Learning to Teach with Mobile Technologies: Pedagogical Implications In and Outside the Classroom
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In learner-centered, technologically enabled postsecondary classrooms, twenty-first-century digital and mobile technologies provide avenues for flexible, personal learning for different groups in the same classroom and enable individual discovery. These same technologies also present risks and ethical dilemmas, including challenges to pedagogical processes and instructors’ academic identity in postsecondary teaching and learning contexts. In the current technology-enabled educational milieu of this century, this may mean instructors thinking differently about engrained, traditional pedagogical practices and exploring the interconnections between subject matter disciplines in a globally connected society. In this chapter, the author presents the argument that the past century’s concepts of reflection-on-practice and reflection-in-practice remain of prime importance, and when the implications for teaching and learning in and outside the classroom with digital and mobile technologies are considered and addressed, a rich pedagogical experience can emerge.
KeywordsDigital technologies Learning Mobile devices Pedagogy Philosophies of teaching Reflection Teaching
Despite the ubiquitous nature of technology in our current twenty-first-century social milieu, its presence in postsecondary classrooms is still met with mixed opinions and varied degrees of effective use by instructors (Al-Emran et al. 2016). Via an extrapolation of Ardies et al. (2014) research on secondary students’ attitudes toward technology, understanding adults’ attitudes toward technology can contribute to the design of appropriate interventions and supports for those instructors who are open to exploring the ways mobile technologies can enhance their pedagogy. Specifically, as McKeachie and Svinicki (2014) argued, “the successful integration of technology entails careful consideration of course content, the capabilities of various technology tools, student access to and comfort with technology, and the instructor’s view of his or her role in the teaching and learning process” (p. 264). Moreover, as institutions learn to capitalize on their students’ seemingly constant access to mobile devices, more efficient and cost-effective ways to distribute information and complete administrative tasks related to student enrolment, fee payments, and academic advising can be realized.
Since the first publication of this text, technology continues to dramatically change the way institutions conduct the business of education. As well, an ongoing scan of the literature reveals continued focus on the twenty-first-century learner and their skills and ways of learning in elementary and high school contexts. The education field is still flooded with examples of student learning activities that effectively incorporate technology to inspire engagement with the curriculum and to connect to the world beyond the physical classroom walls. What is less evident, however, is how the research field has continued to follow the twenty-first-century learner from their technology-infused K–12 classrooms to where they are now – postsecondary classrooms – many of which are steeped in traditional didactic, low-technology teaching methods.
With the goal of improving students’ educative experiences, teaching practices have been researched and theorized extensively, especially in higher education classrooms of the latter half of the twentieth century (Chickering and Gamson 1999). There is an array of educational philosophies underpinning teaching practice, especially within the context of working with adult learners. There are far fewer parallel studies examining twenty-first-century postsecondary instructors in those same contexts. Writing and research that weave the business and process of student learning in higher education that involves technology with the required pedagogical approaches needed in classrooms enhanced with mobile technologies remain sparse (Gikas and Grant 2013). A noted exception is Herrington and Herrington’s observation that “the disruptive nature of the integration of new technologies in education often results in practitioners relying upon tried and proven pedagogical approaches, leading to ‘one step forward for technology and two steps back for pedagogy’” (as cited in Cochrane 2013, p. 247).
In response, this chapter identifies key concepts of digital technologies as an ongoing disruptive force in higher education. But rather than a technical blueprint for implementation – a challenge because of the rapid evolution of technology itself and the myriad of applicable contexts – this chapter explores the philosophical frameworks that impact instructors’ approaches to teaching in postsecondary educational contexts. The goal is for readers to conceptualize and perhaps reconceptualize the pedagogical approaches that instructors use with their students. When pedagogical processes are at the forefront of course design and when instructors engage in reflective practice with the goal of improving teaching, learning that integrates digital technologies can be student-centered, engaging, and empowering for all.
Pedagogical Paradigms Impacting Teaching and Learning
Although difficult to define because of the individualized nature of teaching and learning, the term pedagogy is often used in reference to the instruction of children and encompasses the art and science of teaching. Adding to this, Loughran (2006) argued that pedagogical practice includes more than the transmission of information, but also includes the “relationship between teaching and learning and how together they lead to growth in knowledge and understanding through meaningful practice” (p. 2). In contrast, a more inclusive definition not bounded by age incorporates the term pedagogic setting to “denote any identifiable group…for whom teaching and learning are an explicit and overarching goal” (Leach and Moon 2007, p. 10).
