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The Classroom in the Palm of Your Hand

By Aaron Iffland / May 2012

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The alarm on my phone signals the start of my day. Without wiping the sleep from my eyes, I begin my morning rituals: check Facebook, email, and half a dozen news sites—all without leaving my bed. Over breakfast, I am responding to emails and texts from colleagues and friends. Then, I am tracking my calorie consumption with a mobile application. While brushing my teeth, I'm viewing Tumblr. At the gym, I am watching movies, or listening to streaming music, on my phone. Throughout the day, I am making and referring to notes: groceries to buy, articles to read, and things to remember and do. Every spare moment I have, I pick up my phone to read articles forwarded to me or blogs I attempt to keep up with. The phone helps me use every free moment to stay current and connected.

Mobile Learning Fills the Day

Right now, my life is all about education. I am both a learner and an instructor. I am a full-time doctoral student and teach college mathematics part-time. In between the two, I assist two professors with research and teaching. Complicating the situation is the fact that the classes I attend are held at two universities 120 miles apart. Seldom do I have the luxury of sitting in front of a stationary computer. My laptop accompanies me throughout the day; but lately it feels clunky. More and more, I rely on my phone, not just because it connects me, but because it fits in my pocket. As I look at all the reading I want to do, I simultaneously see a way to deliver it to my phone. It's all about those unpredictable free moments throughout the day—those spaces in between classes or meetings, where I find the time to fight my way through hundreds of pages of text and to stay connected with friends, peers, professors and students.

I am not alone in my mobile device usage. Twenty-eight percent of people ages 18 to 34 check Facebook before getting out of bed [1]. According to a 2011 Pew Internet Project report 35 percent of American adults own smartphones [2]. This number rises to 58 percent for individuals between 25 and 34 years old. For other demographic groups, the numbers are equally significant: 49 percent for those between 18 and 24 and 44 percent for those between 35 and 44. Forty-four percent of all African-Americans and Latinos own smartphones. Twenty-five percent of smartphone owners mostly use their phones, rather than a computer, to go online. About one third of these individuals use their smartphones as their only high-speed Internet connection. Of smartphones users whose annual household income is less than $30,000, 40 percent mostly use their phone to go online. For those individuals with no college experience, 33 percent mostly use their phone to go online.

As a graduate student, I understand the potential a mobile device plays in my success. However, as an instructor, I'm not motivating my students to use mobile devices, to their fullest extent, in and out of my classroom. At this point, most of the students I teach are freshmen and sophomores; I generally can't convince them to carry their textbooks throughout the day in the chance they will find a few free moments to glance through the material. But what I might be able to convince them to do is glance at some class material and begin to collaborate with their peers if it is readily available on their mobile devices.

My students are generally more connected through social media than I. They are blogging and tweeting about their experiences. Shouldn't I be motivating them to collaborate with the classmates via the same technologies? By doing so, I might help them use every spare moment in the day and draw upon every social connection.

Mobile Learning Delivers…

Effective learning moments. I frequently teach a business mathematics course in which international currency conversions are covered. A typical question might be, "If you have 1,000 Mexican pesos, what is the equivalent amount in Japanese yen?" When I started teaching the course, I insisted students do the conversion by hand. Once they proved they could do this, I let them use a calculator. One day, a student raised his hand and asked, "Why can't we just Google this?" Google, will, in fact, perform the calculation with current rates. My boiler-plate teacher reply kicked in, "What if you need to do the calculation and Google isn't available?" Then it dawned on me, I used Google to find the conversion rates in the first place.

For my younger students, those in Generations Y and Z, it's not about learning something until it sticks in long-term memory. It's about being able to find the resource to answer the question when needed. My older students, those in Generation X and Baby Boomers, are generally satisfied with drilling until the concepts stick. But, I have to admit, I don't know how long some of these concepts actually stick with anyone. Two months after class, how many of my students, when asked to convert currencies, would actually pick up a pencil do the calculation? It would be very few. A great majority of my students, those in Generations X, Y, Z and Baby Boomers, respect the idea of investigating the mathematics behind the calculation. However, when it comes to committing the concept to memory, many feel it is a waste of time. I'm starting to feel the same way.

As a teacher, I need to be able to tap into the concept that sometimes it is more important to be able to find the answer to a thousand questions, than to be able to answer one question from memory. I need to teach from the principle that my students are, or will be, problem solvers within the real world. I need to spend less time with the memorization and more time with understanding the material and providing access to resources that boost their performance. If my students are going to be able to meet the challenges that their future careers will hold, my courses must reflect the shift in technology, information gathering, and learning that has occurred.

