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Flexible Learning: University Develops Its Own Mobile Platform for Students

When it comes time to implement new technology solutions, universities either shop around to find the vendors, programs and/or equipment to meet their needs, or they build the technology themselves. Walden University in Minneapolis took the latter route this year by developing a mobile learning platform for its 33,000 students, many of whom are working professionals.

Known as MobileLearn, the online course-content delivery tool allows students to access course materials in a format that best fits their own individual learning styles. The initiative is part of the school's ongoing effort to make its courses as adaptable and accessible as possible for students, who can use MobileLearn to view course videos and field-experience simulations, read assigned texts, listen to lectures and guest speakers, and download and access content using personal mobile devices, such as smartphones and MP3 players.

Gary J. Burkholder, Walden's vice president for academic affairs, said the school began developing its own online learning platform about 18 months ago, with the university's innovations department leading the charge. "We're constantly looking for new ways to incorporate technology into our classrooms," he said, "and to help students learn the material."

To kick off the initiative, the university set up a pilot for its research design course. "We thought that course was a good choice because it includes concepts that can be difficult for students to pick up the first time around," explained Burkholder. The pilot took about three months to create and roll out to students, with some of that time spent developing the course's audio component.

"We know that many people learn better by listening than they do by just looking at a computer screen," said Burkholder. "We wanted students to be able to download the course materials to their MP3 players and other devices and learn on the go." To accommodate students who prefer more traditional course materials, the team converted the textbooks and other materials into PDF files for easy printing.

"Our goal was to develop a system that could match each student's individual learning style," said Burkholder, "whether it's via computer, audio, paper or a combination of all three."

The institution's pilot program met that goal. Among the students participating in the program, an overwhelming majority said they would be more likely to complete their program with the addition of MobileLearn, and that they also had a deeper understanding of content covered in the course after using the online platform.

"Even students whose technological skills were lacking found the platform easy to use and engage with," said Burkholder. "Not only were the students satisfied, but we were intrigued at the way in which we could take all of our classroom content, transfer it into various modalities and deliver it in a way that closely matches particular students' learning styles."

Since the initial pilot, the MobileLearn program has been expanded and is currently available for many of Walden University's programs. According to Burkholder, all of those programs will be available on the online learning platform in 2010, with applications for the iPhone, Kindle and Facebook also in the works.

With a student population comprising a high number of working professionals, Walden University is a good candidate for flexible learning options. "Our students don't always have the time to sit in a classroom three days a week, do their homework at night and participate in the traditional university experience," explained Burkholder. "They're unique in that they expect us to work with them to find flexible education options that integrate into the other aspects of their lives."

Along with providing flexibility for students looking to learn outside of the walls of the traditional classroom, MobileLearn helps the university provide "the most inspiring educational experience possible," said Burkholder, who expects the availability of online learning to positively impact the school's student retention rate over time. "Students are getting to the point where they want to learn in a way that matches their own personal and professional lives. This is one key to meeting those needs."

What MobileLearn doesn't accomplish is save the university money. "I wouldn't necessarily say this is a cheaper way to deliver education. In fact, putting the materials into PDF versions and adding the sound across the entire university is not a cheap endeavor," said Burkholder. "While it may retain more students in the long run, economics certainly isn't a driver at this point."

Walden University, which has added technology such as media streaming to its classrooms, is looking to add more mobile device capabilities both on the educational and on the administrative side. For example, the institution plans to add mobile tuition/bill payment and registration options in the near future.

Burkholder said Walden University is also exploring the use of simulation tools, virtual field training laboratory options and social networking. "We're going to continue adding options that don't tie our students to a computer or a classroom," said Burkholder, "and that provide the flexibility our student body requires."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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