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Faculty Alert: You Can't Put the Mobile Genie Back in the Bottle

Recent Educause research indicates that faculty are not adopting mobile as fast as students are demanding it.

Way back in 2013, in a research report on the bring-your-own-everything (BYOE) era of higher education, Educause Chief Research Officer Eden Dahlstrom and co-author/CIO Stephen diFilipo cautioned: "Device proliferation is manic, and unmanaged growth could result in a 'tragedy of the commons' situation, where too many devices find their way to campus networks too fast and institutions find more opportunities lost than taken."

Fast-forward to today, and higher ed IT executives and faculty are still struggling with the ongoing job of catching up and keeping up with student expectations regarding mobile devices and mobile infrastructure. "Faculty is not adopting mobile as fast as students are demanding it," commented diFilipo in a recent interview. "We're dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds that live, breath and literally sleep with their mobile devices. This is a whole ecosystem. The mobile device is their power base. It is, in effect, their 'car' — a source of freedom, mobility, and identity in an age when kids are not as free to roam about as they once were."

Although recent Educause data shows that more than 50 percent of faculty prohibit or greatly discourage the use of mobile devices in the classroom (specifically, the smartphone), diFilipo pointed out that these same faculty members approve of or recommend laptops in the classroom. "But the smartphone is simply a laptop that doesn't fold. Why is one a distraction and the other not? And with students chalking up five to seven devices — gaming units, cameras, wearables, the whole Internet of Things — where do institutions draw the line?"

The Latest Research

In a 2015 study of undergraduate students and the IT experience, published by Educause in December, co-authors Dahlstrom and Christopher Brooks, senior research fellow, noted that while students and faculty have similarly high levels of interest in using mobile devices to enhance learning, the actual use of these devices in academics remains low. "Although students use technology extensively," the report stated, "we have evidence that technologies are not achieving their full potential for academic use."

There is, however, some evidence of increasing acceptance by faculty. "Our results from the past three years show slow but measurable growth in acceptance of personal mobile device use in the classroom. Sixty-three percent of students said their faculty ban or discourage the use of smartphones in class in 2015, compared with 69 percent in 2014 and 74 percent in 2013," wrote the researchers.

Students and faculty have surprisingly similar attitudes about the potential of mobile devices to both enhance learning and distract from learning in the classroom. In the report, Educause "dug a bit deeper by asking for whom these devices were distracting." Student response was: "for me" (41 percent); "for other students" (49 percent); "for my instructors" (54 percent).

The report continued: "Students' concerns about mobile devices' being distracting is more external (your problem) than internal (my problem). About half of students (52 percent) are aware that multitasking with IT devices prevents them from concentrating, but only 28 percent of students agreed that technology interferes with their ability to concentrate and think deeply about the subjects they care about."

The researchers further noted: "Discouraging or banning certain types of devices is becoming more complex, as touchscreen laptops and docking keyboards for tablets are blurring the lines between laptops and tablets (or laplets) and as large-screen smartphones (or phablets) approach the size of an iPad mini." Concerning the Internet of Things, the report cautioned: "For institutions with a residential student population, it will be particularly important to develop IofT governance policies."

While "60 percent of instructors are concerned that in-class use of mobile devices can be distracting for students," about half of faculty (52 percent) believe that the use of mobile devices in class can enhance learning, according to the report. So with faculty generally open to integrating students' mobile devices into their courses, why isn't mobile taking off? Many faculty need more help to make it happen, the report noted. Half of faculty said they'd like to have more training/professional development around effectively incorporating mobile devices into their courses.

Finally, while students don't need a mobile device to access student resources (the three most commonly accessed institutional services are grades, course content and LMS), many do nevertheless want mobile access. More than a third (36 percent) said tablets and 44 percent said smartphones were "very" or "extremely" important for accessing student services.

Bridging the Divide

"Designing networks to accommodate mobile computing demands is a challenge," Dahlstrom commented in a recent interview. "Institutions need to find balance between a strategically planned network infrastructure and one that is both reactive and adaptable to greater access demand and new technologies."

"Students come to campus with the expectation that technology will be available to them," Brooks added. "Students use and own a lot of technology. It's increasingly likely that they have multiple devices on their person at any given time. Only 3 or 4 percent have a laptop or a smartphone only; about half of students have a laptop, smartphone and tablet – and they're wanting to connect to WiFi with several of their devices at the same time."

Brooks noted that this puts an extraordinary strain on campus network resources, leaving colleges and universities with two basic choices: increase capacity or restrict device usage. "Ultimately," Brooks said, "campuses do have the right to restrict the use of devices — but you can't put the genie back in the bottle easily."

"Every college campus will respond to the use of mobile devices differently," diFilipo pointed out. "Students are hard-wired into their mobile devices. They've made it clear that they want to use mobile devices for their academic pursuits. Although there is no right or wrong, there will continue to be an academic divide about this issue. It's not about age; it's about attitude. The same thing is happening in every industry where the omnipresence of technology is outpacing leadership's ability to accommodate it. It's not isolated within the educational field."

diFilipo concluded, "Students don't care about WiFi or the infrastructure. They just want good cellular service. Both students and faculty need robust, frictionless, pervasive access. After all, why is it so easy to get WiFi at Starbucks and not on campus?"

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