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Across the Disciplines: 5 Strategies for Success

At this point it's become clear that mobile learning technologies must serve all academic disciplines appropriately, or they're just so many toys. Here, three mobile learning technology gurus lay out your groundwork.

OUR RECENT VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION with instructional design leaders on mobile technology application included: Jim Wolfgang, director of the Digital Innovation Group at Georgia College & State University and member of CT's editorial advisory board; Michael Cottam, director of instructional design at fully online Rio Salado College; and John Ittelson, director of instructional technologies at the K-20 California Educational Technology Collaborative and professor emeritus at California State University-Monterey Bay.

1. Don't Let Technology Drive Your Plans

Campus Technology: Given the wide range of disciplines you'll find on any campus, where do you start in terms of planning a comprehensive technology implementation to serve today's mobile learners?

Jim Wolfgang: With the high visibility of devices like the iPhone or the iPod Touch, or whatever is the hot mobile technology in the spotlight, people seem to like to start with the coolest device and then figure out how to do something with it. That's a real mistake whatever the type of technology implementation you're considering, but we're very prone to this in the mobile learning context, especially given the hype surrounding some of these mobile technologies. Here's what we should be doing, however: Instead of focusing on the technology, we should identify our challenges and opportunities first, and only then move forward with mobile technology selection. Whether you're working within an individual discipline or trying to bring disciplines together across campus, determine your goals before attempting to select the right technology.


Across the Disciplines: 5 Strategies for Success

"We simply want to make everything web-accessible, by the student's device of choice. So we move our focus from the device to the course." -- Michael Cottam, Rio Salado College

Michael Cottam: At Rio Salado, it's less about the device and more about delivering to as many possible devices as we can. As a fully online campus-- there are basically no on-site courses-- we have to think of all our students as mobile learners; all 32,000 of them. We're not designing specifically for a laptop or an iPhone, or for any particular device. We simply want to make everything web-accessible, by the student's device of choice. So we move our focus from the device to the course. Every course at Rio is designed to meet quality standards, and every course gets the same treatment: They are all well designed with objectives, and with assessments in line with the objectives. But of course, that's where you get into some differences between disciplines. When you look at what you are trying to accomplish with, say, a Spanish course, or a science course, there are certainly different requirements for what you want students to accomplish. For example, a science course has many course-level objectives that students would need to meet in kind of a hands-on or experimental view, which we simulate. So, we'll simulate with a virtual microscope or a virtual lab of some sort. For biology it might be a virtual microscope; for chemistry it might be a virtual chemistry bench where you're studying solubility or other things. We have more than 500 unique courses, many with multiple sections, but there is a standard way that we treat every course, spanning the disciplines.

2. Collaborate Across the Disciplines

CT: How else do you factor the disciplines into your plans for mobile learning?

Across the Disciplines: 5 Strategies for Success

"When we deploy mobile technologies-- which move the potential of technology outside of the classroom and build links among disciplines-- we define a broad cross-disciplinary approach and empower it." -- Jim Wolfgang, GCSU

Wolfgang: As technology planners, we hope our students will have a [complete and integrated] educational experience, not just isolated academic experiences. But the focus on most campuses is riveted on academics, with [technology] initiatives revolving around a faculty member, or centered on a single course within a single discipline. That's much too narrow. If we want to create balanced and productive technology initiatives, it's important to look across campus, throughout the disciplines-- and then some. That may include looking at counseling, housing, student activities, or any institutional units that support students. When we deploy mobile technologies-- which move the potential of technology outside of the classroom and build links among disciplines-- we define a broad cross-disciplinary approach and empower it. A broad definition of cross-discipline collaboration is critical, whether the work is between departments on campus, such as math and the school of education, or between academia and the community, for example, between schools of business and the "real world" business world. If we collaborate with the business world-- a broader kind of collaboration-- we can both help students transition into the business world as well as inform the business world about new technologies. Great opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations may also be found across different institutions within the same discipline; expertise may exist on one campus that can be shared with another. And all of this can be enabled by mobile technology-- if we keep the notion of cross-disciplinary collaboration at the forefront of our plans.

3. Seek Out Real Change

CT: What's the most important challenge for mobile learning?

John Ittelson: The most important challenge for mobile learning is whether we can embrace the technology as a genuinely new form of engagement with students. For a striking example of missed opportunity, remember that back when we began using course management systems, in the majority of the courses-- even in the hybrid models-- we didn't significantly change key processes like the creation of content. Faculty still created their own courses. We had the opportunity, but we didn't change the old model of the single faculty member creating course content to pass, one-way, to his or her students. The CMS technology merely replaced what we had always done in other ways. So I think we should learn from that and examine the possibilities for real change with mobile media. We should be aware of how the various disciplines begin embracing the opportunities they have with these technologies. Disciplines will pick up on these possibilities differently; maybe not so much based purely on instructional needs within an academic discipline, but based more on the impact mobile media have on the discipline in general.