In this chapter, pedagogy carries a broad, inclusive meaning that encompasses teaching and learning in higher education – referred to here as postsecondary education or postsecondary learning – one borrowed from the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER 2009). According to CIDER, “pedagogy represents the creation of environments designed for learning.” In refining the concept of pedagogy even more specifically in terms of student-centered activities that incorporate digital technologies, “Scholarly learner-centered pedagogy represents the conscious creation of environments designed to foster learning through a focus on learner autonomy, social engagement, and cognitive processing, based on principles of teaching and learning developed through theoretical and empirical research” (CIDER 2009). Such structured and analytical ways of thinking about beliefs and practice add foundational intentionality to teaching (Dewey 1959).
In a milieu where the debate still rages over the purpose of postsecondary education, whether it be to gain the professional skills and knowledge associated with a career, to expose students to materials and to individuals that enlighten them and encourage engagement in critical thinking, or a rite of passage to adulthood, it remains that students who attend institutions of higher learning after the completion of their secondary education seek additional knowledge and skills from their instructors.
Focus on twenty-first-century skills, content knowledge, and expertise.
Build understanding across and among key subjects as well as twenty-first-century interdisciplinary themes.
Emphasize deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge.
Engage students with the real-world data, tools, and experts they will encounter in college, on the job, and in life; students learn best when actively engaged in solving meaningful problems.
Allow for multiple measures of mastery.
To do so, however, and to so with the explicit intention to embed within one’s instructional practice, those activities that help students develop and refine their skills and knowledge requires a deeply individualized examination of the philosophies of teaching that instructors bring to their practice within postsecondary classrooms.
Philosophical Underpinnings of Teaching
A developed educational philosophy of practice serves as “a tool to promote teachers’ ongoing personal development” (Beatty et al. 2009, p. 100) and informs the process by which instructors approach the inclusion of digital technologies into their design of student learning activities.
A behaviorist philosophy of education serves to characterize instructors who concentrate on teaching skills that enable learners to function within society and who tend to focus on behavioral modification through positive and negative reinforcement (Elias and Merriam 1984; Merriam 2001). The behaviorist instructor is often authoritative and directive, and their teaching tends to be sequential in nature, with students having little to no involvement in determining learning outcomes or delivery methods (Elias and Merriam 1984). One can find behaviorists leading traditional elementary and secondary classrooms and delivering lectures in higher education classrooms and in skills labs.
A progressive instructor acts as a guide to learning and is someone who creates opportunities for individuals to gain practical knowledge and skills that can be transferred to and from real-life experiences (Zinn 1999). Progressive instructors design learning experiences that enable students to reflect on experiences, evaluate the experiences, and, thus, gain a heightened awareness of the learning derived from those experiences (Lindeman 1926/1961). By making a connection between the material at hand and past material and experience, a student can bring a critical awareness to the new knowledge and experience.
When individuals are participants in their learning, they are less passive and are better prepared to play an active role in society (Dewey 1959). In educational settings designed by humanistic instructors, discussion is encouraged, student input and self-direction are welcomed, and personal insight is sought. The instructor’s intent is to create opportunities for learners to delve into their own constructs of teaching and learning, perhaps challenging systemic and societal norms. Mutual trust and respect – a sense of community, as it were – are required.
Constructivist instructors assert that students build and interpret reality based on how they perceive their experiences. In this learning paradigm, instructors consciously create opportunities for learners to engage actively with the course materials and with each other. Direct lecture is minimized, and the instructor functions as a facilitator, guiding students through interactive activities that build on their prior knowledge and understanding (Bangert 2004). In an early review of the effectiveness and efficiency of networked Internet communications technology in education commissioned by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education and Industry Canada, “effectiveness of the technology seemed correlated with the extent of interactivity that the technology afforded the learners” (Ungerleider and Burns 2003, p. 30).