Spaced, repeated learning. Thalheimer discusses the advantages of the spacing effect on learning, memory and instruction [3]. The spacing effect is the practice of spacing learning concepts throughout a course. The benefit is an increase in long-term retention with a decrease in the total number of repetitions—if the repetition is properly constructed. Mobile learning allows me to build more spaced learning into the curriculum. Rather than relying on placing repetition into homework assignments or quiz questions, I can provide reminders of concepts and opportunities for practice in mobile exercises. This allows the spaced learning to be more fluid, better timed, and more effective.

Opportunities to "flip" instruction. My job as an educator is to motivate my students to the greatest extent. I believe the most efficient use of class time, even in a business mathematics class, is when students collaborate on projects that are relevant to their lives. Unfortunately, many students—especially at the freshman and sophomore levels—are not willing, or able, to sit down and completely absorb what they read in a traditional mathematics textbook. My job as a teacher would be much easier if everyone read and retained all the material I assigned as homework. Then, the time we spend in class could be used for collaboration and discussion. The more material a student covers outside of class, the more time we can spend in class collaborating or discussing. Mobile learning helps this "flip" to occur. If the material is readily available, we can spend class time with bigger and better things.

Real world application. The expectations for my students are different than the expectations they will face in a career. Math textbooks are nice. They present the topics, neatly organized, with progressions of examples and, sometimes, discussions of real-world applications. But, does learning this way actually help a student? In a job, workers are seldom given a problem to solve that follows a nice progression of steps with relevant examples pasted on the top of their desks. In order to succeed in a job, a worker needs to be able to gather the information from varied written sources and people. This acquisition and assembly has to occur quickly, often in disjointed periods. Why don't we teach this process? A better question could be, "Is this the reason why so many employers feel students aren't prepared for the workforce?" Using mobile learning can place the expectation of acquisition and assembly of concepts on the student. By doing so, the class will prepare them for the learning environments and performance expectations they will encounter in a career.

What Mobile Learning Should Look Like

Sharples, Taylor, and Vavoula summarized seven findings of 12 research leaders over a 30-month project from MOBIlearn European project, which involved 24 partners from Europe, Israel, Switzerland, Australia and the United States [4]. These findings include:

  1. It is the learner that is mobile, rather than the technology.
  2. Learning is interwoven with other activities as part of everyday life.
  3. Learning can generate as well as satisfy goals.
  4. The control and management of learning can be distributed.
  5. Context is constructed by learners through interaction.
  6. Mobile learning can both complement and conflict with formal education.
  7. Mobile learning raises deep ethical issues of privacy and ownership.

Quick and convenient. What I am attempting to create for my classes are educational interactions that are delivered through mobile technologies that can be accessed by a student at a location that is most convenient to them. These interactions are intended to be brief, perhaps five minutes or less, and used during spare moments every day. The interactions will be more frequent than deep because it is assumed that the interaction may be interrupted [5].

Flexible and interactive. Wagner found eight attributes for rich Internet experiences: ubiquity, access, richness, efficiency, flexibility, security, reliability and interactivity [6]. One of these attributes is integral to the mobile learning experience: flexibility and interactivity. The user needs to be able to consistently access this application on many devices and operating systems. Mobile learning should not be a one-way street. If it is, it would be mobile teaching. Interaction must play a large part in the experience. That interaction must be between instructor and student, student and student, and student and non-student. Wait, "non-student?" What do you mean? I mean students should be actively communicating with people outside of the class on the topic. These could be other students in similar classes at different institutions or experts in the field we are studying. Why? Because that is how the student will be expected to learn in their career. The knowledge needed to properly perform in a job might not come from a manager or a co-worker. That knowledge might come from colleagues in different firms or different industries around the world. The mobile learning environment in my classes should mimic career choices and circumstances.

One characteristic of mobile learning is that mobile devices and technologies will not be standardized among students. While a majority of smartphone platforms are Google/Android (44.8 percent), there are also significant numbers of Apple/iPhone (27.4 percent), Research In Motion (18.9 percent), Microsoft (5.6 percent), and Symbian (1.8 percent) systems running these devices [7]. The systems and applications that need to be employed in the creation and operation of mobile learning for my classes must be capable of running on many platforms. Applications need to be free or inexpensive. What also must be kept in mind is the diversity of devices, with the different screen sizes and navigation features. Ultimately, I am looking for applications that work well on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops.

Targeted feedback. Mathematics is especially difficult to communicate digitally. Numbers are easy enough to convey in an email. However, formulas and mathematical symbols aren't. One of the greatest aspects of mobile devices is that most have a built-in camera. One day, a student was trying to convey a question with a math problem to me through an email. The student, however, couldn't quite describe where she was having trouble. She then asked if she could send me a picture of the problem. I agreed and she emailed me a picture of the problem she was working on. Instantly, I understood her problem. I can annotate the picture and provide it. The interaction is efficient and no proprietary software or additional hardware is needed.

