunities for creative, rich learning experiences in every discipline. Imagine, for example, guiding students through a historical tour through Washington D.C., using device-enabled GPS to give them directions and adding layers of information over the images they see through their device’s camera (what application developers are calling “augmented reality”). (Professor Anna Celenza in the Performing Arts Department assigned her students to experience the location-aware music album Bluebrain, which presents a dynamic musical experience that depends on your location on the Mall.) Likewise, devices with audio recording, editing, and dictation technology offer special possibilities for language learning, and devices with video capabilities could allow students to easily create and share digital stories.
Examples: LeafSnap, Google Goggles, Bluebrain

Deciding which of these approaches is best for you or your class might be a good first step, but there are other issues that you and the University need to think about thoroughly before we can take full advantage of the possibilities before us. For instance, if we’re using technology that collects, stores, and aggregates data, how should we consider privacy and security—particularly when it comes to student work? This was one of many issues explored at our recent “Digital Anxieties” event: you can read a brief recap of that session here.

Beyond that, we need to struggle through the problem of access—that is, if we add a mobile component to a course assignment or administrative process, how do we ensure equal opportunity for all students to participate? Not everyone owns a mobile device, and those who do carry devices of varying make, model, and capability. Choices abound in the mobile device marketplace, with a multitude of options for devices, platforms, and applications, so how can we introduce coursework around so many variables?

Some institutions have chosen an approach of standardization. Seton Hill University, for example, gives each student an Apple iPad on their first day. Other institutions try to cover the major platforms, with the web browser as a fallback. Take Purdue University’s Hotseat tool as an example, which is used to augment in-class discussions. It’s available to students through apps on several applications, including Twitter, Facebook, and the iPhone, and students without access to those platforms can catch up after class through any web browser.

For those faculty and students interested in experimenting with mobile technology, CNDLS is assembling three main initiatives to help you.

  • First, we’re working to adapt our current suite of tools to work well in a mobile environment. This means formatting our sites to be read on smaller screens, ensuring compatibility across different phones and browsers, and optimizing content for quick downloads.
  • Second, we’re building a directory of information on applications, best practices, and other resources about mobile technology in teaching and learning. This directory will host app reviews, stories about faculty use of mobile technology in the classroom, and tell you where to find the best application, device, or support to meet your goals. Stay tuned!
  • Finally, we’ll be exploring any unmet mobile technology needs for Georgetown faculty and students. If you’re trying to do something new or creative in the mobile environment, and you don’t have the tools to see it through, let’s talk.