By understanding philosophical underpinnings of teaching, an instructor can frame thinking and pedagogical intent. In doing so, instructors have the awareness and potential to make learning more meaningful for their students. Yet, in the drive to address the learning needs of twenty-first-century learners by incorporating digital technologies, it is important to “not lose sight of what matters in terms of quality pedagogy and learning experiences” (Kirkpatrick 2011, p. 24).
Effective Instruction in Higher Education
Encourages student-faculty contact
Encourages cooperation among students
Encourages active learning
Gives prompt feedback
Emphasizes time on task
Communicates high expectations
Respects diverse talents and ways of learning (p. 76)
From a pedagogical standpoint almost two decades later, including these seven points into the design, delivery, and assessment of course outcomes is a prudent decision – one that has transferability to learning environments that include the application of digital technologies.
Leach and Moon (2009) went so far as to attest that “Good teachers are intellectually curious about pedagogy” (p. 1). In consideration of the challenge in defining instructor effectiveness, Danielson’s (2007) four broad domains of teaching responsibility are appropriate considerations within the context of digital technologies in higher education because of the delineation of components: (a) planning and preparation, (b) the classroom environment, (c) instruction, and (d) professional responsibilities. Instructor effectiveness in terms of Domain 1: Planning and Preparation is derived from knowledge about six components, including among others, knowledge of content and pedagogy, resources, and instruction. Components of the “classroom environment” that may reveal teaching excellence include how the created environment enables interactions between facilitators and students that are respectful and understanding and are premised on a culture for learning. Other components of this domain involve classroom management of time, groups, tasks, and resources. Danielson’s third domain is “instruction,” which is comprised of five subcategories involving the ways in which instructors communicate with students about learning expectations and course content, engage students, use different assessment strategies, and be flexible and responsive to changing needs and situations. Regardless of definition, these dimensions are not mutually exclusive but rather are interlocking elements that, when combined, comprise a holistic concept of an effective instructor (Danielson 2007; Strong et al. 2011) who incorporates digital technologies effectively in ways that support student learning.
Reflective Thinking and Practice
One common thread throughout much of the literature about teaching is the importance of taking the time to examine the beliefs unpinning personal teaching practice, thus revealing personal philosophies of teaching and learning (Darkenwald and Merriam 1982). Schön (1983) differentiated between technological knowledge and “professional artistry” (p. vii) and urged instructors to use reflective practice to inform and develop their philosophies of teaching. Theorists have also acknowledged there is more than one framework from which to construct these personal philosophies (see, e.g., Brookfield 1990; Merriam and Caffarella 1999; Zinn 1999). Others, including Biggs (2002) and Flannery and Wislock (1991), have argued that a firm understanding of personal philosophies of teaching may enable instructors to make informed decisions on teaching methods and evaluations of student learning and reflections on practice.
“Reflective thinking is the process of making informed and logical decisions on educational matters, then assessing the consequences of those decisions” (Taggart and Wilson 2005, p. 1). Reflective thinking is also a hierarchical construct, moving from the technical, to the contextual, to the dialectical, with each level building atop the other. The foundation of Taggart and Wilson’s (2005) reflective thinking pyramid is technical in nature, built from past experiences and the instructor’s ability to set learning objectives and to design activities in which learners are able to meet outcomes while using mobile technologies. It is at the technical level that instructors need to begin to identify teaching practices that help students achieve course objectives.
A key component of this level is the honest assessment of the instructor’s own skills and knowledge of not only the mobile technology but also learner-centered pedagogical processes. In the technology-enabled educational milieu of this century, this may mean instructors thinking differently about engrained, traditional pedagogical practices and exploring the interconnections between subject matter disciplines in a globally connected society where learning is designed to “prepare young people for engaging in a complex and dynamic world deeply influenced by globalization and the revolution in digital technology” (Benade 2015, p. 42). It may also require shifting from instructor-focused didactic methods to a learner-centered model of exploration and inquiry that is made possible by devices that place knowledge in the hands of students to discover for themselves.
