Toward a mobile learning strategy

Based on the JISC Mobile Learning InfoKit, with my additional points based on recent developments in mobile learning as well as on our own observations through the Places mobile learning evaluation project:

In order for a school or university to strategically implement mobile learning, it must, as an institution:
• put learners at the centre
• ensure staff are on board and kept in the communication and policy loop
• consider cultural implications of employing technology often used for leisure
• consider cultural and other implications of expecting students to use their own equipment in their learning (in BYOD initiatives)
• consider cost including institutional wireless capacity, charging, and furniture in learning spaces
• plan for sustainability

Mobile charging station -- a lucrative small business in some African countries. Photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr

Mobile charging station — a lucrative small business in some African countries. Photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr

Every institution will come at this differently, tackling these issues at different times and in different orders. Many find that the first mobile learning initiative serves as a Trojan Horse for further innovation, especially when previously disparate parties come together to accomplish such a project. At University of Leicester, the initial success of the ‘one-iPad-per-distance-Masters-student’ Criminology programme paved the way for a second one-iPad-per-student programme in the School of Education, and an attempted one-Kindle-per-student programme; this was a natural outcome since many questions and reservations were already resolved.

It is therefore worthwhile to consider some ‘quick win’ mobile learning scenarios:

1. Add a mobile stylesheet to the institutional website — so that any mobile device will nicely display the site
2. Add a mobile-friendly front end to an RSS feed. For example, many universities broadcast news via a blog, which creates an RSS feed. When this is run through Google Feedburner, a mobile-friendly RSS feed is created.
3. Set up social media accounts to broadcast news and updates.
4. Turn on the mobile version of your VLE or LMS. At University of Leicester, we began to make use of the Blackboard Mobile Learn app last autumn. This is not a free option within Blackboard, however.
5. Invest in secure SMS text messaging services on behalf of the institution. Sending texts to let students know a lecture has been cancelled is usually very well appreciated.
6. Try making some learning materials available not only as Word documents but as pdf (viewable on all mobile devices) and epub, and ask students for feedback on how they look on their devices. The free software Calibre easily converts a document to epub. It is best to save a Word document first as html, then import into Calibre, then convert to epub. Additionally it can be converted to mobi pocket, the format for Kindles.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, University of Leicester

Tangible benefits of mobile learning

This is the second in my series of blog posts looking at the JISC Mobile Learning infoKit, published in 2011 and available here. My blog posts in effect re-purpose the infoKit as they consist of my notes and thoughts on what has changed in the mobile learning terrain especially in the light of evidence being found and discussed in the Places project, evaluating the use of tablet PCs at University of Leicester. To give further background, I also worked on the DUCKLING project and keep referring to findings from the e-book reader case studies in that project (in which we pre-loaded simple e-book readers with learning material and shipped to distance students in lieu of much printed material and notes).

Introduction (continued)

Why Mobile Learning?

“Looking at mobile learning in a wider context, we have to recognize that mobile, personal, and wireless devices are now radically transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge, and are responsible for new forms of art, employment, language, commerce, deprivation, and crime, as well as learning.” (Traxler, 2009)

Although Traxler rightly points out negative products of mobile device use, his key point of ‘transforming societal notions of discourse and knowledge’ reveals why educational institutions must incorporate these notions if they are to remain relevant.

Tangible Benefits

A very useful list of measurable mobile learning benefits is proposed in the infoKit. I mark each benefit we saw in the DUCKLING e-book reader study, and benefits we are seeing in Places tablet PC studies:

  1. Personal, private and familiar – the ‘personalness’ reduces the sense of obstacles to learning –DUCKLING, Places
  2. Pervasive and ubiquitous – DUCKLING, Places
  3. Fitting into the lives of learners – allowing user to make use of even spare 10 minutes – DUCKLING, Places
  4. Portable – enabling learning in any place and at any time – DUCKLING, Places
  5. Immediacy of communication – Places
  6. Bringing learning to those in remote or isolated areas – DUCKLING, Places
  7. Location-aware contextualisation – GPS capability
  8. Immediate capture of data and learning processes – camera, video, sound recording, text input – Places
  9. On-the-move access to tutors and peers- Places
  10. Learners can receive reminders and chasers – Places?
  11. Bite-sized resources – helpful when learning skills or on-the-job – DUCKLING, Places
  12. Abstract and concrete knowledge can be integrated – Places
  13. Peer-to-peer network fosters student-centred learning – Places
  14. Promotes active learning – Places
  15. Enables new learning environments
  16. Accessibility – DUCKLING, Places
  17. Enables reflection close to the learning event (in both time and place) – Places?
  18. Reduces technical barriers to e-learning- DUCKLING, Places

