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Promoting Student Engagement with Smartphone Technology

By Caesar Perkowski, Cortney McLeod / March 2018

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As educators, we struggle against many odds; we either learn to adapt or we fail generations of students. In our particular community, we are faced not only with an economic bridge but also with a social and racial one. Our institution, Gordon State College, is a four-year state college in Barnesville, Georgia with a predominantly African-American, low socio-economic class, and rural student body. These students often have little or no global perspective, which affects the way that we as educators can interact with them. However, we also need to remain mindful of our responsibility as educators: To encourage critical thinking, especially when it will lead to celebration of diversity and challenges to uncritical, unconscious ideas. With roughly a decade of distance education already behind us as part of the course delivery at Gordon State College, we have been able to widen our course selection through an online platform called Brightspace by D2L (Desire2Learn).

Our main concern has always been the effectiveness of the asynchronous mode of course delivery via the Internet, contrasted with a certain lack of social interaction created by such a situation. We have compiled data regarding teaching online (fully at a distance), traditional (face-to-face), and a mix of various modes of delivery (hybrid) courses—the data illustrate the effectiveness of each of the three modes of delivery in an overview. There are numerous components required for success in the particular circumstances at Gordon State College, but these strategies can be effective also in different cultures and communities, regardless of location, ethnic makeup, or demographics of the student body or any other characteristics. Since teaching a diverse population has become almost a science in and of itself, in this article we present several tried strategies (both successful and failing) for increasing the effectiveness of online and hybrid courses.

As a starting place to improve course completion, we decided to experiment with smartphones to see how they would affect the pedagogical environment. Not only have we collected data from eight semesters so far, but we have also surveyed both faculty attitudes and student attitudes regarding this kind of access. Smartphones provide an opportunity to benefit both online instructors and students by increasing communication, increasing student confidence, decreasing vulnerability to isolation, and fostering student independence.

Challenges for Online Students

Online students face obstacles that traditional or face-to-face students do not encounter. The most significant challenges include self-regulation, self-motivation, and self-discipline. Lack of the physical access to the course instructor may constitute a perceived difficulty in the communication process.

Student preparedness and expectations. While both traditional and online classroom students valued learner-teacher interaction, the two groups define it differently. Let's take a look at the work of Reisetter, LaPointe, and Korcuska, which compared traditional and online graduate students matriculated in the same course [1]. Traditional classroom students valued "visibility and accessibility of the instructor." Online learners, meanwhile, described some of the inherent communication problems of the mode. Though interaction was important, online learners relied on it less. One student remarked, "But, you know, how many times do you have to e-mail back and forth to make it clear?" Sometimes, online learners defined accessibility as "having contact with the 'user-friendly' course itself and the flexibility offered in this format." Online learners valued well-organized courses with clear expectations and models of student course work. In short, these two statements describe the confusion:

"[T]raditional learners believed that they were unlikely to be successful online because their learning needs included face-to-face teacher presence and learning tasks that responded to the dynamic of immediate group and individual needs. Online learners knew that the environment would be dramatically different from their face-to-face learning experiences but were relatively confident of their ability to manage those requirements. Good teaching as represented in effective course design was critical for their learning, but expected little of their fellow learners."

One important conclusion remains: Online learners expect to hear a teacher's voice, and they expect organization. The authors noted: "Traditional learners attributed their successful learning to specific classroom variables such as the teacher or the classroom structure. They emphasized the focus and organization provided by the teacher and the classroom setting as key elements to their success." Online learners, on the other hand, though they tended to be more independent and motivated, also valued "access to the teacher as the 'expert.'" Reisetter et. al. also concluded, "The expert voice of the online teacher was especially powerful for some online learners because it led to clearly focused content that could be lacking in a traditional setting." In other words, instructor presence and voice are consistent attributes of the successful online classroom.