In the twenty-first century, instructors must acknowledge the role science and technology has played in the transformation of higher education thinking and practice and of society itself. Most current postsecondary students have not known a world without the Internet, without mobile devices, and without digital media to shape their interactions and their learning. Students quite possibly may not “find what they learn at school to be important and relevant…without a transformation of the education practices and adoption of contemporary tools and information practices” (Churchill 2018, p. 67). Without, as Churchill (2018) has argued, “asking the fundamental question of what is learning and what to learn in the contemporary times” (p. 67), instructors may not be able to meet the learning needs of their students nor be able to prepare them for a world in which the speed and volume of information requires critical thinking and reflection-in-action (Schön 1983). This will, as Benade (2015) observed, require instructors and administrators to be “reflective about their core pedagogical values and beliefs…and the meaning of terms such as ‘education’ and ‘to be educated’” (p. 42).
Mentor et al. (2011) began with reflection; yet, some educators intentionally – and some, unintentionally – begin with incorporating mobile technologies, an action that is preceded by little reflection or inquiry into process, with evaluation and change then following a conscious reflection on that action.
In this reflective conversation, the practitioner’s efforts to solve the reframed problem yields new discoveries which call for new reflection-in-action. The process spirals through stages of appreciation, action, and re-appreciation. The unique and uncertain situation comes to be understood through the attempt to change it, and changed though the attempt to understand it. (Schön 1983, p. 132)
Linking back to Taggart and Wilson’s (2005) reflective thinking pyramid, “Self-reflection to interpret and inform practice and establish congruency between theory and practice would be indicative of functioning at a contextual level” (p. 4). Regardless of where that cycle begins, the process is a way in which instructors can develop an awareness of self and others in terms of teaching performance, its outcomes, and potential opportunities for further professional learning (Osterman and Kottkamp 1993). A growing self-awareness may lead to the recognition that teaching practices need to change because of changing circumstances – of content, of students, of delivery methods, or of institutional and societal pressures.
Societal pressures can influence thoughts and actions (Osterman and Kottkamp 1993). In the traditional structures of higher education, the Socratic method of knowledge transmission is deeply rooted in common practice. Ironically, Osterman and Kottkamp (1993) questioned why instructors – who seek to improve their performance –are challenged to identify the specific thoughts and actions which prevent teaching success. This is particularly troublesome in light of the recommendation that in order to improve practice and to move from the contextual level to the dialectical level of reflection, instructors need to make time for collegial discussions and seek feedback from peers (Mentis 2008; Taggart and Wilson 2005). Currently, software and hardware have enabled collaboration and peer feedback regardless of geographic location and ready access to practice-based instructional tools and supports via the Internet. Yet, in the current postsecondary milieu of increasing workload demands and pressures to perform, finding adequate time to examine one’s practice can be difficult. As well, the very technologies that have been created to increase collaboration have served to decrease face-to-face interactions and erode academic identity (Kraglund-Gauthier 2014).
An examination of actual practice brings meaning to an instructor’s underlying philosophy of teaching, but can also test assumptions (Benade 2015). Yet, by employing a rigorous strategy of reflective thinking to their course planning activities, instructors can identify how the current social contexts of twenty-first-century teaching and learning that incorporate digital technologies impact course design and delivery. When faced with potential changes to habitual thoughts and actions, it can be argued that only through reflection can instructors identify that to which they are resistant and why. This is certainly the case with learning to teach with digital technologies.
The Impact of Disruptive Technologies
In the mid-1990s, a time when computers and computing technologies were just establishing and place within educational contexts, Bower and Christensen (1995) realized the potential of emerging, user-friendly computing technologies to both disrupt and to yield opportunities. They identified an intersection between what consumers required from technology to improve performance and its overall trajectory as a performance-enhancing option in time. For Bower and Christensen (1995), “sustaining technologies tend to maintain a rate of improvement; that is, they give customers something more or better in the attributes they already value.” Disruptive technologies, on the other hand, have a flatter trajectory on the dimension of time because of their differences and the high switching costs for users. Included in these costs is the perception that the disruptive technology is no more effective than what is currently in use and familiar to users.
Digital technologies, in particular, are sustaining and disrupting teaching, learning, and operations. For example, research by the Educause Center for Applied Research on mobile technologies in higher education has revealed that students are driving the adoption of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, with 67% of surveyed students believing that their mobile devices were important to their academic success and used them for academic purposes (Gikas and Grant 2013). As MacLeod and Kraglund-Gauthier (2015) noted in research on infusing technology into preservice teacher education science courses, for their participants, “the notion of tablets and other mobile devices, Internet access, information accessibility, and ‘connecting’ are now part of daily personal activities and expectations of classroom learning” (p. 1).