Receptive. Taking pictures of questions worked so well, it got me thinking, "What technologies am I overlooking that might enhance the class?" So, in my last class, I dropped my technological standards and opened the class up to any technologies that the students wanted to use. Homework and projects could be delivered any way the student saw fit. All I asked was that the format needed to be available through a common and free technology. Questions or comments could be texted, tweeted, or emailed, both in and out of class. The result was positive. Students asked more questions, both in and out of class. The completion rate of assignments increased. One student wrote and submitted an entire paper on his smartphone while sitting in a hotel room. To type that much on a phone would be frustrating to me. To him, it was no problem. Without that freedom of choosing the technology to use, that student may not have completed the assignment—or the class. All it took from me was some rethinking of what it means to submit a proper assignment. The format wasn't one that I would choose, but in the end, the paper met the same standards as if it was printed and handed in during class.

Supportive. In "Ode to Mobile Performance Support," Rossett describes the difference between mobile learning and mobile performance support:

Learning invests in planned experiences that develop the smarts inside people. Performance support attends to outside influence and is what people turn to for help when stumped by a question, symptom, or decision [8].

You may be asking, "Because you are talking about a college course, isn't learning the goal here?" My answer is, "Not entirely." Many of the concepts I teach in a course like business mathematics are designed to enhance the mathematical skills of the students. I expect my students to take away knowledge of business practices and concepts. Many of these concepts are complicated. While I would like my students to commit these concepts to long-term memory, the fact is that most will not. That is where, I believe, mobile performance support should come in. I want them to take away a tool that they can use in a real world situation.

Rossett presents two types of performance support depending on the level of integration of the support with the underlying opportunity or task: planners and sidekicks [8]. Sidekicks are there during the performance of the task or opportunity. Planners are there just before or after the task is completed [8]. In my courses, planners and sidekicks should be integrated into the course because they actually connect the course to the real world.

Putting the Classroom in the Students' Hands

My hope is that mobile learning in my classes becomes organic and able to evolve as students use it. In order to do this, I must give up some of the control and management of mobile learning. If I truly want my classes to be authentic learning experiences, I must be willing to allow learning to take place in ways that students find most useful—not how I find it to be most useful.

If I am serious about placing the learning environment into their hands, I must create learning that promotes a disruption of the concepts that I teach. If the students are actively practicing the concepts outside of class in the free moments throughout the day, I must also be willing to accept disruption in the concepts in the classroom. I want students to fully understand the concepts I present, but I then want them to question those concepts. Mobile learning will both promote this by not only offering access to my thoughts, but the thoughts of many others on the concepts.

Most of my students have embraced mobile technologies. For the ones that haven't, the creation of mobile learning interactions shouldn't threaten them because there is no requirement that the interaction be mobile. The interactions can be accessed at any computer. If that student chooses and has the capability to access the interactions in a mobile way, that is great. And if the student doesn't have the access to a mobile device, that is fine too.

Ultimately, what I would like to see when I awake is an inbox full of students' emails with comments and questions with pictures attached. I want to see tweets between students and posts about the courses in their blogs regarding the topics in my courses. I want to see students creating their own planners and sidekicks that actually get used in their lives. I want students to come to class excited about a conversation they had with someone in another city or country about a business mathematics topic. Then, I know I will have succeeded in my quest to move the classroom into the world and the palm of their hands.

About the Author

Aaron Iffland is a full-time student in the San Diego State University/Claremont Graduate University Joint Ph.D. Program Education. He is also a part-time mathematics and business instructor at Platt College in San Diego, California. His research interests include improving educational outcomes for marginalized students. He is fascinated with the use of technology, both in and out of the classroom [email protected]. Please visit his website at


[1] Hepburn, A. Facebook statistics, stats and facts for 2011. Digital Buzz Blog. January 18, 2011.

[2] Smith, A. Thirty-five percent of American adults own a smartphone. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2011.

[3] Thalheimer, W. Spacing learning events over time: What the research says. Work Learning Research, Inc. 2006.

[4] Sharples, M., Taylor, J., and Vavoula, G. Towards a theory of mobile learning. mLearn 2005: Fourth World conference on mLearning. 2005.

[5] Educause. Seven things you should know about mobile apps for learning. May 2010.

[6]Wagner, E. D. Enabling mobile learning. EDUCAUSE Review. 40, 3 (2005): 40-53.

[7] comScore. comScore Reports September 2011 U.S. Mobile Subscriber Market Share. November 4, 2011.

[8] Rossett, A. Ode to mobile performance support. Learning Solutions Magazine. August 9, 2010.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2207270.2208916


  • Fri, 10 Jan 2014
    Post by Jim Pruitt

    Thank you for this article. Your insight is valuable and your research respectable (this is actually high praise; there seems to be too little research worthy of respect). I am convinced of the need to move toward technology and the broader emphasis on making education relevant through our methodologies as well as our tenets.