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Out of the Fray: The Most Relevant Mobile Apps and Devices for Education

A Q&A with Robbie K. Melton

Robbie Melton

Tennessee Board of Regents' Associate Vice Chancellor for Mobilization and Emerging Technology Robbie Melton gave the opening keynote yesterday at CT Forum 2013 in San Diego. To continue our rich dialogue with Melton, we've followed up on both her keynote and on last month's Community College Tech Spotlight newsletter, with a brief interview, this time highlighting TBR's strategies for identifying and evaluating highly relevant mobile apps and technologies for education and workforce development.

Mary Grush: As the sixth largest statewide system of public higher education in the country, the Tennessee Board of Regents serves oversees six state universities, 27 technology centers for technical/vocational education, and every one of the state's 13 community colleges. That means your work affects well over two hundred thousand students enrolled in those 46 institutions throughout the state. I know that TBR--and you--see a very critical role for TBR in evaluating both the latest mobile technologies (smart phones, tablets, and related devices) and the flood of apps for education and workforce development that run on them. It would seem that just by the sheer numbers of students and education programs you serve, there's a lot at stake. How would you characterize those high stakes, and how do you begin to approach your objective?

Robbie Melton: First of all, our motto is, 'Education On Demand and within Your Hands.' It's a big commitment we're making to each of those 200,000-plus students to deliver on the promise of mobile technology for education and workforce development.

Of course, one of our most prominent and widely recognized initiatives is that we have built and maintained TBR's Mobile App Education and Workforce Resource Center, which currently includes more than 70,000 apps that run the gamut of education program types and levels within 125 subject areas. But just pulling all those resources together in one huge, searchable database is not enough. We identify, collate, tag, evaluate, and pilot apps. We evaluate and study these apps carefully, and we communicate our findings with educators, not just within our state, but all around the world, to help them keep up-to-date about cutting-edge, game-changing, innovative, and impactful apps in their area. It's the follow through by our TBR cross-disciplinary teams who study and disseminate relevant apps, not in isolation, but in communication with colleagues worldwide that makes our app bank an important resource.

Grush: What do you look for in determining an appropriate education app?

Melton: We have created a TBR Mobile App Rubric to assist with identifying appropriate apps for education and workforce development. The rubric includes 18 categories for in-depth evaluation of the app--in areas like purpose, relevance, usability, engagement, and other pedagogical and technical issues.

Mobile apps now make up one of the fastest-growing education resource areas. Of course having a wide range of resources to choose from is a positive thing. But for educators it's going to get more and more difficult to pick the best apps out of the fray, if you will, of apps competing for your attention. One of TBR's most important goals is to help evaluate apps for education, and the rubric is key to that process.

Grush: How are TBR's studies of new and emerging mobile devices helpful to students?

Melton: There are several areas in which our growing knowledge of these devices can translate to a real benefit for students. For example, we're able to look at ADA issues, and how students interact with these devices related to learning styles, and we look at durability. We even have a separate team that will just test the 'destruction' of the devices--what happens if they are dropped on the floor, or thrown in the locker, etc.

Perhaps most importantly, we are trying to find out how these devices will help students learn and study now, and how they will rely on them soon, when they step into the workforce prepared to hit the ground running, so to speak, with their abilities and experience with mobile.

Especially in the community colleges, we're using mobile devices with students as 'career force'--or workforce tools. We have a mobilization initiative with the 13 community colleges in the state of Tennessee, in which professional development, training, testing, and piloting are going on right now, looking at the use of mobile devices in terms of workforce skill development and making the transition into the workforce. For community college students, the mobile device has become such a valuable tool, because it has helped them to move between their roles in school and in the workforce. That's why we study mobile devices.

Grush: Beyond studying mobile technologies and sharing your work with the education community, how does TBR contribute to the evolution of mobile technologies for education?

Melton: One very important point is, that we partner with other organizations and work to establish standards for quality. For example, we are partnering with MERLOT on app peer review. Of course, we also share our findings about pedagogies for teaching with mobile devices and apps, and we help create useful models: Take a look at the TBR-Walters State Community College Natural Science Mobilization Teaching and Learning Model.

Grush: Finally, just for fun, let me ask, what would be your picks for the top five education apps that have made an impact on teaching and learning?

Melton: Wow! Only five? There are thousands! But some favorites are:

Our Choice by Al Gore

The Elements


Video Time Machine

Word Lens

Grush: Beyond the promotion of great apps and excellent pedagogy, what is the most important thing that can happen, to move mobile forward in education and workforce development?

Melton: Mobile is a very on-the-ground and distributed technology. Learning about mobile and making progress with mobile within our institutions is not likely to happen just from top-down technology initiatives or administrative edicts! It takes interest from the teaching faculty and those who are hands-on with pedagogy and teaching with technology at the course and program level. If the CT Forum conference where I delivered my keynote yesterday is representative, then it's clear the educators are interested, and working very proactively to learn their mobile options and opportunities.

[Editor's note: Robbie Melton gave the opening keynote, "Transforming Today's Education and Tomorrow's Workforce with Mobilization" at Campus Technology Forum 2013 in San Diego, April 29-May 1.]

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