Broadcasting is a terrific example. You used to need all sorts of sophisticated cameras and recording equipment-- and people to operate them-- to file a news story in the field, but now you will find lone reporters creating remote news feeds from their cell phones, and using all kinds of mobile technology to produce content directly. This immediacy changes the way journalists work, and that change must and will be reflected in the academic discipline. And this has implications for finally bringing more student-generated content into the course; there's potential for real change.

Still, in most cases at this point, we haven't really changed the way the disciplines are taught in academia, even though mobile media could substantially impact that and better reflect the "real world" discipline and the way we engage students. Maybe that's yet to come.

Wolfgang: A lot of mobile learning initiatives have taken the easy path and have become simply rebroadcasts of lectures; the one-to-many standard. That has its value, but it's kind of like driving a Lamborghini down the road to pick up some milk. When we do that, we're really not pushing the technology to a level that we could. Think about directionality. With mobile technology incorporated in a course, student engagement can now move in three directions: teacher to student-- for example, the traditional classroom; student to teacher-- for example, student-produced materials using Web 2.0 tools; and student to student-- for example, using mobile devices for communication. The possibilities for real change are there.

Across the Disciplines: 5 Strategies for Success

"With mobile technologies, the big thing to watch is whether they can help us move out of the current model into something truly new, and maybe revisit some of the richness of the past, when information flowed more freely from peer to peer." -- John Ittelson, CSU-Monterey Bay

Ittelson: If you think back to the origins of education, the university really began as nomadic scholars who came together in guilds because there wasn't any other way to share and disseminate information. There wasn't much of a communications infrastructure to support their research and scholarship, other than coming together in groups. But the unencumbered sharing of information among peers is something good that got lost with the advent of new technologies, like books, that represented knowledge in a static, one-way mode. Now our challenge is to break down those models of static information dissemination. With mobile technologies, the big thing to watch is whether they can help us move out of the current model into something truly new, and maybe revisit some of the richness of the past, when information flowed more freely from peer to peer.

4. Promote Your Initiatives

CT: How do you advocate for mobile learning and advance it on your campus?

Wolfgang: In the early stages of a mobile learning implementation, especially because we're going to be working in a cross-disciplinary realm, we try to involve the people on campus who really want to participate in the initiative. Then, we work hard to cooperate with them and others across campus. We always remember that a big component is going to be buy-in at the upper administrative levels. You can actually model your own initiative well at those levels: When we started our program at GCSU with iPods, we gave a device to everyone on the president's staff. The result was that students and faculty recognized commitment from the upper administration, and the administration understood the technology better.

Also, circling back to the notion of cross-disciplinary collaborations, projects with organizations outside the institution may be the secret to help fund initiatives. In the example I gave earlier about collaboration with the business community, you have an opportunity to build relationships within the business community that could potentially help with funding.

Cottam: I believe the most effective strategy for promoting your mobile learning initiative is to make sure the entire instructional system supports the mobile learner. At Rio Salado, any student can call up or e-mail his or her instructor, the instructional help desk, and the technical help desk, almost any time. The technical help desk literally operates 24/7. The instructional help desk, while not 24/7, runs until very late in the evening, just about every day. The important aspect of all this is that the support systems are built to help mobile learners be successful, no matter where they are or what device they're using.

5. Innovate, Always

CT: How do you find the opportunities for innovation in mobile learning?

Wolfgang: First of all, we need to focus on adaptation, not replication. Replication means taking something that looks pretty good that someone else did, and putting it in your own setting. Adaptation means taking those concepts and-- looking carefully at your own needs-- figuring out how they can also work for you. There's the opportunity to innovate. [Technology] innovation [on campuses] is going to be important for a long time to come, and in mobile learning design it can successfully draw on interdisciplinary collaboration. Consider an application development example: Let's say you have an iPhone initiative. Even though Apple's App Store just downloaded its one-billionth application, not everything you need or everything that's completely appropriate to your needs is going to be right there for you to purchase. So, look for an innovative-- and hopefully interdisciplinary-- solution. You might team the school of education with the computer science department so that the students in the computer science department can write the apps for mobile learning that are needed by the school of education. This type of strategy not only gets the job done, it also provides students with the experience of working in a true industry, on real project teams that leverage the kinds of multidirectional communications and interdisciplinary collaborations that get you to your goal.

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