Now that I’m considering the DUCKLING use of simple e-book readers by busy distance masters students, and the Places use (also by busy distance masters students) of the iPad with the bespoke app containing multimedia learning materials, I see that in both, the main use of the device is to serve to the students learning materials created by instructors, and the main intended benefit that they can carry around all of this learning material and study it anytime, anywhere. No communication was possible using the e-book reader, but of course it is possible with the iPad. With the iPad, students are encouraged to use Twitter to keep in touch with their tutor, and to use discussion boards to discuss with tutor and peers. Knowledge creation or capture using the iPad was not exactly designed into the course; however, students are reporting new study strategies they are developing with new apps they discover, such as a mind-mapping tool and Evernote for storing notes in the cloud.

I wrote ‘Places?’ next to those benefits which are possible with the iPad, but for which I have not yet seen evidence from the students.

There are a couple of other examples of mobile learning which deliver obvious benefits but which fall outside of my two projects, which I’d like to note. One is the use of mobiles as a field notebook; for example, students are walking around, observing plants, taking photos, making notes, measuring, comparing, filming live action. They might be storing this data only on their own devices, or they could be saving everything to a central location in the cloud. This corresponds to benefits 7, 8, 12, 14, 15, 17, and 18.

The other notable example is the use of iPhones at University of Leeds medical school (Apple, 2011). 4th and 5th year medical students are loaned iPhones which are loaded with many key medical and pharmaceutical texts, as well as medical apps, so that right in the clinic they may check references, note issues arising, and use many other useful medical apps, with an iPhone which is more hygenic for being on the wards than is a traditional notebook. I would say this use demonstrates every benefit in the list except possibly number 6.

Have you encountered other tangible benefits of mobile use not in the above list? Leave a comment!

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

Apple. (2011). Apple (United Kingdom) – Education – Profiles – Leeds School of Medicine changes learning culture with work-based iPhones. Apple Education Case studies. Retrieved January 6, 2013, from

Traxler, J. (2009). Current State of Mobile Learning. (M. Ally, Ed.)Mobile Learning Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training, 5(2), 9–24. Retrieved from

DIY Multimedia Ebooks for Distance Students

Our colleague Phil Wood of the University of Leicester School of Education has recently launched a new distance masters program in which students are furnished with iPads. The iPads are not preinstalled with anything. (I don’t even know if it’s possible to do that). Phil wrote the course material first and released it on our university VLE Blackboard. Then he turned his attention to formatting the material for the iPad and decided to use iBooks Author. iBooks Author is for Macs only and is free if you have the latest version of the Mac OS. Phil decided to use this because it is easy to use, offers lovely templates and easily accommodates multimedia such as video and podcasts.


Phil demonstrated his DIY ebook for delegates from the Open University of China at a session 23rd of November, 2012, at Beyond Distance, University of Leicester

Phil reported it was not very difficult to cut and paste the already written material into iBooks Author; it required about 10 hours to do 101 pages. The difficulty was that once he imported videos and podcasts, the ebook was over 500 MB in size. The problem then was how to transfer this document onto the students’ iPads in remote locations. For some reason even smaller portions of the book could not be transferred through Blackboard. I need to get to the bottom of the technical reasons for that.

In the end the best option was to use iTunes U Course Manager. This is possible to use even though our university is not yet launched our iTunes U channel. Phil created a new course using Safari on his computer; all he needed was his own Apple ID. For the Course Material, he uploaded his new ebook.

Phil emailed me the link so I could test it; I was the first to enrol on his new course. I selected the ebook to download; it took about 10 minutes to download it onto my iPad 1, while I was sitting in my kitchen at 9.30pm, using Virgin broadband. At first I could read everything but not view the multimedia; that was because I had not upgraded to the latest iBooks. So I upgraded, and everything played perfectly. Phil emailed his students with the private link to his course; when I spoke to him a day or two later, Phil reported that roughly one-third to one-half of the students had already enrolled in the course to access the ebook, and no problems had yet been reported. These students are located all around the world.


iBooks Author saves in the formats .ibooks (for the Apple iBooks app), .pdf and text.