What emerges, then, is a basic split between social constructivist learners in the traditional classroom and individualist learners with strong self-regulation and self-discipline. However, let us keep in mind the students that were a part of the Reisetter, LaPointe, and Korcuska study were graduate students. Our students are undergraduates, often first-semester or first-year freshmen. They may not know themselves well enough to know whether their learning styles and abilities will respond to an online setting. They may lack personal discipline, and they may not be motivated by any powerful desire to become educated. It is easy not to participate in an online course if one is 18 years old. No one will knock on the door or stop by the house to pick up homework. Once one does not log in for a while, it becomes easier not to check in. If one does poorly on an assessment, it is easier to feel isolated and give up. There is no person to face as there would be in a traditional classroom. Certainly, awareness of one's own learning styles and preferences plays a role in online course success, but what do we do for those students that are still discovering what those are? We do not think it is reasonable to expect students, especially first-generation college students, to come to college fully aware of themselves.

Therefore, we are cognizant of the need to support online students while they are still deciding whether online learning is the right environment for them. It seems reasonable that online course completion rates are lower for 18-year-old, first-generation college students. Of course, there are instruments designed to rate student likelihood of online course success, but they might not be good predictors if the students themselves cannot predict how they will handle the double stress of a first-year college experience and an online class that might leave them feeling isolated. Although Allen, Bourhis, Burrel, and Marbry concluded students self-selected for their preference of online or traditional courses, we are not convinced that freshmen give that much thought to the format of a course [2].

Instructor presence and interactivity. Not infrequently, community colleges require students to complete an informal self-assessment of their preparedness for online instruction. Two studies found self-directed learning readiness was not a good predictor at all of a community college student's likelihood of completing an online course [3]. While it does not seem clear what factors contribute in a significant way to student success in an online course, what does seem apparent is organization and the clear presence of the instructor do help to some degree. If we cannot help students decide whether to take an online class, then one of the steps in raising the completion rate of our courses is to make ourselves available to our students in ways with which they are familiar. Students want to hear an instructor's voice and feel his or her presence, and at the same time, they are used to interacting via texting and other nearly instantaneous formats.

Aragon and Johnson supported this conclusion [3. They found the most significant factors affecting student completion of online courses could be broken into five main areas in descending order of importance:

  1. personal/time (34 percent),
  2. course design and communication (28 percent),
  3. technology/WebCT tutorial (8 percent),
  4. institutional issues (11 percent), and
  5. learning preference (9 percent).

The largest category—personal/time—included such issues as personal problems, scheduling conflicts or overloads, lack of motivation, work conflicts, and lack of time. While instructors can have an impact on motivation, the other issues are beyond the scope of the instructor's influence. The second most important factor, however, course design and communication, is something that instructors can effectively manage. As Aragon and Johnson noted, "within this schematic theme were issues related to the level of responsiveness of instructors and the quality of course design and delivery." Since only 9 percent of the responses "suggested the format did not appeal to their [the students'] learning preferences," it seems attempting to screen students for aptitude in an online setting could have only limited success in improving completion rates. Nonetheless, Navarro and Shoemaker [4]—along with Morris, Wu, and Finnegan [5]—showed students with an internal locus of control tended to complete online courses more often than other students. Morris, Wu, and Finnegan's study is especially relevant to us since the study subjects were part of the University System of Georgia. That study also showed "online students are generally older, have completed more college credit hours and more degree programs, and have a higher all-college GPA than their traditional counterparts." In our case, however, not all online students are older; many, in fact, are 18 to 20 years old.

The Benefits of Smartphone Technology

So why have a smartphone service? It is nice to think online instructors have an internal locus of control: We can change the numbers of students who complete our courses. The basic idea of having smartphone service is to encourage and train students to have an internal locus of control. We might be able to keep the students who take the initiative more engaged in the course than they would be otherwise. Of course, there are students who lack the initiative to ask questions, but for those that do ask, smartphone service can create an atmosphere where they feel they might be heard quickly. It can improve completion rates in online courses, by keeping those with an external locus of control from dropping out. Smartphone service supports the findings of Palloff and Pratt who found course organization, clarity of expectations, helpful course supplements, and technical support were all positives in course design [6]. It is important for students to receive quick feedback from instructors on what might not be clear.

Here is an example of a recent email from an online student: "Good Morning, I did look at my score but I [am] still not sure what is my percentage. I recieved [sic] a 39/60."

