An Engaged and Engaging Mobile Learning Ecosystem

By Cathy Cavanaugh, Jace Hargis / May 2014

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In April 2012, national higher education leaders in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) charged the three federal higher education institutions to create functional, meaningful mobile learning programs in and outside of the classrooms, in part by providing tablets to all students and instructors, along with digital curriculum. The initiative emphasized that pedagogy, rather than technology, would guide the implementation and by September 2012 20 colleges and universities would fully transform their learning environments to a mobile learning ecosystem for all in-coming classes. In the initial four months prior to the 2012-2013 academic year, a team of professionals from all institutions regularly met, identifying key contributors who would facilitate project steps. The key contributors were identified as faculty members, who were provided development to efficiently integrate mobile learning tools into their classrooms and would champion the development of other faculty members on their campuses. Most "iChampions" were currently in a campus educational technology role, such as supervisor or coordinator on their campuses. Several had developed tech-integrated lessons and became mentors of others. Ultimately, each campus director recommended iChampions for their campuses using their own criteria. These champions became primary drivers in the success of the tablet pedagogy project. The initial, ongoing, comprehensive, and embedded faculty development for the new mobile learning environment embodied the ISTE (NETS-T) Standards for professional growth-faculty joined campus and national learning communities centered on effective mobile teaching, they formed and led the faculty development efforts, and they engaged in personal or structured reflection on their mobile teaching.

Data were collected throughout the planning and implementation, including classroom observations using a rubric for active mobile learning, interviews with faculty, focus groups and reflections from iChampions, and sample lessons using mobile technology [1, 2, 3]. From the data, we identified five forms of engagement that were central to the program:

  1. Engaging Technology: Tablets as cognitive tool-boxes for learning
  2. Engaged Pedagogy: Student-centered teaching practice
  3. Engaged Faculty: Perceptions and uses of the tools and ecosystem
  4. Engaged Community of Learners: Media creation with the tools
  5. Engaging Learning Ecosystems: Mobile learning in redesigned courses

Engaging Technology

The new mobile learning ecosystem (MLE) facilitates authentic and meaningful engaged learning all the time, everywhere. It is uniquely suited to support the essential learning actions of monologue, dialogue, and trialogue: reflection, conversation, interaction with tools and media [4]. The blended learning ecosystem that is built purposely around students with mobile technology has increased the roles and importance of the instructor who iteratively designs the learning experience from a very wide and continually shifting array of possibilities. Thus, in the college's tablet-powered new learning ecosystem, the learner and instructor are central, supported by the technology, to learning with evolving content and materials. These classes spent more time with student talk, productive student activities, and collaborative activities after the technology was integrated [1]. Success in this ecosystem results from effective use of the technology as a customized cognitive toolbox [5].

Engaged Pedagogy

Access to the new ecosystem and cognitive tools resulted in changes in teaching practice to expand active, engaged learning [3]. As faculty planned the transformation of their courses and teaching prior to the start of classes, they worked collaboratively in a national community of practice. The initial development of a tablet pedagogy was shared among faculty at a national professional development event. To understand the entry stage of faculty, we needed to know to what extent the faculty members' shared practices displayed technological pedagogical content knowledge prior to implementation in classrooms [2].

The answers to this question were used to inform subsequent professional development activities during the academic year and to form a baseline for understanding the path of faculty development in adopting, designing, and applying mobile education practices in a large-scale mobile learning initiative. Outcomes of the study indicate the initial level of integration of the mobile innovations into the curriculum was limited, and may require more time and practice to move from an emphasis on tools for learning to an emphasis on the knowledge and skills to be learned. The technological knowledge emphasized "turnkey" apps and media, rather than more complex collaborative and production tools. Pedagogical knowledge indicated meaningful learning was strong in active learning, but included fewer of the more complex and interactive attributes, indicating faculty members had begun their adoption of this innovation with familiar and simple strategies. Regarding their technological pedagogical knowledge, faculty members had progressed beyond entry level and also had room to grow toward infusion and transformation.

As faculty began teaching, an examination was conducted of the "difficult to measure" concept of instructional practices when integrating new mobile "teachnology" devices [6]. A mobile data collection instrument was specifically developed to observe teaching in the MLE to determine the effectiveness of mobile learning devices in higher education. The triangulation of data about teaching practices included interviews of faculty members about their levels of mobile learning knowledge, classroom observations, and a self-report survey of faculty understanding and implementation of the national four pillars of mobile learning. The pillars of the mobile learning ecosystem included: Aspirations, Content, Competencies and Practices.

