Published on 2014/05/30

Learning in Real Life: Mobile Learning and Non-Traditional Students

Learning in Real Life: Mobile Learning and Non-Traditional Students
Mobile-friendliness means more than creating programs for cell phones in distance education; it means creating programming flexible enough to suit the needs of the modern, overstretched, non-traditional student.
A question that has been coming up more and more recently is, “What is the value of mobile learning technologies for adult students? Will they revolutionize adult learning?”

While fighting a sense of déjà vu from many past conversations on this topic, I should note that the revolution has already occurred. Mobile technologies dominate the distance education market, so it’s pretty clear that horse left the barn long ago.

Common mobile devices include laptops, netbooks, tablets and cell phones—with smart watches having joined the list recently. A laptop or netbook has the most power; tablets are catching up fast, but they need a real keyboard to permit writing academic documents, or even lengthy emails. Cell phones are ubiquitous, but the screen size is so small that I don’t see them as meaningful educational tools for the older eyes of adults. Smart watches aren’t really a factor yet. However, all of these can be used as Internet tools within their limitations.

At this point, let’s ask, “What value would adult distance learning have if it weren’t accessible via mobile learning technologies?” My position is that it would have about the same value as used chewing gum. If distance education isn’t mobile in today’s market, it won’t have enough potential customers to survive.

If you’re going to serve adult students in today’s world, you have to make those programs fit into life the way it’s lived today. That doesn’t mean telling them they have to file into a classroom a half-dozen times per week.

Adult distance learning is for people with real lives, so it has to be accessible for people like you and me. These are people who hit the gym on Monday nights (outside the NFL season), who travel to Chicago on Tuesday for a two-day meeting, and who have a volunteer group meeting next Saturday morning before they run their kids to soccer and softball practice or games on Saturday and Sunday.

These people have real lives. They’re not traditional-age college students who live on or near a campus and who—aside from 15 hours in class per week—pretty much control their lives, other than perhaps having a part-time job.

If you don’t deliver to adult students where they are and when they are available, in today’s world, your program doesn’t matter much. None of us get to run our adult students’ lives, their calendars or their careers; we have to fit into the cracks. That means that we have to use mobile technologies.

At Colorado State University, we’ve built successful distance education degree programs that hinge on two assumptions so basic we rarely discuss them.

First, we design classes to be asynchronous. With very few exceptions, no distance student ever needs to take part in any class at any specific time. They can review class materials, participate in discussions and submit work without ever being online at the same time as the instructor. Even the rare synchronous class is recorded because students have real lives and we know that some of them will not be available for every class.

Second, when we do have synchronous elements, we never require proprietary equipment for videoconferencing, nor do we use equipment that’s only available at specific sites. We only require students participating in interactive classes to use computers, headsets and webcams.

Adding requirements for synchronicity or proprietary equipment not only reduces the size of your target market, but it’s potentially unfair to students. In today’s world there’s no reason to require them to buy specialized telecommunications gear or attend class at any site. We should be smart enough to design our programs to avoid either requirement.

In rare instances there may be objectives which require specialized equipment or attendance at a site or event. In those cases, we should design so that there is as much flexibility in time and place as possible, and provide as much advance notice as possible about the program requirements. A program which requires one student visit to campus every semester should state those requirements clearly and schedule them with as much consideration for students as possible.

Under this approach, students can access CSU classes at home, in their office, or while they’re in a coffee shop or hotel room while traveling. That’s what you and I would require of any degree program if we were enrolled, so that’s what we strive to provide our students.

Returning to the original questions, I think most of us can confidently respond that first, mobile learning technologies are essential to adult learning programs. Second, they have already revolutionized adult learning just as they are changing communications and information access throughout modern society.

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Readers Comments

anon 2014/05/30 at 1:48 pm

Isn’t this encouraging a culture of busy-ness for its own sake? Shouldn’t we be encouraging students to value their education by acknowledging the difficulty and commitment required and making time for it? Putting course on phones and watches is just another way to tell people that doing everything faster is the only thing that counts as success. Higher education is challenging and requires time and effort. It’s not just something you can whip off on your phone while your kid is at soccer practice.

Al Powell 2014/06/02 at 10:47 am

Anon, you have missed the point. Mobile delivery via online is one of the referred methods of study at this point. That question has been asked and answered.

Don’t think that working full time and raising a family while earning a degree (all are typical of students using mobile technology) doesn’t require extreme commitment and entail significant difficulty.

“Faster” isn’t the issue. Access is the issue. Students of all ages need access to course materials and online interaction at all hours of day and night. And in fact, I can send a timely email or read someone else’s post pretty easily while sitting in a camping chair during my daughter’s softball practice – if I choose to.

    anon 2014/06/04 at 1:49 pm

    OK – fair. But at what point do schools need to start getting into the business of providing mobile devices in order to ensure equal access to all, instead of just the rich? After all, to my mind, the people who most need flexible access to higher ed are the people working jobs that have completely inflexible hours, perhaps shift work. Folks in those situations aren’t out buying iPads and highly-powered, big-screen mobile devices.

      Al Powell 2014/06/09 at 10:59 am

      That’s a fair question! At the higher ed level, I don’t believe that institutions need to provide mobile devices to users. The cost of a mobile device such as a laptop, which is the most versatile and therefore more critical device, is no more than a set of books for one term at many institutions. In other words, if you can’t afford the device, you can’t afford to earn the degree.

      Of course there are special needs students and special programs, and exceptions may be made for them. But you can bet that if the institution is providing a device as part of the program, the cost is built into either the tuition or fees; the student (or tuition support entity) is paying for it.

Vicki Brannock 2014/06/02 at 7:20 pm

This is a great article about meeting the students needs through a friendly delivery model. The evolution of adult learning suggests that the next step is ascertaining what knowledge has already been gained prior to the course and what is left to learn and then assessing the competency to verify the knowledge. The competency based(CBE)model has many benefits for adult learners and consequently for continuing education units because the student will always need to acquire new skill and prove their competency to employers.

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