Mobile Tools

Our school’s lack of comfort with phones in the classroom is usually brought to light in parent-teacher conferences. After hearing that their student is glued to their phone during class, the parents’ immediate question is, “Isn’t there a no-phone policy?” Unfortunately, our answer is not as strong or united as it should be, “Well, you know there are some teachers that use them in class.” The kicker here is some: only some teachers and only some classes. You can bring your phone and use it to take a quiz during 3rd hour, but if it leaves your pocket during 4th hour there will be consequences. This sends mixed messages to students about the rules and procedures in place for device use, which are integral to the success of a mobily integrated learning environment.

We have reached the point in education where the conversation about banning devices in schools has gone fallow; it cannot be the solve-all for recapturing students’ attention. A more fruitful discussion lies in how to integrate devices in engaging and pedagogically sound ways. Simply allowing devices in the classroom only adds to the multitude of distractions, but using those devices to help students understand and analyze content is where we will start reaping the benefits. While laptops have already worked their way into the classroom, smartphones, for so long considered a nuisance, may need some help on the PR front. In a 2014 study conducted by Suleyman Nihat and Goktas, 1,087 pre-service teachers rated laptops as better learning tools than smartphones. The results of the study demonstrated that “Generally, the attitudes towards using laptops in education were not exceedingly positive but significantly more positive than m-phones” (Suleyman Nihat & Goktas, 2014). What I find most worrisome about this study is that these are pre-service teachers: future classroom leaders who like laptops a bit more than smartphones, but are not really excited about either. At the conclusion of their article, Suleyman Nihat and Goktas suggest that there is an urgent need for teacher training in m-learning, specifically regarding the integration of smartphones into the classroom (2014).

Pie graph showing time spent on apps compared to browser

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As the debate continues about the most effective devices to bring into the classroom, it’s important to note that content delivery varies between these devices. How students engage with their work on a smartphone or tablet will be different from how they have previously interacted with activities on a laptop. Pretending that a smartphone is just a small laptop completely disregards how students experience an app-based interface. Even though there is a web browser available on most smartphones, an overwhelming percentage of people spend most of their mobile time in apps (Spence, 2014). Today, it is not enough for a website to be mobile-friendly. The University of Oklahoma has developed an app for their students with a focus on “a “mobile-first” culture that forces content developers to rethink how things are done when moving content to a mobile environment” (Mathewson, 2015). The school’s efforts to be “authentically mobile” will hopefully set a precedent for how we can make mobile content a viable and engaging option for students (Mathewson, 2015).

One current m-learning project that I particularly admire takes the idea of being “authentically mobile” to the extreme. The Fisheries Technology program at UAS provides students the opportunity to take courses that are pre-loaded onto an iPad:

Reid Brewer holds one of his preloaded iPads

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These “off the grid” courses make you completely independent of the internet — free to take the class whenever you can squeeze it into your busy schedule. The waterproof iPads, provided as a free loan by UAS, contain all lectures, videos, readings, FAQs, and even the exams, which you can take remotely without a proctor. (“Fisheries Technology”, 2015).

Reid Brewer (shown above), an associate professor at UAS, was inspired to develop these iPad courses after spending time with commercial fishermen, who had all of the practical knowledge of their trade, but lacked access to university classes to earn occupational endorsements (2015). Now on the long hauls between port and fishing grounds, they can watch the high quality presentations that often feature guest lecturers, photos, videos, and GoPro footage through the Articulate app. Lessons are kept short and students can re-watch presentations as needed. At the end of a unit, exams can be taken securely through the Exam Soft app. When the iPad is next connected to Wi-Fi it will send the exam scores back to UAS.

I realize that taking the Internet out of the equation may seem like a step backwards in the future-focused field of m-learning. But, living in Alaska where 38% of residents statewide (81% for rural residents) do not have access to broadband Internet, it may be wise to consider how we can reach pockets of the population who lack regular and reliable Internet access (Klint, 2015). What I appreciate about Brewer’s project is that he pinpointed an education access problem, solved it in a technologically savvy way using m-learning devices and apps, and still enabled students to be mobile in the most literal sense of the word. These courses provide a framework for Internet-less mobile education that could serve as a transitional phase for those who are currently unable to participate in Internet-based m-learning.


Brewer, R. (2015, Oct 21). Using Apple iPad to deliver asynchronous college fisheries classes nationwide. Presentation at the meeting of Alaska ACTE, Anchorage, AK.

Klint, C. (2015, Jan 30). FCC says Alaska among nation’s 10 worst states for broadband internet. Retrieved from

Mathewson, T. (2015, Oct 6). Campuses strive for ‘authentic’ mobile approaches. Education Dive. Retrieved from

Spence, E. (2014, Apr 2). The mobile browser is dead, long live the app. Forbes. Retrieved from

Süleyman Nihat, Ş., & Göktaş, Ö. (2014). Preservice teachers’ perceptions about using mobile phones and laptops in education as mobile learning tools. British Journal Of Educational Technology45(4), 606-618. doi:10.1111/bjet.12064