Mobile Learning

Mobile in and Out of the Classroom

A history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington is improving class performance by encouraging the use of mobile devices.

When Associate Professor Stephanie Cole walks into her U.S. History Survey class at the University of Texas at Arlington, she faces about 150 students, each of whom carries a smartphone, laptop or tablet. Cole, in turn, uses PowerPoint slides and a screen. For 80 minutes twice a week, Cole and her students engage with each other, discussing concepts, asking and answering questions, giving and taking notes.

Her class, however, is more than a one-way lecture. Cole and her students are using Echo360's active learning platform, a system that combines lecture capture with student engagement, learner analytics and content management. With Echo360, students can use their mobile devices to ask questions anonymously, which is a boon for those reluctant to speak up. "I don't know if they're responding by laptop or by phone," she noted. "My guess is that smartphones are dominating. Probably less than a quarter of the students have laptops open, and tablets are in the minority."

In addition, the system allows Cole to take attendance, lead the discussion and field questions, note points of confusion and immediately intercede, and refine her instruction in real time.

Attendance and Engagement

Cole explained that students receive participation points for showing up to class, even though they have the option of viewing the lecture later. "I give students participation points for being in class because I think attendance is important. If they are there, they can ask their own questions of me, and discuss with each other questions that I've posed. Even though they have the option of viewing the lecture later, I encourage them to come to class."

For about 75 to 80 percent of the students, the participation grade is based exclusively on the "clicker" score, or the analytics provided by Echo360. About 20 to 25 percent of the students speak up in class or participate actively in small group activities. For this latter group, she "pads" their raw scores and gives them a higher participation score. "I reward students for speaking up," she noted. "When students engage, grades go up."

Cole, who has been teaching both undergraduate and graduate classes for more than 20 years, stressed the importance of students engaging with concepts in the classroom and in front of instructors. "My personal style is to have a conversation, to engage with my students while I am in front of them. I try never to lecture for more than 15 minutes before stopping to ask questions."

Making Adjustments on the Fly

"Using this technology, if I ask a question and it falls flat, I can usually figure out why," Cole said. "If I'm getting a lot of flags [signifying confusion], I know I need to go back and find a different way of explaining my point." To engage students in additional discussion, she sometimes asks a question and looks at the results without revealing the answer. She will then ask students to talk in groups of two or three to try to convince the others of the answer they gave. "This means they talk to each other about the concept, and use their own words to justify a given answer." In such a scenario, Cole noted, she's getting students to help her get her point across. 

"This style of active learning works best for me," said Cole. "My PowerPoint slides can be seen along the bottom of the screen [full-screen on a smartphone], like a table of contents." Outside of class, with a study guide beside them, students can click on a slide and listen to just that segment of the lecture for review or clarification. For those students who miss a couple of classes, this option might make the difference between a higher or a lower grade. Cole noted that these learning options "clean up the middle of the grade curve a little bit," resulting in fewer "C" grades.

Impact on Learning

At a time when mobile devices in the classroom are still considered by some to be a distraction rather than a learning tool, Cole is using mobile technology to enhance her students' classroom experience. "When I first started recording lectures, I was worried that students wouldn't come to class. That has not been the case. I really like the recordings because I can present larger concepts; that is, the ways in which studying the past can help us understand our own world better, giving us a better way of uncovering why things are the way they are." Pushing the lectures out to mobile means students can look content up and watch it at home or in a coffee shop. If they're on a smartphone, they can hear the lecture and see the slides. "Ninety percent of the time, that's all you need," said Cole.

Cole is seeing a strong correlation between access to recorded lectures and higher grades. "Great access to lecture material – that is, being able to hear a lecture that you missed, or to listen to all or part of a lecture a second time – offers good students an advantage, especially if English isn't your first language. For those students, or where this course is their first exposure to U.S. and American history, keeping up with the class is easier because they can review the lectures at any time. I see more A's and B's from these hard-working students."

Although Cole concedes that mobile devices in the classroom can be a distraction for students, she believes that the advantages outweigh the potential problems. She recommended that instructors "dive in and try technology in the classroom," noting that allowing mobile devices in the classroom has altered the way she lectures.

"Using technology changes not so much student behavior as my behavior," Cole concluded. "It makes me craft lectures so that I can apply information and create questions and quizzes. You'll be amazed at how it makes you rethink how to get information across."

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