Conditions facilitating the implementation of educational technology
Dissatisfaction with the status quo
Feeling a need to change
Access to the knowledge and skills required by the user
Resources, rewards, and incentives; leadership; and commitment
Things needed to make it work – funding, hardware, software, tech support, infrastructure, etc.
Commitment, leadership, and rewards and incentives
Prioritized allocation of time to make it work
Participation, commitment, leadership, and rewards and incentives
Rewards or incentives
Internal and external motivators preceding and following adoption
Participation, resources, time, and dissatisfaction with the status quo
Shared decision-making; full communication; good representation of interests
Time, expertise, and rewards and incentives
Firm and visible evidence of continuing endorsement and support
Leadership, time, resources, and rewards and incentives
Competent and supportive leaders of project and larger organization
Participation, commitment, time, resources, and rewards and incentives
These conditions, which the Institute adapted from research done by Ely in the late 1990s, still hold true more than 10 years later (Al-Emran et al. 2016; MacLeod and Kraglund-Gauthier 2015; Niess and Gillow-Wiles 2016).
Some argue institutionalized, traditional didactical structures of knowledge transmission have translated into a narrow concept of effective teaching, defined in terms of the cultural artifacts that embody its presence and function and that vary within the social context (Crawford 1996). These artifacts traditionally include lecture halls, desks, podiums, paper, and the physicality of an instructor and students (Friesen 2010). Furthermore, “actions and expectations around new teaching models alienated some staff, particularly those who saw themselves as guardians of the old ways” (Higgins and Northover 2011, p. 131).
This is still the case in our current educational contexts some 20 years later. For example, the scant research on mobile technologies and learning have focused on students’ access to content rather than an engagement with the content or the co-generation of content (Cochrane 2013).
For a large percentage of current teachers, the adoption of many educational technologies is a two part process involving 1) the reexamining of fundamental educational philosophy and pedagogy on the one hand, and 2) learning how to thoughtfully employ student-empowering applications of technology on the other.
Yet, as support for learning that is enhanced by digital tools spreads throughout the academy, it is important to remain critically reflective on how “learning formats, pedagogical approaches and student achievement interact” (Lalonde 2011, p. 408). Furthermore, although an instinct may be to standardize practice in an attempt to reach a consistent quality, “shared practice does not entail uniformity, conformity, cooperation, or agreement, but it does entail a kind of diversity in which perspectives and identities are engaged with one another” (Wenger 1998, pp. 128–129).
Digital Technologies in Higher Education
Digital teaching and learning (or mobile, m-learning) has been a hot keyword in education in recent years because of the dramatically increasing penetration rate of mobile devices globally. Mobile devices have experienced very rapid changes from 2000 to 2014, with a reported 1.1 billion people using smartphones and tablets to access mobile Internet technologies (Manyika et al. 2013). This number has been estimated to be closer to more than 2.5 billion smartphone users in 2017, with China, India, and the United States as top usage countries (Richter 2018). By 2017, smartphones and tablet usage accounted for 70.7% of the total digital minutes used in the United States (Martin 2018).
While mobile devices are currently used primarily for voice and text message communication, they are also used to send pictures, listen to music, record video, watch television, play games, surf the Internet, check email, manage schedules, browse and create documents, and more. Mobile technology and its complementary software applications and connections to real-time data via the Internet create opportunities for interaction, provide opportunities for collaboration, and enable students to engage in content creation and communication using social media and Web 3.0 tools (Dogtiev 2018; Gikas and Grant 2013; Mentis 2008). According to Manyika et al. (2013), “App downloads grew 150 percent in 2012, and …Time spent playing video games, emailing, and text messaging on mobile phones grew 200 percent in the past four years” (p. 32). By 2017, the number of mobile app downloads had increased to 197 billion worldwide, up from 149.3 billion in 2016 (Statista 2018), and users spent an average of 2.3 hours on digital media each day (Dogtiev 2018).
