By making online education mobile, instructors have a new opportunity to engage learners.
Smartphone use is so ubiquitous these days that talking about it being “on the rise” states the obvious. The spread of smartphones has been accompanied by a proliferation of apps of every variety. There are apps to help you build better habits, apps to help you track your budget, fitness trackers and dieting tools, memory games to improve your mental flexibility, and meditation apps to help you de-stress.
Learning apps have become their own, special sub-genre—as well they should. Their convenience and accessibility provide a unique opportunity to make education portable. And in doing so, it doesn’t just make the learning experience more convenient; it makes it better. Here’s how.
1. Social learning.
Language apps have been especially popular as a mobile learning tool, and for good reason: mobile apps help create the immersive experience most of us long for when we learn new languages. While I’ve used various language learning apps on my computer for online tutoring, most of these don’t give me much practice writing sentences.
However several mobile language apps have included a chat feature so that members of their language community can text each other and help with corrections within the app. This not only makes writing practice easier, it also builds connection with other language learners.
2. Multimedia content.
I spend, on average, over two hours a day listening to audiobooks. I listen in the car, while I’m making dinner and doing the dishes, when I’m exercising, and when I’m doing chores around the house. Sometimes I substitute audiobooks for podcasts. Either way, audio content is easy for me to consume while I accomplish other tasks, provided those other tasks don’t require all my attention.
E-learning has long benefited from the inclusion of video content to substitute text. However, videos for mobile content have to be relatively short to match the learner’s time commitment. A good video length for mobile learning is eight minutes.
Audio content is different, however. Because users don’t have to have their eyes on the screen while they listen, they can consume that content while driving or doing chores. As a result, many popular podcast are often much longer than video content—anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour.
Mobile learning is perfect for micro content (which I’ll get to in a minute), but not all content is suitable for short, bite-sized chucks. For mobile learners, audio content offers a solution. Educators could even combine this longer-form content with review quizzes that only take a few minutes to complete.
3. Reminders and notifications.
For any online educators struggling to retain learner engagement, mobile learning can bolster interest through careful use of push notifications on smartphones. A notification that new lesson content is available, or that a certain quiz is due by the end of the day, can help learners stay on top of coursework. A simple nudge is often all a learner needs to re-engage with course material and take their next step toward completion.
4. Habit building mechanisms.
Reminders and notifications serve another function as well: to build learner habits. Most of us who have smartphones have already acquired the (sometimes irritating) habit of checking them throughout the day. I’ve noticed that different apps on my phone have taught me other habits, such as to track recent purchases in my budget app, or to get up and take walking breaks during the day so that I don’t spend hours on end glued to my computer screen.
Education can also be a habit. If I become accustomed to seeing a reminder that I have an unfinished lesson to listen to on my phone, or if my course sends me a daily 5-question review quiz, it can level some of the barriers I place in my way and prevent me from procrastinating.
5. Micro content.
It’s no secret that cramming is bad for retaining information. We benefit more from frequent, focused periods of study than we do from overnight binges. I will learn more effectively if I study a subject for one hour a day all week than by putting in one extra-long study period on the weekend. This is because, when we first learn information, it piles up in our short-term memory.
It takes time for our brains to identify which pieces of information in our short-term memory are important enough to move to long-term storage. In an 8-hour cramming session, our short-term memory becomes overloaded and we simply can’t hold all that information in. But study sessions that are spread out over time improve recall of new information and help prevent short-term memory from overloading.
Mobile learning, with its focus on micro content, dovetails nicely with this piece of learning psychology. Because learners can access content frequently throughout the course of the day, it has the potential to reinforce lessons.
But won’t it be distracting?
Judging from my own experience, I think not. When I work on my computer, I’m a power user. I have multiple applications running across several screens, and I’m constantly switching between them. I have multiple browser windows open, each with a dozen or more tabs. There’s so much going at once that it’s easy to become distracted. It’s great when I need to research a topic, but challenging for completing focused tasks.
Learning on my smartphone is different. Once I’m in an app, I tend to stay there, because switching between apps is less convenient than on my computer. That small disincentive toward multitasking inadvertently boosts my concentration.
Sure, mobile learning can be more distracting in a distracting environment. It’s certainly harder to focus and concentrate on a subway or while standing in line at the grocery store. But I’ve never heard anyone use this as an argument against reading in those environments.
Can all learning be mobile?
While mobile learning is more accessible and habit-building than other forms of learning, mobile learners also have to contend with interruptions. The learner who is able to set aside ten minutes on their lunch break to consume a lesson will see great benefits from mobile learning. But someone who stops and starts a lesson frequently as they try to squeeze it in between other tasks will find the experience less rewarding.
Beyond this, learning involves more than mere memorization. There will always be a need for longer periods of focused work, particularly project-based work that requires research. And if a learner runs into a concept they don’t understand from their mobile lesson, they may have to crack a book to work it out.
That said, most eLearning experiences expect learners to engage with additional resources beyond those delivered through lectures or other lessons. Mobile learning doesn’t need to replace every aspect of coursework and study, it just needs to offer blended learning in a way that enhances the user experience.
This it emphatically does. Mobile learning makes education more accessible. It builds habits and facilitates information recall. It’s suitable for a variety of content types, and it encourages social interaction with other learners. Online educators who aren’t taking advantage of these benefits are missing out.