The first impulse might be for us to question how the student made it this far without understanding how to convert fractions to percentages. However, if we think about the student for a minute, clearly, she was being sincere. Whatever deficits she might have in her education, she was reaching out to us for some kind of reassurance regarding her score on a test. She did not know how to define the result she had, which probably tended to increase her insecurity about the course. In this case, because we have smartphone service, we were able to communicate with her right away about this issue. We were able to relieve her uncertainty about the score, and at the same time, her question provided an opportunity to encourage her. If we had taken several hours or a day to respond, she might have figured out the percentage herself, thought she was doing poorly in the course, and lost some of her motivation. In this case, smartphone service clearly provides an advantage for course completion, since it helped the student feel more connected to the course and to us.

Connectedness is vital, and it helps make up for one of the main features present in a traditional classroom but not in an online setting—the mentoring relationship. Learning is social, as Albert Bandura and Lev Vygotsky both theorized in their extensive treatment of the subject [7, 8]. The interaction with the instructor can increase or decrease motivation, since people tend to want to pay attention more if they get some kind of interpersonal reward. There is more to learning than just the information and the learner; the environment also plays a role, bridging that gap.

Moreover, in rural areas, the students may face additional challenges (such as more self-doubt) because of their status as a first-generation college student. According to Woosley and Shelpler, first-generation students' higher drop-out and lower retention rates could be the result of many factors, including the fact that the students "find their high school curriculum was less than rigorous and that the academic expectations inherent in baccalaureate programs can be somewhat overwhelming, resulting in self-doubt" [9], and, consequently, lower expectations for success. Petty agrees that first-generation students need more support and motivation from their professors in order to be successful; consistent communication is key to eliminating a sense of isolation that may develop into a sense of hopelessness (and eventual failure in the course) [10].

Smartphones in the classroom can create more opportunities for instruction and prevent mass confusion. It forces the conversation into a written domain. In order to get an answer, a student has to frame the contact with the instructor in a way that makes sense. In other words, students have to practice writing coherent messages that a general audience will be able to respond to. One additional advantage is a permanent written record is created for all student contact; the emails responding to students are saved on the host server at the college. This documentation can prove important in case of grade appeals or for other reasons.

One additional advantage to online instructors having smartphone service is it acts as a kind of training platform, especially early in the semester when students have a number of questions. For example, sometimes we get questions like this one from a student who did not read the weekly update email: "Cant [sic] seem to find the grammer [sic] exam on georgia view vista [sic]. Can u [sic] help?"

This email provided us with a couple of opportunities to lead the student to a more independent outlook on the course. We reminded her the message we had sent the day before included information about when the exam would become visible. She had not, oddly enough, read the earlier message completely, and thus she missed this important bit of information. We were able to teach her to read the messages more carefully, and her message also provided an opportunity to explain email etiquette. Every piece of student writing becomes an opportunity for instruction, and this constant interaction early in the course helps accelerate the learning curve and makes our job easier down the road.

Sometimes, the communications with students are more important and involve real questions about the direction of a project. For example, we received this message recently on a Saturday morning from one of our students:

I have been slowly writing the draft, and I realized I forgot to ask if my topic is okay! I am doing why motocross racer [sic] continue to race, even with all of the injuries and stress. Is this okay, or would you rather me do something else?

In a more traditional classroom, the student might have expected to wait. With smartphone service, we were able to respond to the student immediately, and as a result, she had clear direction for her writing project. That quick direction did, by the way, result in a better paper.

We can often spot a pattern of questions and head off more on the same topic with a single message to the entire class. If we receive four or five questions about any issue, then that gives us a clue that we have not been clear and we are able to intervene immediately, even as students are working on a project. One example might be the use of sources from Galileo electronic databases. One common response from students is to ignore what they do not understand or what is difficult. If we see many people asking us about Galileo, we can send a note explaining that aspect of the assignment in more detail, thereby avoiding a botched assignment or a later deluge of questions.