Opportunities and Threats with Mobile Technologies
Mobile technologies, by their very nature, present both opportunities and threats for administrators and instructors to consider and mitigate, including, but not limited to, privacy, equitable access to technology, Internet access, and appropriate use. The pervasiveness of mobile technologies in higher education’s classrooms and educational spaces both on and off campus presents an opportunity for instructors to harness the power of these devices for learning. By recognizing the typical twenty-first-century student is connected to a network of peers and information, instructional strategies and learning activities both in an outside the classroom can become relevant, engaging, and responsive. It is inaccurate to assume, however, just because students seem to be technically savvy in their personal and social lives, that they are equally as savvy with using technology for learning (Ardies et al. 2014; MacLeod and Kraglund-Gauthier 2015; U.S. Department of Education 2015; Niess and Gillow-Wiles 2016).
As Anders (2017) argued, digital tools can be used to create meaningful assessments for feedback or reflection, thus increasing versatility of formative and summative assessment strategies. For example, using mobile devices such as clickers and web-based polling are opportunities to engage students in real-time by providing responses to questions and to course content. Based on these responses, the instructor can modify teaching in real time. If most students respond with the correct answer to a problem in balancing a chemical equation, the instructor can move on to the next idea, while directing students with incorrect responses to additional learning resources. In a large class, the shy student who is reluctant to ask questions or volunteer comments out loud can contribute to the discussion electronically, thereby increasing engagement across and within the entire classroom community. In a Political Science class, the Internet can be used to stream live images of political uprisings as a conversation starter. A student can fact-check points quickly and unobtrusively before volunteering to contribute to a classroom conversation.
Publishers and software engineers are also recognizing how connected students are to their mobile devices. Many course textbooks have available for purchase a PDF or e-text version, often at a substantially lower price. At Algonquin College, located in Ontario, Canada, for example, a campus-wide strategy to access only electronic textbooks from publishers or open access sites is expected to translate to student savings of over $2 million dollars by 2016 (K. MacDonald, November 26, 2014, personal communication). In addition, software companies now create mobile versions of software that address smaller screen sizes and bandwidth constraints. From a hardware perspective, if more students bring their own devices to campus (BYOD), demand for access to institutional-owned computers in student labs decreases. Moreover, incorporating learning management system tools and digital resources within course delivery methods also reduces paper and textbook costs, providing additional funds for long-term device purchases (Anders 2017). Overall, these opportunities translate to the potential of improving the student experience on campus, and customer satisfaction is crucial for financial success.
The proliferation of mobile devices on and off higher education’s campuses does not come without threats. The lack of continuity of wireless data transfers between buildings and the different qualities of mobile signals in different areas are technical barriers to reach real anytime and anywhere mobile learning. On campuses with a high BYOD rate, investments in student computer labs are wasted. The unpredictability of the number of individuals wanting to access the intranet can cause system slowdowns and crashes. Besides this, the high costs of mobile data access and different mobile rates in different provinces and countries are also increasing the difficulties of adopting efficient mobile learning (Bridges and Traxler 2005). Institutions are at the mercy of data companies setting prices based on supply and demand.
Ethical issues concerning mobile devices are abundant, and many of these issues translate to learning via a mobile device. With digital learning comes the issue of students located in countries other than in North America who wish to participate in classes within the continent. An ethical issue here is the different legal procedures and laws in general. In testing situations, mobile devices, especially wearable technologies, can be brought in the exam without being noticed. On a more personal level, with the ever-present mobile phone in campus dorms and other social spaces, the potential for privacy invasion is significant, as is cyberbullying. If an objectionable event goes viral, it is difficult to reverse a negative image of the institution as a whole.
As with many new technologies, the biggest concern for users and also the most significant ethical dilemma is the security of sensitive information. Institutions of higher education collect a great deal of personal information about their students’ mobile technologies using unsecure Wi-Fi threaten to expose this sensitive information to anyone who may have the capability to gain access to the technology used to store and analyze information. With data becoming more mobile, the threat of security breaches increases (Kraglund-Gauthier and Young 2014) alongside the need to protect student information (Anders 2017). The privacy laws in the United States, for example, are different than the ones in Canada, and the institutions providing the course via mobile learning could be accessing information of students that is legal for them to do in Canada, but not legal in other locations across the globe. Students participating in a class from another country may not be aware of the ability and right of their institution of choice to access and use their personal data for any purposes they wish to use it for (Bridges and Traxler 2005). With challenges such as these creating wariness and mistrust, it is little wonder that mobile technologies have yet to be firmly established as legitimate and powerful tools of teaching and learning. Higher education stakeholders need to anticipate these threats and put into place privacy policies, rules regarding data storage and appropriate use.