If and when I learn whether students experience issues, I will blog about it here.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, University of Leicester


iPad as e-book reader: we need more data

The MSc in Security, Conflict, and International Development, was the focus of two papers I presented at the MobiLearnAsia 2012 Conference in Sentosa, Singapore, 24-26 October. This MSc course at the University of Leicester provides an iPad to each student; students are located all over the world, largely in conflict zones.

I presented Mummies, War Zones, and Pompeii: the use of tablet computers in situated and on-the-go learning, and also Embedded E-books and E-readers in  Distance Education. This second presentation is particularly interesting to our Places project, because it shows how the use of iPads in the MSc in Security programme is building on the use of e-readers in Psych and Education  Masters, which was done in the DUCKLING Project. It is great to see how research done in a previous project is being continued and developed, and taking some unexpected turns.

Information assistants carrying iPads at Changi Airport in Singapore

The e-book readers in DUCKLING were pretty basic, the Sony PRS 505, the only model available for purchase in the UK in 2009 which is when DUCKLiNG happened.  We pre-loaded the learning materials, then shipped the devices to students around the world. Because of copyright issues, we could only succeed in including one book on the e-readers, in addition to our instructor-authored learning materials. Time-poor students found the e-readers very helpful to keep up on reading in a convenient, accessible psckage, because they could make use of even 10 minutes during the day. One student felt using the e-reader helped her to focus on assigned reading and achieve better marks in assignments.

In the case of the iPads for MSc In Security, nothing is preloaded; the iPad is simply shipped to the student w instructions to download the free, custom-made app (called ‘SCID’, and it is free in the Apple store). The student downloads the app and has the course information from a single handy source. The student is also given Amazon book vouchers so as to purchase some of the recommended readings for the course.

So far students are very positive about both the app and the iPad, but less positive about e-books on the iPad. One person lives in a country in which Amazon books cannot be purchased. Another person commented thats/he had not yet gotten into the habit of using the iPad for all of the readings.

We need more data to be sure, but in our case, e-books on the iPad don’t seem to be quite as popular as the app, about which students are definitely very positive. Why is this? Is it because we did not pre-install the readings? It does seem clear that in DUCKLING, students liked having the readings pre-installed on the e-book reader. Is it because the iPad is not as easy-on -the-eyes as an e-ink e-reader? We have not asked enough questions yet to make any conclusions at all, but we hope to establish whether the iPad is a successful e-book reader for these distance students.

Finally, we have received word that another distance program at Leicesteer is considering a one-mobile-device-per-student model, but this one may feature not iPads but e-book readers. It would be good if we could get even a bit of data on that one for our Places project as well.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, Beyond Distance Research Alliance, University of Leicester

Creating learning materials optimised for mobile devices

For the past several days, I have had the privilege to attend the MobiLearnAsia 2012 Conference in Singapore. The conference has been really excellent, with great opportunities to discuss mobile learning innovation in the Pacific Asian context — which is energetic and imaginative.

The view at Resorts World, Sentosa, Singapore, the site of the MobiLearnAsia 2012 Conference

I was able to present on the Places project, specifically the University of Leicester Criminology MSc in Security, Conflict, and International Development.  I have still not found another use of tablet computers in distance learning like this one. One outcome I am seeing so far, is that it is not clear that sending students an iPad and giving them Amazon vouchers for ebooks is a successful way of giving everyone the ebooks they need. One person lives in a country to whom Amazon does not sell (Sudan) and so this student could not get the ebooks at all. One other comment by a student said that s/he was not yet in the habit of using the iPad for the readings. We will need to tease out the specific issues in upcoming evaluation.

Something else that has become clear to me: instructors and other staff need to know how to simply create learning materials that are optimised for mobile devices. I have begun to create some helpsheets, and post my first offerings here. Let me know if you have any comments!

Using Calibre to create ebooks for ereaders

Using Prezi to create map-based virtual tours

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, University of Leicester

Early findings from a new programme using iPads

Today I met with one of our lecturers who is soon to launch a new distance masters programme, the MA in International Education. It is planned that for this programme, every student will be furnished an iPad and instructions how to load it up with module materials.  I wanted to get an idea of how easy or hard it is for him to prepare materials for the iPad. Unfortunately for me, he hasn’t been working on that part yet, but he feels confident that using iBooks Author, it won’t be very onerous. I have only fiddled with iBooks Author a little bit myself, and I found it pretty easy but not quite as intuitive as I would have liked. I hope that my colleague’s confidence turns out to be well-founded. I will keep you posted here.

