Published on 2013/02/08

The Time is Now for Mobile Technology in Higher Education

Co-written with Dennis Yang | President and Chief Operating Officer, Udemy

The Time is Now for Mobile Technology in Higher Education
Mobile technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in the higher education space and educators must embrace and capitalize on the use of this technology in order to remain relevant.

Let’s start at the bottom line: With the increasingly important role mobile plays today, some are still failing to grasp its significance or, worse yet, are ignoring it altogether.

As we continue to spend more time on our mobile devices, we’re spending less time on other media. Smartphone usage grew by 50 percent from 2011 to 2012; there are now four times as many smartphone owners as there are computer owners in the United States [1].  What’s more, Forrester Research reports that American tablet ownership doubled in 2012. In the words of Business Insider Editor and CEO Henry Blodget, “Everyone in the global economy who just finished scrambling to embrace the PC-based Internet is now frantically scrambling to figure out mobile.”[2]

What does all of this mean for education?

For starters, there is a clear opportunity to move students of all ages beyond playing games, texting friends, and otherwise wasting time, to actually learning something useful from educational content delivered via a mobile website or app. A whopping 91 percent of Americans have their mobile devices within reach 24/7 and mobile is proving a crucial platform for learners: Younger students are growing up with this technology and have different — and higher — expectations than older learners. Older learners need and want the convenience and ease of use they have quickly come to expect from their mobile devices. Users from both groups are already discovering and yearning for more educational content on their mobile devices.

Understanding Mobile’s Challenges Mobile devices are used differently by different audiences, each of which has its own set of needs, therefore presenting varying value propositions and resulting benefits based on each audience segment. People are increasingly using a combination of desktops, laptops, tablets and phones for consumption of content, and educators need to address all of these platforms in a cohesive and integrated manner. Add to the equation that as many as 86 percent of cellphone owners are using their mobile devices to do a variety of things while in front of the TV, bringing in the challenge of holding students’ attention.

There is a clear separation between how people digest content among platforms. They may start a course on their desktop, resume while mobile on an iPhone, then switch to a tablet. And when you consider that, while Android mobile users may own an iPad, iPhone users are not likely to own an Android tablet, supporting the mobile ecosystem can become even more complex.

The complexity is worth it. The mobile opportunity doesn’t just help existing education models, but it is also unlocking new content and new ways of learning for both students and instructors. On-demand videos in Adult Learning and educational games for K-12 and are just two examples of new ways to educate two very different audiences using the mobile platform. And with an increasing number of apps not requiring an Internet connection, mobile users are even more likely to use their smartphones to take courses while on the go.

When bringing educational content to the mobile platform on an app, for example, the most common hurdles are:

  • Integrating the user experience across all media;
  • Reach, i.e. not getting lost in the clutter of the app stores so that, when you build an app, people actually find it;
  • User engagement, i.e. making sure people actually use your mobile app after they download it;
  • Monetization, i.e. including payments within Apple Appstore;
  • Cross-platform support, i.e. supporting Android smartphone users who also own an iPad.

Distribution can be more difficult on mobile than on the web because of the need to go through the app stores for mobile applications. A strong product-market fit is no longer enough to attain a large user base. After all, how many of us regularly use more than 10 apps? The key is keeping users engaged and continuing to use the app, even after the six-week honeymoon period.

Mobile Recommendations If you don’t have your educational content or service available and optimized for mobile, you are likely losing business and potentially falling behind competitors and upstarts whether you realize it or not.

Think about timing. Studies have shown that people use their mobile devices the most in the morning and the evening, depending on audience segment. How do you translate that into usage for education purposes? In our experience, you focus on the places and times people reserve as private time for learning: at the kitchen table, during commutes and longer travel, as a passenger in the car with family and before bed.

For mobile websites, first define your target audience and then be sure the site has clear, simple navigation, is blazing fast and feels tailored to mobile and to the smaller, more personal screens.

For apps, master the commonly referenced flow of “download app, use app, keep using app, put it on your home screen” by continually measuring user behavior and improving the mobile experience with each new product release.

Overall, you can avoid becoming a laggard in the mobile race by:

  • Resourcing mobile as a separate initiative, but one in which the user experience is still integrated across other media such as desktop;
  • Providing a truly mobile-optimized experience (fast!);
  • Understanding your user’s behaviors in the mobile world and how they may differ from other online or offline experiences;
  • Managing the mobile ecosystem to ensure users can find and engage with you in the mobile medium.

Now is the time for educators to embrace mobile. It is not going away; on the contrary, it’s quickly moving from being a key advantage to “table stakes” in the race to bring educational content to mobile users. Organizations that aren’t already working to integrate mobile into their education strategy will be left behind.

– – – – References

[1] BeVisible Associates, “The Mobile Web: 10 Incredible Facts That You Probably Didn’t Know,” Betsy Kent, December 2012.

[2] Henry Blodget, “The Future of Mobile,” LinkedIn Today, December 14, 2012, accessed at

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2013/02/08 at 10:05 am

The author says that mobile technology unlocks new ways of learning for both students and instructors — I’m just wondering what that is for instructors. I think the benefits of mobile apps to students are clear, but I’m not sure what instructors gain from interfacing with this technology. Is the author saying that instructors learn from having to design for a mobile platform?

Ryan Loche 2013/02/08 at 4:54 pm

There are some clear pros and cons to introducing mobile technology to higher education. First, being able to take courses ‘on the go’ can be incredibly useful for adult students or those who have a lot going on in their lives and can only squeeze in some reading on their morning commute. It also allows for better self-pacing. On the other hand, I’m generally wary of people who espouse the benefits of mobile (or any) technology without caveats. I’m not convinced technology improves the educational experience as much as they claim. For example, learning on an app seems to be an invitation for distracted learning. Realistically, it’s not just mobile technology that encourages this; that’s how people are going to learn nowadays, even when they’re using desktops (with smartphones by their side and the TV or iTunes in the background). I suppose I’m just concerned about the quality of the learning experience these types of students are receiving. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I miss the days of face-to-face interaction with your instructor and peers.

Quincy Adams 2013/02/09 at 9:56 am

While I understand the appeal of having institutional resources available through mobile apps (such as course registration, bill payment, that kind of thing) I’ve never understood the need for making actual corse material available specifically for mobille. It seems to me that of learning is done “on the go” as one would do on a mobile device — rather than with time and intent (as one would do on a laptop or in a class) — that learning would be less effective.

Is it really worth the investment? I don’t think so.

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