Key Considerations for the Integration of Digital Technologies
Specific departments within the institution have different functions and different technology needs; therefore, a variety of software programs and hardware must be purchased. Technology is a significant expense, and decisions for implementation must be proactively made that align with the institution’s overall academic and operational goals. The needs of instructors in one department need to be considered in relation to the needs of other departments, and key decision-makers will need to balance the distribution of desired technology with essential technology. These programs and technologies must also be chosen based on how long they will serve the institution’s needs and in consideration of hardware refresh rates and necessary software upgrades, and decision-makers must ensure that any investment made will be sustainable and that the selected technology is not anticipated to become obsolete too soon. As well, the potential impact of the technology must be assessed from various perspectives.
Digital and mobile technologies provide avenues for flexible, personal learning for different groups in the same classroom and enable individual discovery (Anders 2017; Kukulska-Hulme and Traxler 2005). Additionally, mobile and data services offer potential for new methods of teaching and learning; for example, the emerging field of wearable technology has the potential to take learning anywhere. Real-time exchange rates, interactive management activities, synchronous communication, and global collaboration can also be brought into the classrooms at anytime and from anywhere. With digital technologies, students have access to a wealth of knowledge via their connections to campus libraries and to businesses that have a web presence.
An important distinction here, though, is the difference between the formal use of technology for learning versus its informal use. In their research on student perspectives of learning with mobile devices, Gikas and Grant (2013) distinguished formal learning as occurring when students “are engaging with materials developed by a teacher to be used during a program of instruction in an educational environment, highly structured, institutionally sponsored, and generally recognized in terms of a certificate or a credit upon completion” (p. 19). In contrast, informal learning is less structured, but similarly intentional and contextualized, encompassing Internet searches, clicking highlighted links, and reading social media. In the higher education classroom, formal learning via a mobile device can, for example, include accessing resources and contributing to discussions in a course-based learning management system. It can also include using peripheral attachments on smartphones and tablets to collect magnified images of species and specimens during fieldwork, using data probes to collect temperature and air quality readings to import directly into a shared spreadsheet or database.
Digital and mobile technologies and their associated applications cannot be successful in isolation. An engaging instructor and effective curriculum design with inspiring content are vital for a successful technology-enhanced learning program (Mentis 2008). When “problems are often seen as an indicator of incompetence and failure” (Osterman and Kottkamp 1993, p. 21), specific competencies in creating and displaying content requires a comprehensive understanding on different types of hardware and software as well as new developed technologies in telecommunication industry. Well-designed course content can include not just readings and discussions but also incorporate the interactive, communicative functions on mobile devices (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005). Functioning effectively in the media-rich classrooms of the twenty-first century requires a skillful and appropriate application of technology that is linked strongly to the curriculum.
Students use mobile phones in smaller time slots, such as when waiting for friends or when traveling on public transport, to perform numerous tasks beyond merely texting and calling contacts. Students now use mobile devices in these time slots to engage in other social activities and to search for information and even work on assignments. A well-designed activity should make use of these smaller time slots, in particular in the form of micro-learning materials such as short instructional or review videos and reinforcing activities such as definition and concept reviews in the form of flashcards or quizzes. Because of technology and Moore’s law, students can carry hundreds of electronic books on one electronic device and access academic resources virtually instantaneously. Students and instructors alike can access virtual classroom space with personal mobile devices, and a volume of data is available at one’s fingertips.
The smaller screen size and limited input options are key considerations, however. Mobile access has its limitation on the size of content, how it is designed to display on a screen, and how interaction is made. Videos can be valuable resources for learning but may be cumbersome and inefficient on mobile devices, and it may be hard to read subtitles. Similar to traditional learning environments, interactive functions and social communication are also effective ways to engage students and increase long-term memory. Discussion between students and communication with instructors help students to understand the materials and to apply their knowledge in real cases. Constructive feedback from students also helps improve instruction.