One thing I have learnt from both this programme and our Criminology programme also utilitising iPads is that it is pretty time-consuming to create distance learning materials to go on a VLE. This really isn’t very different from the time-consuming process of creating printed learning materials in the old correspondence course model. With this Education course, the lecturer has hopes that developing material for the iPad may even be easier than developing for the VLE. The ‘Criminology iPad’ module is making use of an app developer to create the materials for the course, so that’s an unusual way of producing learning material.

Apple has done much in recent months to make it easier to create learning materials for the iPad. Just the other day I created a Course using the Apple Course Manager, which is not a piece of software but a place on Apple’s website. All you need to create a course is your learning materials, a Mac with Safari, and an Apple ID. You don’t need to belong to an institution that’s in iTunes U. As for the learning materials, I quote the iTunesU Course Guidelines:

“Assignments can include many types of materials that are part of your course, such
as videos, audio files, web links, apps, books, documents, and presentations. You can
add content from the App Store and the iBookstore, and you can even upload your
own original materials.”

A course in iTunes U, comprised of various materials and links. Photo courtesy of fraserspeirs on Flickr

The course I built consisted of 4 pdf documents, 2 mp4 video files, and then I made up a course outline which I posted in the “Posts” section. Creating the course took all of 20 minutes. I then received an email from Apple with the url of my new course, and I emailed it around to a few colleagues. An instructor could email that to the students. A course must be ‘consumed’ using an Apple handheld device — iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. The student clicks the url of the course, and is told that her enrolment is pending approval. Meanwhile, the instructor receives an email saying a’ new student wants to enrol in your course’, and the instructor grants access by clicking a green tick in the Course Manager page. Once the student has access, she accesses it through the iTunes U app, which quickly downloads the materials to her device. It is surprisingly smooth and simple. I showed this method to my Education colleague, and he may end up going down this route for his programme.

Bad points? Completely proprietary to Apple. Good points? It’s so easy. Does it enable good learning? I hope to find out as part of the Places project.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow, University of Leicester

Review and Re-package: JISC Mobile Learning Infokit

For our Places project, which will evaluate the use of tablet computers in University of Leicester programmes, we are beginning with a literature review and a re-packaging of some of the information in the sources we choose. Why is re-packaging part of the project? I think it’s because this particular field — mobile learning — is moving at the speed of light. New technology looks old in a few months’ time. It is hard to write something well-researched quickly enough to still look current when it is published. And yet well-researched older material (even a whole 3 years old!) may present findings which apply perfectly well to current technology and practice. For example, when we were writing our final DUCKLING report in 2010, we felt we needed to comment on how outdated was the technology we had used: the original Sony PRS505 e-reader, the first e-reader available in the UK. But our findings agree with current findings of the use of mobile devices such as the iPad.

Reading a Sony PRS-505 E-Reader in 2009. Photo courtesy of Cwluc on Flickr

And so I’m reading through the literature, and am finding the JISC Mobile Learning Infokit very valuable. I will definitely be taking bits from it for re-packaging. It is not old — first published in autumn 2011. I appreciate, for example, having several definitions of mobile learning – ranging from Mike Sharples’ which emphasises processes, to the MoLeNET definition which emphasises the devices.

But what stood out more was the ‘Tangible benefits of mobile learning’ listed in the infokit. The list begins with the usual affordances attributed to mobile devices: ‘personal’, ‘pervasive’, ‘portable.’  The last item caught my attention: ‘Reduces technical barriers to e-learning.’ I was thinking that only a few years ago, mobile devices presented their own technical barriers — I remember endlessly struggling to help different colleagues to sync up their Palms to their desktop computers. But in 2012, yes, many mobile devices reduce technical barriers to e-learning. I am thinking of our Criminology distance masters programme in which students around the world are shipped an iPad, and instructed how to download the app which contains multimedia learning materials. I’m reading preliminary feedback from students, and so far the majority are saying they value the fact the app allows them to study even when there is no internet connection.  I am likely to find evidence to the contrary on that note, but so far, I’m seeing evidence of  ‘reduces technical barriers to e-learning’.

Now that we have healthy competition in the mobile realm, and products have arrived at a good level of usability, I believe we will see those ‘barriers to e-learning’ continue to fall.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, University of Leicester

JISC. (2011). Mobile Learning infokit / Home. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from