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Ed Tech Trends | Interview

Creating Your Institution's Mobile Learning Strategy

A Q&A with Northeastern University Education Technology Center director Alicia Russell

In fall 2010, Northeastern University began planning an expansion of its mobile applications to allow students, faculty, and staff to stay much better connected to the university. To support and expand this initiative, Alicia Russell, director of Northeastern's Educational Technology Center, considered ways to facilitate faculty members' use of mobile technologies and applications in teaching.

Russell and other EdTech Center staff had noticed that faculty who had iPads found them fun and engaging but were not using them in the classroom. In light of that, the EdTech Center developed a mobile learning strategy for the institution--tied to the university's academic priorities--that encourages faculty to go beyond simple apps for e-mail and games and explore the wide array of possibilities for integrating mobile technologies into their classes.

To help other institutions that may be grappling with ways to incorporate mobile technologies in teaching and learning, Campus Technology asked Russell for some advice about creating a mobile learning strategy.

Mary Grush: What's key to getting a mobile learning strategy going on campus? What would you advise others?

Alicia Russell: Begin with a vision that ties mobile learning to your institution's academic plan or vision. For example, at Northeastern, our academic plan includes an emphasis on experiential learning, interdisciplinary and translational research, creative expression, urban engagement, and global opportunity. As we developed our vision of mobile learning, were able to link mobile technologies directly to statements in the academic plan.

We also found several exemplary mobile technology initiatives in place at other institutions, models that helped support our vision. Abilene Christian University's research on the value of mobile for teaching and learning included studies done by faculty mobile learning fellows that demonstrated that, in addition to higher levels of engagement, the iPad promoted more efficient use of time and more "learning moments."

Several other institutions are demonstrating the value of engaging faculty in mobile initiatives. Duke University is loaning mobile devices to faculty and staff so they can experiment with new ways of teaching and learning. Seton Hill notes that the iPad fosters professional development for its faculty as they explore ways to use it in the classroom. And at Emory, a team made up of faculty and IT staff evaluates iOS applications for their use in teaching and learning--we based our own mobile learning app evaluation process on this idea.

There are many, varied approaches to the application of mobile technologies to teaching and learning. Carnegie Mellon and Tufts are using mobile technologies for global learning. And the University of Florida and Stanford are engaging students in mobile app development. As I mentioned, we found plenty of mobile learning examples and good models at other institutions. These models both inform our planning and support our vision.

Of course, with any initiative, it's also important to understand how your institution works. How do things get accomplished--through top-down initiatives, bottom-up initiatives, or a combination? Who are the key players among faculty, administrators, and students?

And finally, ask this key question: Who on campus is already using mobile learning technology?

Grush: How can you find out where mobile learning technologies are already in use on campus, and how can you capture or characterize that information so that it will be useful?

Russell: You can use surveys, or informal focus groups, or word-of-mouth. Or just walk around campus and ask students about their mobile devices. How are they using them? What do they think is missing? What would they like to see? Answers to these questions can help inform the vision. At Northeastern we put out an RFP asking faculty to suggest how they would like to use iPads to support teaching and learning in their disciplines, and we got lots of responses. (Of course we were offering an iPad to faculty whose proposals we selected--a great way to generate excitement!)

Grush: It sounds like you were not just getting suggestions, but also establishing some roots, so to speak. Were you able to keep the people who responded to your surveys and your RFP involved?

Russell: Yes, at Northeastern, the group of faculty who were awarded iPads became a mobile learning community. We also set up a mobile learning Web site at that we are using for the faculty to blog about their projects and to review mobile apps. The space includes news related to mobile learning and "app bundles" or groups of apps that can be used to accomplish specific tasks. When faculty review an app, we give them a credit to purchase an app in return for their effort. A big part of our mobile learning strategy is maintaining community involvement.

Grush: What are some additional things you can do to keep your community engaged with your vision?

Russell: You can establish an informal group (perhaps one that meets virtually) that researches new kinds of mobile learning. And your group can prioritize needs related to mobile learning and begin to develop resources, including examples of best practices, success stories, case studies, lists of applications, or explorations of future directions and how to stay current with the latest trends.

Members of our mobile learning community are also conducting research. Some examples that focus on the iPad include: using iPads in Northeastern's writing center to help students brainstorm ideas; iPads as bedside education tools for pharmacy students working with patients; and using iPads for more interactive and streamlined content delivery in teaching engineering. Art faculty are exploring new kinds of teaching strategies made possible by the touch interface, multi-touch, drag, and gesture capabilities of the iPad. And our game design program faculty are using the iPad to explore the principles of calculus and physics--to illustrate position, velocity, and acceleration for game development.

Grush: As a strategist, if you were to pick one aspect or potential of mobile learning that you are most excited about, what would that be?

Russell: Learning communities tend to become more cross-disciplinary in mobile environments. A mobile learning initiative can bring together people who wouldn't normally meet. Mobile learning then becomes a lever for getting faculty to talk about teaching and collaboratively try new teaching practices. This supports both the interdisciplinary and global objectives of the institution's academic plan.

If anything is clear about mobile technology and its application to teaching and learning, it's that mobile is constantly evolving--as it is in almost any context. It's the perfect complement to cross-disciplinary explorations and opens up new possibilities for academic initiatives.

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