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Strategic Mobilization: A Model for the Future

A Q&A with Robbie K. Melton

Robbie Melton

As Associate Vice Chancellor for Mobilization and Emerging Technology for the Tennessee Board of Regents, Robbie Melton oversees mobilization strategies and initiatives for the sixth largest statewide system of public higher education in the country: TBR serves more than two hundred thousand students enrolled in 46 institutions throughout the state--six state universities, 27 technology centers for technical/vocational education, and every one of the state's 13 community colleges.

A key part of Melton's role is keeping an eye on the future of mobile and organizing cross-disciplinary teams to study the technology and its education applications. TBR has included mobilization as an important part of its strategic plan, recognizing the technology's ubiquity and reach into students' lives, its rapid technical evolution, and its unique transformative potential for education. Here, Melton shares how she works to build and extend TBR's model for strategic mobilization.

Mary Grush: There are many technologies that have had an impact on education practices. What's the key element that makes mobile stand out among them, for its transformative potential in education?

Robbie Melton: It's the simple fact that people--students, instructors, and everyone else--have their mobile devices with them all the time--it's unlike any other technology. This really hits you when you realize people even sleep with their smart phones as well as work, study, learn, play, eat, and socialize with them close at hand. Everywhere we go, we have our mobile devices with us. That's the main difference between mobile and any other technology.

Grush: Your work with TBR touches well over two hundred thousand students and educators among the numerous institutions in the Tennessee system. This must be "BYOD" in its largest sense. How do you approach your work in this environment of a myriad of constantly evolving mobile devices--while keeping the education applications in mind, of course?

Melton: We absolutely do have, as we must, a "Bring Your Own Learning Device" strategy at TBR, especially because of the large variety programs of study you find within our system. For example, if you are in engineering, you might be best equipped with a Windows mobile device, versus, if you are in teacher education the device of choice (according to our surveys) would be the iPad. In consideration of the programs of study, the students' learning styles, and their own--and owned--devices of choice, we work in a "BYOD" environment for using mobile devices as teaching and learning tools.

Further, considering the sheer numbers of students within the TBR system, we have worked out a strategic plan, whereby whatever device a student brings to school, our IT department is already mobilized and engaged to assess it and connect it to our system and network, and to provide an on-demand, on-device tutorial tool geared toward its use for teaching and learning.

Grush: It sounds like TBR would need a large and very sophisticated group of technologists devoted to mobile technologies and education applications.

Melton: Oh, not just technologists! We have teams made up of staff, faculty, students, administrators, and our industry partners, to work on specific problems related to both mobile technology and its use in a particular education context.

Related to mobile technology itself, our strategic plan involves making sure that we are knowledgeable about all the top mobile devices and aware of all the current mobile technology issues. Our support team has the "top ten" mobile devices physically on hand, to work with them hands-on, learning how students interact with these devices and assessing how we can use them in the classroom. This includes, but is not limited to: general usability, ADA, durability, and security issues. We also have a team that looks at more technical issues like 'jail breaking', because many of our students are very skilled technologists themselves. To support all our students, instructors, and staff, and to maintain a robust and secure working environment for mobile learning, we have to be completely up to date on the mobile technology issues surrounding everyone, from the lowest entry-level smart phone user to the most highly sophisticated mobile device whiz kid.

But the most important part of our work is to find out how we can leverage these devices, and the applications you may use on them, for education and classroom instruction. We do this through the studies by, and input from, our teams. For example, with the community colleges we're using mobile devices for workforce development and as workforce tools. We need to prepare our workforce students to leave our training and enter directly into the career force, already knowing how to use the mobile tools that they will be working with immediately in their jobs. We have a special workforce initiative for the community colleges, for which our teams have already identified the top 100 mobile workforce apps and tools that are being used in the real-world workforce.

Grush: For all of higher education, how would you characterize students' readiness to work with mobile technologies? What are the mobile technology uses they already have experience with when they come to a higher education institution in the TBR system?

Melton: According to our latest survey, which was conducted in February 2013, a random sampling of the ways incoming students are accustomed to using mobile devices revealed that the top uses are: gaming, entertainment, and communication. We want to change that! We want education to show up high in that list. One good thing we did find, is that students are connecting to the Internet with their mobile devices--mobile phones and tablets or laptops--in order to then connect to various campus activities. These connections could be, for example, with the school's Web site, with registration on that site, or for general, topical information research for classes. But we do know that when they come to higher education institutions in the TBR system, they are definitely poised to use their mobile devices for educational purposes. We just have to lead them. And to provide apps--which we do, in large part by maintaining a mobile app resource center at TBR that points to extensive collections for education: 70,000 apps and counting.

Grush: But is there a digital divide? Do some of these students lack the right mobile technology--the particular technology they need to approach what they want to do to connect their devices to their education? And what's still needed to move mobile forward in higher education?

Melton: Interestingly, the digital divide is between the faculty and the student. Actually, most of the students--about 92 percent--are coming to us with the latest, top-of-the-line phones, while you see most faculty still using rather outdated phones (and that often means outdated by five years or more). That's the divide that we're finding. We still have faculty who manage their classrooms with: "Welcome to class. You must now turn off all of your electronic devices."

We also see a correlation showing that faculty who do have leading-edge smart phones are in fact now using them as teaching tools. And when you can match one of these faculty with similarly equipped students, it's like a match made in heaven: Together, they use the devices to communicate, collaborate, and share educational content. They access e-books and other electronic materials; they create videos on the spot; they connect special lenses to their iPhones to create a new kind of microscope; they operate laboratory or scientific equipment or machinery remotely; they plug sensors like blood pressure cuffs into their cell phones, transforming their mobile devices into life-saving medical equipment… and a whole new level of active learning and problem solving emerges, along with critical thinking activities that we had not really anticipated and had certainly not observed before. We see that this is often collaborative, authentic, and global learning, in real time and on demand: Students from countries all around the world work together--connecting via mobile devices; with their smart phones.

This all represents a big change in the dynamics of teaching and learning. I'm especially excited for our faculty who will be bridging their own digital divide soon. At TBR we exist to help them. This is the biggest leap in education since the chalk and slate, and it's the very best time to be a teacher.

[Editor's note: Robbie Melton will give 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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