Post originally ran in SmartChimps on April 7, 2017
Everyday our university students head to lectures with a staggering amount of computing power in their hands. In fact, the latest iPhone or Galaxy could guide 120,000,000 Apollo spacecrafts (the one that the US space programme landed on the moon in 1969) simultaneously. If the guidance system was available as a download from the App Store or the Google Play Store – and you had the time and inclination – you could put 64,000,000 copies of the programme on a 256-gigabyte mobile device. And they easily fit in a coat pocket or a rucksack.
While these bits of trivia make good cocktail party conversation, the real question is: what do universities and professors do to harness this power that puts a world of knowledge just a few clicks away from our students?
Mobile for connection and learning
We know that students are using technology to stay connected to each other, but also to help with their studies. A recent survey by VitalSource of 866 students from 131 higher education institutions in the UK confirmed this. All the participating students owned at least one portable digital device, most commonly a smartphone. More significantly, the vast majority took their devices to lectures and actively used them for learning activities like last minute reading or to verify something in class, immediately before a test, or before handing in an assignment.
Mobiles have transformed their learning experience. Phones are students’ first port of call when they get stuck; not to phone a friend, but for an immediate answer. More than half reported going first to Google for academic support rather than asking a friend, someone on the teaching staff, or searching a textbook.
Today’s students have been brought up with online learning, with children as young as seven telling us they prefer learning on tablets, because they make learning fun and because they learn best by ‘doing it themselves’. University students live in a world of Uber and Deliveroo where immediacy is the norm.
A student at Plymouth University who was provided with a digital copy of their textbook explained ‘‘I mostly use it on my phone when I have a query in my head and I just want it to be then and there, over and done with’. They expect to be able to access their learning material anytime from anywhere, and on any device. They specifically noted being able to access the content from multiple devices, and the ability to download e-textbooks for use offline so they don’t have to worry about the costs of Wi-Fi when they are off campus and paying for it themselves.
A significant portion of students rely on the portability of learning materials through their devices. This includes part time students creatively fitting their reading in between meetings, and medical students on placement, who need an immediate answer, as well as those who just like to travel light. A Year 1 engineering student at the University of Birmingham remarked: “Textbooks are hefty and heavy, and when taking multiple classes, the hassle of carrying a bunch of books can become troublesome. E-textbooks give me the option of having thousands of textbook pages compressed into a very portable device.” Another, a Year 1 computer science student at Edinburgh Napier University, regarding his mobile device was quoted saying, “It’s like having a classroom you can carry around, which is very helpful.”
How to use this information
But back to the important query, how do universities use this information?
Step one is selecting innovative content that leverages interactivity and portability. Move beyond clunky PDFs to quizzes, videos and platforms that encourage social learning.
Step two is providing that content to students that interacts well with the digital platforms they are using. The platform and content must work together seamlessly, on whichever device the student chooses.
Step 3 is ensuring access regardless of internet connectivity. Sometimes Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity is not optimal for high data usage applications, like educational videos or interactive digital textbooks. Yet no connectivity is not an excuse for missing an assignment or not being prepared for lecture.
Students are mobile, have embraced digital learning and have access to computing power. Transforming education should be an easier step than sending rockets to the moon.