Online Education is On the Go

Online Education is On the Go

The online classroom paved the way for easier access to education and now mobile devices are extending that reach. With Smartphones and laptops, students can interact with and process information in real-time, or at a time and place that is convenient for them. In fact, students who were raised with access to technology (referred to as digital natives) have a built-in expectation that information will be readily available and retrievable — even information from online classes. The use of mobile devices is meeting that need and furthering the growth of online education. 

Because of technological advances, e-learning is now transforming into m-learning, or mobile learning. This refers to another change in the format of education, from delivery of educational programs through a traditional classroom to an electronic classroom, and now accessibility through portable or mobile devices. Keep in mind that the principles of adult learning have still not changed. Instead, only the method used by students to retrieve information and materials has evolved. Now, universities and their instructors are taking advantage of m-learning by offering supplemental, interactive resources that actively engage students in the process of learning away from the desktop computer.

M-Learning Devices

Laptops were the first product to offer portability for students. Mini-laptops, netbooks, and tablet personal computers soon followed. Other handheld devices are being used now to access information, email, and the online classroom itself. For example, a personal digital assistant (PDA) such as the PalmPilot has evolved into a Smartphone with telephone functions and mobile computing. Cellular phones also offer Internet access and the Apple iPhone offers many education-related applications. The University of Phoenix has even developed a mobile application that allows students to connect directly to the online classroom through iPhones and iPads.

Another m-learning device that is gaining popularity is the e-reader, which provides an electronic book format and now includes many textbooks.   Currently, the top e-reader brands include the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and the Barnes and Noble Nook. At present, CourseSmart estimates that it has a collection of 20,000 e-textbooks, which represents 90% of textbooks used in higher education. The e-textbooks can be downloaded through online stores and features of the e-readers include a search function, backlighting, highlighter, and reduced-glare screen. 

M-Learning Applications

One of the most popular applications that can be utilized by mobile devices is a podcast. A podcast consists of audio or video files that can be downloaded directly onto a digital media player. For example, if a student has an MP3 player, they can listen to audio files. On the other hand, most iPod devices will allow students to also view video files. Apple has also developed iTunes U, which allows universities to create a dedicated page for their classes. Instructors have an ability to upload lectures, videos, course materials, and other related documents. At present, there are 800 universities listed with iTunes U and much of the content can be viewed by the public.

M-Learning Advantages

The obvious advantages of mobile devices include easy access and portability. Students who are at work and want to study during a break will be able to check email, review information, and for some schools, check in with their class. This is an important aspect for many students who are also working adults, as employers often have restricted Internet and email access on work computers.

Another feature of many mobile devices is a built-in storage capability, allowing students to store a large number of audio and video files. The advantages extend further beyond the features and include many benefits, including a reduced cost of course materials. It is estimated that e-textbooks cost 60% less than traditional hardbound textbooks. From a student’s perspective, the use of technological devices also has a potential to increase productivity because of features such as calendars and schedules. Students can quickly review the upcoming week and plan ahead for their assignments.

From a school’s perspective, the inclusion of podcasts and other downloadable materials increases the potential for learning to be interactive and meaningful, which addresses multiple learning styles and meets the needs of students who benefit from reading and listening to the materials. The use of mobile devices increases collaboration among students because it allows instructors to utilize group work more often in the classroom. Through mobile devices, students can connect to each other by email and instant messaging. Some instructors also offer availability through instant messaging, which further develops a sense of community among the class.

M-Learning Challenges

There are inherent challenges with the use of mobile devices, such as having to read the information on a small screen and typing on a small keyboard. For students, there is also a cost factor, as they must consider the cost of the device and the accompanying Internet service provider fees. Some students find that connectivity is an issue as well, especially when they are attempting to access websites or download materials. The course materials for many online schools are not accessible through mobile devices because of the file size and some e-learning platforms are not easily viewable due to the screen size and resolution.

Overall, instructors often find two opposing attitudes among students about the implementation and use of technology as part of the process of learning. For the true digital native, there may be an over-reliance on technology, which can lead to frustration if the instructor does not respond immediately to questions or concerns, or if the school website experiences technical issues. In addition, students who are not comfortable with the use of technology may find themselves left out and further distanced from the class.

But the general use of technology is meant to enhance the process of learning through engaging and interactive materials. This type of learning material means that students are likely to have a better learning experience. M-learning is an approach to online learning that provides expanded access to information and materials, along with greater flexibility for the location of that access through the use of mobile devices. As technology continues to evolve, the number of features and benefits will also expand and students of all learning styles will find that online education continues to meet their educational needs. 

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Tim Pannell/Corbis

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