Creating Engagement in the Classroom: Mobile-Enabled Students and Social Learning

How the rise of tech-enabled students influences the opportunities for classroom engagement using data-driven teaching practices.

The barrier to technology in the classroom is not what it used to be.

In the past, there was a perceived lack of technology for the “modern” classroom. Teachers had to share what they did have, and it never seemed there was enough to go around. In response, grants from foundations and line items from school districts rose to prominence and were aimed at increasing the technological capacity of learning.

This certainly helped bring high-tech devices to the classroom, but as the learning environment evolved, so too did the application of technology inside it. As of 2014, 86% of undergraduate students own a smart device, and 47% own a tablet. The latter category is rapidly becoming a do-it-all solution for students, featuring benefits such as an Internet connection, cameras and GPS, etc. These components make tablets in particular a cost-effective way to create a tech-enabled learning environment without the burden of smart-classroom investments by the campus.

Whereas before the classroom need to be equipped with smart devices such as smart boards, computers and compatible high-definition projectors, etc., today the concept of “bring your own device (BYOD)” makes any classroom a “smart classroom.”

And the students are buying in.

Fifty percent of students report doing daily work from smart-devices, which is low compared to the 87% adoption rate. While this suggests the other 37% usage is distractive, rather than usage as a learning tool, it does show that a majority of students use their smart devices for learning purposes.

This is a win-win-win. The teacher has the technology they once needed, the student can use the device of their choice, and the school doesn’t have to pay for anything. It is helpful to provide a reliable wireless network as an infrastructure, but with students paying for “unlimited data” and in many cases utilizing a “hotspot” or similar connection of their own, it’s not a deal breaker.

Some teachers think there’s too much technology in the classroom in the form of distractions – and there’s merit to this claim. It’s tough to reach a student when they’re checking in on Snapchat or posting on Instagram. The discussion, then, should debate whether mobile technology has created classroom distractions or learning tools, with the ideal outcome being tech-enabled students and a crowdsourced smart-class via the concept of BYOD, offering opportunities for a new type of mobile pedagogy.

A Look at the Application of Technology in the Classroom…

Just because technology is available does not mean it gets utilized. Only 30% of educators design mobile technology into their classes, and 55% actually ban or discourage use of devices in the classroom altogether. BYOD doesn’t stand a chance if the professor prohibits the use.

The early-adopters and faculty members who tried to leverage technology and a BYOD approach in the classroom at first lacked campus infrastructure and support. There was also a divide between the have and the have nots. Many students still did not have a device or access. As a result, teachers experienced varied success. The attraction of being an innovator lost its appeal as the great promises of “learning for all” proved still out of reach and the walls remained in the classroom of the future. The technology arrived, but not everybody could participate, leaving instructors right where they started.

As such, the idea of mobile-based learning environments became tarnished for some time. Faculty also needed adequate campus support, educator training, clearly defined campus standards and policies, etc. for the methods to succeed. One enthusiastic professor and a couple student zealots does not a paradigm shift make.

Even though the concept of BYOD seemingly takes the burden off the university, there needs to be a buy in on every level – from the school to the faculty to the students – for the application to work. The methods and technologies have changed, but the idea of a coherent, well structured approach has not. It still starts with a plan.

From the Professor…

Most faculty can remember when the addition of a television on a mobile cart was a big deal for a classroom. An even bigger deal was when an oversized VCR was added to replay content when needed, instead of structuring the class around a single broadcast time. The subsequent additions of cable, a video projector and a desktop computer continued to raise the cost of providing the best-practice resources touted by business and education.

And as the technological inventory expanded, so did the working knowledge required to run it all. When the TV went out of focus, you could hit it on the side to get it to work. When the VCR didn’t eject the tape, you could unlpug it and plug it back in to reset the device. The video projector had multiple inputs. In the right hands, this provided an opportunity to create a crystal-clear, immersive experience. For the untrained, the inputs were a maze where each new capability brought a chance for something to not work as planned.

The desktop computer took everything to a new level and really raised the bar, requiring a working knowledge of technology that has proven to be a digital divide some educators still have not been able to cross.

For years, it was the school that did not provide what teachers needed to employ technology. But today, it’s often not the lack of technology in the classroom, it’s the lack of application to the class.

Effective use of mobile technology in learning requires digital literacy from both teachers and students. We must know how to find, organize, and evaluate the digital world of infinite information. Students look to universities and educators to show them how to learn, and if mobile is not part of the education they will use their devices in distracting ways until someone educates them on the potential to leverage it as a learning tool.

Add in social media, and the lack of education reaches a critical mass, creating a ball of confusion. To the student, it’s simply how they communicate today. To most educators, it’s a giant distraction and a gesture of disrespect.

But in reality, it’s not. It’s another type of learning that is happening inside and outside of your classroom, and learning how to apply it to your class, lessons, and activities could make life easier on both sides of the podium.

From the Student…

Whenever I come across a professor that does not allow technology in their classroom, I immediately know one thing: They do not understand the students they are educating.

I have met professors who believe they are tech-savvy because they just bought the latest iPhone. In one conversation, that same professor explained how they have been teaching the same way for 20 years and “knew what they were doing by now.” It is always interesting to see the same professor who identifies as a “techie” openly admit they are still teaching on a Windows 95 operating system. By banning the use of smart-devices, educators limit communication that takes place through their students’ preferred method: mobile technology.

Today, we are not limited to the boundaries of the traditional classroom, and we can now connect the inside and outside learning experiences while capturing analytics for student improvement and mobile-based pedagogy. Mobile is the way we communicate, gather information, focus our time and attention, and it’s the next evolution in how students are learning.

When educators become digitally literate, they are able to communicate in a language their students understand regardless of academic disciplines, languages, and cultures. Across the podium, students have a duty to prove that we are capable of doing more than just taking selfies. Playing games, surfing for cute kitty pics, and other unproductive activities are the poorest use of our smart-devices, so there’s a two-way burden to showcase a valid, appropriate use of technology in the classroom.

What We’ve Seen Work…

Any solution starts with a conversation. Educators must initiate the conversation about social learning with university administration and students alike. In the classroom, it’s important to suggest the concept to students, allowing them to support each other on the platform of their choice. Once you have a foundation, you can begin to build your mobile-learning strategy from the ground up.

Make yourself available on social channels. We don’t always get to choose the ways students have talked with us in the past. Students had the option to chat with professors before class, during class, at the office, on the phone and not much else. As educators, we were happy they talked to us at all, so why should we define the way the talk to us today? Be available on the social channels where your students are. You don’t have to be “fluent” to speak to them, just conversational.

Provide a social learning environment for them to organize and communicate. Learning platforms, like CourseKey, will provide a socially enabled web platform for students to easily organize topics, discussions, and interactions based on their needs. Students can chat with each other about the current lesson or pose questions to the professor on the fly from the smart device of their choosing, allowing them to be more plugged in than ever to lessons.

Share Your Experiences…

Whichever solution looks most promising, it’s all about having the right tool for the right job. Technology will not fix a broken curriculum, but it can better engage students where they already are. Extend the learning outside the classroom, and the impact of the teacher will be felt long after class was dismissed.

For professors: How do you leverage technology inside the classroom? Have you encouraged a BYOD approach? Why or why not? If you have, how has it worked for you?

For students: What do you like to see from your professors? If you’ve been in both tech-friendly and tech-unfriendly classrooms, which one engaged you better? What were the pros and cons – from your perspective – of each?

Join the conversation and tell us about your campus’ mobile culture – leave a comment below.

As we continue to analyze and discuss more issues like this one throughout the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they think, as well. All of us know more than one of us.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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