As well, when designing an effective learning activity that incorporates mobile technologies, instructors must consider the different characteristics of mobile devices and of mobile learners themselves. Individuals’ past experiences, prior knowledge, and personal views and opinions tend to impact on the types of activities required for learning (Vygotsky 1978) and “their interpretations of the purposes or goals of an activity” (Crawford 1996, p. 44). Whether the learning tool requires the use of data and a reliable Internet connection and whether students have and can access data are other key considerations.
As higher education’s classrooms fill with twenty-first-century learners who are accustomed to learning with mobile devices, it is imperative that all stakeholders work to resolve the tension emerging from the mismatch of technological tools and platforms, instructional pedagogy, and the teaching and learning context of instructors and students. “Change is ubiquitous and relentless, forcing itself on us at every turn” (Fullan 1993, p. vii). It is imperative that stakeholders in higher education acknowledge and address the need for a focus on the art and craft of teaching – regardless of tools used – rather than a concentration on the technical mediums of content delivery and learning activities. Instructors with a vested interest in improving student learning “have to ride each new wave of technological innovation in an attempt to divert it from its more natural course of techno-hype, and drive it towards the quality agenda” (Laurillard 2005, p. 71). The issue is separating the hype from the demonstrable “best” practices.
Instructors need to shift their own thinking about pedagogical processes to address the dynamic and shifting nature of teaching and learning in classroom milieu infused with students’ personal mobile devices. In order to thrive in the twenty-first century, all levels within institutions of higher education need to accept and leverage digital and mobile technologies to transform the way instructors engage with their students and how they provide innovative educational experiences and deliver content. Results from previous research (Kraglund-Gauthier 2014) indicated that the more experience participants have with technology, the more confidence they have in their own abilities to use that technology. Yet gaining more experience carries with it a commitment of time – a finite commodity for any instructor; furthermore, developing content matter knowledge tends to be prioritized over developing content delivery methods.
Instructors who focus on constructivist pedagogical activities can efficiently maximize on students’ engagement and motivation, and, in turn, their students will feel a sense of connection with instructors and classmates. How instructors engage their students is due, in part, to the creation of spaces that are conducive to exploration and experimentation with mobile technologies that move beyond mobile technologies as “purely social tools for informal use into powerful tools for enabling student-generated content and collaboration within student-generated learning contexts” (Cochrane 2013, p. 255). It is through active reflection and engagement that an instructor can identify and attain high standards of teaching and develop expert knowledge that leads to self-efficacy and self-actualization for themselves and their students (Bandura 1993; Taggart and Wilson 2005). “The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer is their commitment to them” (Bandura 1993, p. 118). With self-efficacy and commitment established, the integration of mobile technologies is sustained.
Clearly, it is incumbent on the instructor to think critically about the process of learning and the quality of desired learning outputs when making decisions on what technologies to incorporate into a course’s learning activities. “The adoption of an innovative technology brings into question the fundamental pedagogical beliefs, the technology is marginalized or rejected until it can either be incorporated into the educator’s existent pedagogical model, or until the model itself evolves” (Bailey 2002). Pedagogical processes, reflective thinking, and the frameworks of Bloom’s (1984) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and Taggart and Wilson’s (2005) reflective thinking pyramid serve as guiding principles for designing learning activities, not only for students but also for instructors’ own acquisition of knowledge and applicable skills in teaching with mobile technologies. Reflection-on-practice has the potential to inform the types of goals instructors set for themselves when learning to incorporate mobile technologies and can reveal changes in perspective in the values, beliefs, and actions that form one’s pedagogical identity and shape practices.
Mastering the techniques of teaching with digital technologies may not be an intuitive, simple process; furthermore, instructors “need to see learning to teach as an ongoing process with more challenging than easy answers” (Weimer 2010, p. 157) and to accept technology’s disruption of existing instructor-centered power relations. As in any professional industry, the higher education instructor’s skill in wielding the tools of the trade is one that improves over time with practice, developed and sustained through research and theory.
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