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How mobile devices are changing higher education

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Students and teachers are increasingly embracing tablets and e-book readers in their personal lives, but do these devices have a place on community college campuses? Several institutions are exploring answers to that very question by piloting mobile technologies inside and outside college classrooms.

Scottsdale Community College (SCC) in Arizona, for example, is equipping about 125 faculty and students in a handful of classes with Apple iPads. The college has also purchased iPads for the library and tutoring centers for student use, and it bought another batch for other faculty and staff to evaluate.

“It’s about better engaging students in class, seeing how instructional support areas can use the devices in terms of working with students, and finding out if faculty and staff can use them to be more efficient and effective,” says Lisa Young, an instructional design and educational technology faculty member at SCC.

Driving the mobile movement is the growing popularity of tablet computers and e-book readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. College leaders roundly agree that such devices harbor vast educational potential, particularly as prices drop and more students, faculty, and staff use their personal mobile devices to access campus networks. But the jury is still out on how to best integrate these tools for improved teaching and learning.

“Like any new technology, it takes a while to see where it fits,” says Ron Bonig, Gartner’s higher education research director. “We’re at the stage where administrators are doing the analysis and going, ‘Here’s where it’s good and can make a big impact, and here’s where it isn’t.’ Few have it nailed down, and the vast majority are still testing.”

The move to mobile computing on campus coincides with a push among educational publishers toward digital content, such as electronic textbooks, multimedia-rich applications, online videos and other online tools for teachers and students.

To successfully implement a mobile computing initiative, colleges need faculty buy-in, a strong professional development program that empowers teachers to use the technology, and a robust infrastructure that includes a strong wireless network and good bandwidth, Bonig says. The cost of the devices, upkeep and ongoing support contracts add another layer to the initial investment.

What makes tablets different?

Costs aside, enthusiasm for the future of these devices in education runs high—and for good reason. Faculty often report that the technology makes classes more collaborative and interactive. Instructors have the ability to connect their devices to projector screens, integrating video, website content, lecture slides and media directly into classroom lessons. Students, meanwhile, can take notes, read from electronic texts, conduct online research, take quizzes and get real-time results that teachers can use to individualize instruction.

Mobile devices are nothing new in education—schools have been using laptops for years. But Eric Kunnen, director of distance learning and instructional technologies at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, says what separates tablets from first-generation devices such as laptops is their interface and ease of use.

A laptop offers users access to a standard keyboard and full suite of computing tools; a tablet, while not necessarily as robust in terms of computing power, is often smaller and provides fast, direct access to customized mobile learning applications.

“The form factor makes a difference. Tablets provide instant access to information and streamlined access to tools,” says Kunnen, whose college will soon launch pilots with iPads, Kindles, Nooks and iPod Touches in its classrooms.

The touchscreen found on most mobile devices is another potential benefit, Kunnen says, allowing students and instructors to manipulate images and other applications with their fingers.

“Instead of a two-dimensional image, you can move and zoom in on a three-dimensional image,” he explains. “That visual element is perhaps more engaging to students and helps them better visualize abstract concepts that are difficult to learn.”

Time-saving tools

Arizona’s SCC funded its mobile pilot with internal grants the past two years. The project put iPads into faculty and students’ hands in several classes, including English, journalism, and film. Cinematography students are using iPads for the first time this spring. The devices have increased collaboration and improved learning by providing access to tablet-specific applications that many students have not used before, says SCC film instructor Matthew Myers.

The applications allow students to do pre-production planning, such as testing different film cameras and drawing storyboards, directly on the devices. In the past, students drew storyboards by hand and made printouts. Oftentimes, they would share the materials on the day of the shoot. As a result, a lot of time was wasted working out the details when students could have been focusing more on the actual shoot, says Myers. Now, using the technology, they can email their work to each other and have online discussions ahead of time.

“They’re emailing, saying, ‘This is my storyboard or lighting setup. Tell me what you think.’ They’re chatting back and forth, and when they show up on the shoot, everyone is on the same page,” Myers says.

Piloting e-books

In 2009, Doug Rowlett, director of educational technology services at Houston Community College's (HCC) Southwest College, applied for and received a $100,000 grant to pilot emerging digital tools in classrooms. He purchased 100 Kindle e-book readers, 35 iPads, and 30 dual-screen tablet/e-book readers from a now-defunct manufacturer.

The Kindles—used primarily in English classes—did not change instructors’ teaching styles, but students who switched to electronic books saved money, not to mention their backs, by eliminating the need to haul several pounds of books around in their backpacks, Rowlett says.

After completing a three-semester pilot in fall 2010, administrators at HCC Southwest remain convinced of mobile computing’s potential in the classroom. The college recently made plans to equip every full-time faculty member with an iPad, as many as it can within the parameters of its budget.

“We’ve proved these devices work in classrooms,” says Rowlett, who says the technology fared well in anatomy, biology, and physiology pilots.

Like most colleges, HCC Southwest can’t afford to purchase a mobile device for every student. But to ensure student access, the college is working to make course content—such as electronic textbooks and the school’s learning management system—accessible on any mobile computing device a student owns. Most students at least have a smartphone, Rowlett says. With the right infrastructure, the hope is that they can access the resources from there.

“We are going in the direction of becoming as platform-agnostic as we can be, so students can access educational content on whatever device they bring on campus,” he says.

Despite its potential, Rowlett cautions that mobile computing is not a panacea. Success depends on each faculty member and whether educators spend the time and effort needed to effectively integrate the technology.

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