The old adage "teachers live at school" is also applied to online instructors. For most college students this is particularly true for individuals who are adjusting to college-level expectations during the first couple of semesters, or even years. For this reason, time is always of the essence; replying to student concerns and frustrations in a "timely manner" is imperative for online learners who are (arguably) more prone to withdrawing from the course if they continually experience difficulties whether real or perceived. Because of immediacy, along with the perceived familiarity of Smartphones, communicating with students via Smartphones is an effective choice. Generally, students conceive that their class is "online"—the computer "houses" their course and they will compose their projects on a computer. However, communicating via the smartphone demonstrates, to the students, that learning and communication occur outside of the "classroom"—offering them the advantage of seeing learning as a process accomplished via ongoing conversations and activities. While these activities and communications can all be completed with a computer, utilizing a smartphone shows the students that learning is not static or stationary, but rather that it is mobile and dynamic. It may even encourage more application of what they are learning.

One particularly effective platform that we found useful was; it is a free service that disseminates information as text messages and/or emails, based on the individual student's preference(s). No access to phone numbers is provided to the professor or student. The students sign-up for the free service but pay any associated fees (from their provider)—or the professor can sign-up each individual student. However, we suggest the former, prompting the student to take initial ownership in the communication process. One of the features of the platform allows the students to respond with a "reaction" (e.g., "thumbs up") or comment (seeking further clarification, for example). This system allows for constant engagement and a sense of community in a virtual classroom.


Instructors of online courses should abandon the traditional view of teaching as stopping at the edge of the classroom. If one is to be an online instructor, one has to separate oneself from the idea that the classroom is a physical space. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for our having smartphone service is that our time is precious. If we think about the amount of time we have as being like a jar, we can see that only so many marbles will fit inside of it. Answering emails once per day for an hour would be another marble that might not fit. If we answer emails throughout the day, instead of a marble, we add grains of sand that fit in-between the marbles. We make more efficient use of our time, and with increasing demands coming from increasing class sizes. We see having smartphone service as a kind of survival strategy Online instructors can improve their effectiveness by answering student questions as they occur; as we noted, instructors can always choose not to respond to an email right away, but seeing the data stream of the class as it happens live leads to a more productive, easier-to-manage course. Students expect the clear voice and presence of an instructor, and smartphone service offers a way to supplement that path to effectiveness.


[1] Reisetter, M., LaPointe, L., and Korcuska, J. The impact of altered realities: Implications of online delivery for learners' interactions, expectations, and learning skills. International Journal on E-Learning 6, 1 (2007), 55-80.

[2] Allen, M., Bourhis, J., Burrel, N., and. Mabry, E. Comparing student satisfaction with distance education to traditional classrooms in higher education: A meta-analysis. The American Journal of Distance Education 16, 2 (2002), 83-97.

[3] Aragon, S., and Johnson, E. Factors influencing completion and noncompletion of community college online courses. American Journal of Distance Education 22, 3 (2008),146-58.

[4] Navarro, P., and Shoemaker, J. Performance and perceptions of distance learners in cyberspace. The American Journal of Distance Education 14, 2 (2000), 15-35.

[5] Morris, L., Wu, S., and Finnegan, C. Predicting retention in online general education courses. The American Journal of Distance Education 19, 1 (2005), 23-36.

[6] Palloff, R., and Pratt, K. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2001.

[7] Bandura, A. Social Learning and Personality Development. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1963.

[8] Vygotsky, L.S. Educational Psychology. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1926.

[9] Woosley, S.A., and D.K. Shepler. Understanding the early integration experiences of first-generation college s9tudents. College Student Journal 45, 4 (2011), 700-714.

[10] BiggPetty, T. Motivating first-generation students to academic success and college completion. College Student Journal 48, 2 (2016), 257-264.

About the Authors

Dr. Caesar Perkowski is an Associate Professor of English at Gordon State College, where he specializes in medieval literature and instructional technology. He holds graduate degrees in linguistics, instructional technology, anthropology, english, and history. He has published in national journals, presented at numerous international and national professional conferences and served as mentor and major professor for undergraduate students. His research interests include Old English poetry, online pedagogy, Middle Eastern studies and popular culture.

Dr. Cortney McLeod is an Assistant Professor of English at Gordon State College, where she specializes in gender studies and creative writing. She also teaches for University of West Georgia's eCore, which offers all of Georgia's core courses in an online format, and serves as a mentor for other online educators. She earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. in english from the University of Florida; she has published poetry and prose, as well as participated in several international conferences. Her research interests include women's literature, gender studies, trauma studies, online learning, and creative writing.

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