Data showed in its first semester the tablet program appeared to leverage student-centered teaching and engage learners in meaningful use of mobile technology to enhance learning. Interview and survey results revealed a wide array of tools and roles integrated in classrooms, indicating effective faculty should be comfortable with, if not embracing of, substantial activity, flexibility, student autonomy, and fluidity in the physical learning environment. In keeping with these findings, the survey showed a preference for social and visual teaching and learning approaches. More intensive methods like storytelling and gaming were not seen at this stage. This preference may be just a starting point of a shift as faculty and students continue to explore the tools they now have in their hands. Results indicate the mobile education ecosystem was supporting social, collaborative learning, which is essential in the college-entry classrooms where the study occurred. Because these shifts were observed in the first year of the mobile learning program, more time, support, and practice are needed before they develop and spread.

Engaged Faculty

As the new ecosystem evolved, faculty perspectives evolved. An analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the initial stage of tablet deployment and a case study representing a large-scale integration of mobile learning devices in a higher education ecosystem provided insight into faculty perspectives in the first semester of the program [1]. The data were collected using three strategies: case study interviews with four facultymembers, dispositional survey of faculty, and the faculty leader's reflections on week one. Specific attributes included the strengths of student and faculty engagement in reflective teaching and learning, effective technical support, and an extensive repository of digital resources. Weaknesses were identified as changing student perceptions of the nature of school, cloud storage for course products, and systems for disseminating purchased apps and eBooks. Opportunities were noted to be collaborative faculty development, increased pedagogical support, and expanding performance assessment in courses. The threats mentioned were lagging assessment paradigms, digital content, and tablets as true cognitive tools. The national survey showed most faculty members identified themselves in the middle in the stages of technology adoption and integration. They indicated they were beginning to understand the teaching with technology and can think of specific tasks in which it might be applied. Further, responses indicated faculty members on the whole had the skills to comfortably use more than one application in the creation of a single product, and could use a variety of mobile technology in preparation, instruction, and evaluation.

Predominant pedagogical practices adopted in the first six months of implementation were examined based on faculty shift from substituting their teaching methods with mobile technology to augmentation of teaching methods with new affordances of mobile technology [2]. A Chi Squared analysis of descriptions of teaching practices at the base-line sharing event among teachers (iCelebrate) and the second event (iCelebrate 2) was used to compare the abstracts for the events. The data indicate faculty-driven practice-embedded development and intentional integration of the two models change corresponded with were helpful in changes in teaching practice in a short period of time. Change was observed in pedagogy, technology, and content indicators among the faculty who shared their mobile teaching practices. Faculty showed adoption and implementation of new tools, resources, and practices can begin quickly and at large scale.

Engaged Community of Learners

Students in many higher education settings have taken on a more active, productive role in learning through projects, challenges, and portfolios. Likewise, faculty members have widely engaged in creating new mobile content. In one college campus, a demonstration project used innovations in course design to push the boundaries of a college skills course to explore the nature of experiential learning in the mobile environment [7]. Inquiry-based learning was a major method used to help students integrate their knowledge of technology commonly used in daily life with the social, emotional, intellectual, and time management skills required by the demands of the 21st century for work, life, and school [8]. Courses were designed with an aim for delivery using tablets and cloud-based content, by developing an e-book, and through a challenge-based project in which students develop a storyboard for a podcast, movie, or a brief talk.

Past educational technology research has shown that teaching practices change with the infusion of technology resources, professional development, and support [9] . To expand the types of experiential learning that students need in college, faculty members engaged in course redesign to amplify experiential mobile learning. For example, one college created a faculty development program centered on sharing experiential teaching approaches and course designs. Results of analysis indicate the sharing event was effective in expanding faculty knowledge and adoption of experiential mobile approaches in their courses as evidenced by growth in specific approaches used by faculty in the semester following the sharing event. The ideas shared by faculty at the outset of the national mobile learning initiative were rated high in indicators of higher order thinking, moderate in indicators of depth of thinking, and low in indicators of connection to the world beyond the classroom [10]. As faculty continued working with the new technology, they learned more possibilities for extended complex projects, and for connections beyond the campus.

Engaged Learning Ecosystem

The mobile learning community includes students, faculty, staff, leaders, and partners working for the shared goals of the college. The goals for the overarching pedagogical approach is flexible, personalized, student-centered learning with students driving their learning as discoverers. Learning ecosystems that support engaged learning must be smart, flexible, and allow fluid movement of learners in physical and virtual space. Spaces should be designed to foster reflection, innovation, and collaboration. Interior and exterior spaces must support groups of all sizes and sharing of all types. Campus spaces will ideally be sustainable, healthy, and engaging. Sharing in classrooms is afforded through mobile furniture, display capability, and connection to the world beyond the classroom. Sharing in common spaces is afforded through inviting designs, impromptu digital, whiteboards, and other surfaces that accommodate ideas and creations.


Literature on change creation as an alternative to change management [11] indicates adaptability, internal planning for a shared future, an external focus, and synergy are among the attributes of a learning organization that succeeds in changing proactively [12]. The positive outcomes and areas for growth from the early stages of the UAE's creation of a new MLE gives concrete guidance for other learning organizations where change creation is a goal in response to forces that include a changing economic climate, increased globalization, and a digitally-oriented learner population.

This synthesis highlighted a multi-pronged strategy for envisioning, designing, and implementing an engaging large-scale mobile learning device program, which included multiple central stakeholder groups and subsequent research questions. We see mobile technology as cognitive toolboxes for learning, in which we have shown early progress toward ubiquity with the tools. Student-centered teaching practice forms the core of the UAE MLE's success, due to fluid and practice-embedded faculty development efforts centered on active, engaged, learning by doing. Faculty perceptions and uses of the tools and ecosystem validated these efforts by showing that faculty have quickly transcended basic substitution of analog for digital materials and are on the way to transformation of the learning environment. The community of learners who are creating rich media using the iPad mobile learning tools will ensure this transformation as their learning objects are shared and adopted widely.

In summary, specific implications for mobile learning implementation include:

  • Articulate and reiterate the vision for the MLE and align resources, activities, and evaluation around it, with clear expectations.
  • Embrace student-centered pedagogy and create a community in which physical and virtual classrooms are spaces for professional sharing.
  • Create many opportunities and forums for campus-level and broader sharing.
  • Arrange physical spaces as fluid and flexible mobile learning spaces for quiet independent work, small group work, and large group work, including sharing of display technology.
  • Design instructional materials with modularity so small "beads" of content and learning experiences can be used by learners with any device in short timespans, and so the beads can string together in well-designed sequences for longer timespans.
  • Adopt a technical workflow for sharing material among students and instructors, using LMS, cloud, etc.
  • Expect a variety of activities and groupings during class-time, and prepare students and instructors to attend to students around the room in a variety of groupings and activities during a session.
  • Seek ways to include all staff and other stakeholders in the program.
  • Believe that the benefits in engagement and ownership of teaching and learning will be worth the bumps that come with technical updates and other unforeseen issues, and cultivate a culture of resilience and cooperation.
  • Use data to understand the effects of the program, including learning, technology use, teaching practices, perceptions, and other sources.


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[2] Cavanaugh, C., Hargis, J., Soto, M., and Kamali, T. Substitution to augmentation: Faculty adoption of iPad mobile learning in higher education. Interactive Technology and Smart Education 10, 2 (2013).

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About the Authors

Dr. Cathy Cavanaugh is Head of Teaching and Learning in Worldwide Education at Microsoft Corporation, working with education leaders and organizations around the world. Cathy's research and publications focus on technology-empowered teaching and learning in virtual schools, online and blended learning, teacher development, mobile learning, and integration of devices into schools. Her work has been recognized for its impact with international awards. Cathy held faculty and leadership appointments in U.S. universities and a college in the Middle East, and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar advancing e-learning in Nepal. She also directed professional development centers in the US, and was a classroom teacher in the US and Caribbean. Her education includes a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, a master's of education, and a bachelor's of education.

Dr. Jace Hargis is currently director at Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates. Previously, he was assistant provost and director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Pacific in California. He has authored a textbook, an anthology and has published over seventy five academic articles as well as offered over one hundred national and international academic presentations. His undergraduate and graduate degrees are in the chemical sciences and he has earned a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Science Education. His research agenda addresses the theoretical aspects of how people learn with the use of emerging instructional technologies.

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