The Use of Mobile Devices in Online Classrooms

Last updated on: May 20, 2020

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The 2019 Online College Students (OCS) research report found that the use of mobile devices in online learning courses was widespread. In the eighth annual report—which surveyed 1,500 prospective, current, and recently graduated online college students—it noted how a sizeable group of learners expressed a desire to complete most of their coursework on a smartphone or tablet.

Higher education institutions should take note. Implementing mobile-friendly content into programs may become an expected feature for many online students.

Higher Education Mobile Usage by Age

Overall, 56% of online college students used a smartphone or tablet to complete at least some of their online course-related activities, according to the 2019 OCS report. The percentage was even higher for prospective online students who would like to complete at least some of their course-related activities with a mobile device.

There was also a clear distinction when it came to mobile use among younger and older students. Millennials and Gen Yare the first generations to grow up using technology, and the stats show they are most supportive of using mobile for courses. Age impacts learning needs, and universities need to understand generational delineations to build better relationships with adult learners and recognize what they need to succeed.

Undergraduate vs. Graduate Mobile Device Classroom Adoption

The 2019 OCS report also found that graduate students were significantly more likely than those in bachelor’s and associate programs to use a smartphone or tablet with their online courses. Graduate students’ busy schedules may explain the increased use of mobile devices, and that trend was evident in a few different areas.

Graduate students are more likely to have children compared with undergraduate students. For those with kids under the age of 18, the numbers were extremely high for having or wanting to use mobile devices in their online courses. Another factor was full-time employment, which was significantly more common in graduate students than undergraduates. For students who were employed full-time, 81% said they used or would have liked to use mobile devices for online coursework.

Graduate students are historically known to have more responsibilities and have a harder time keeping a work-life balance. Because of this, institutions should pay special attention to whether online graduate programs are accessible on smartphones and tablets.

How Students Use Mobile

One of the clearest takeaways was that learners want to use mobile for quick tasks. The top reason cited was the ability to check grades, assignment due dates, and course schedules—all simple tasks for handhelds and touchscreens like an iPad. Prospective students said that they would also like to use mobile devices for communicating with professors and other students.

The responses make sense given the nature of smartphones and tablets for distance learning. Compared with laptops, mobile devices are more portable and, as a result, offer greater accessibility and connectivity. Universities need to ensure that these quick functions are not only available to mobile users, but easily accessible.

Implementing Mobile-friendly Courses Online at Universities

Institutions should keep some best practices in mind for course design and mobile optimization. Here are five important tips:

  1. Keep students in mind. Informative components of a course, such as learning materials and assignment descriptions, should be at the forefront of mobile design. Faculty members can ask students what devices they’re using and what they’re trying to access with those devices. This information will provide valuable insight.
  2. Structure courses modularly. Break up content into logical, comparably sized pieces that are easy to follow. A random collection of files, assignments, and lectures are easy to lose and can cause students frustration.
  3. Use standard file formats. Mobile devices may not be able to handle certain file types (.docx, pptx, etc.) for multimedia. Convert files to PDFs, which are mobile-friendly for Mac and PC devices. Make video content more accessible on mobile by streaming (YouTube and Vimeo are third-party options) instead of downloading.
  4. Communicate file types and sizes. Commonly, cell phones and other types of mobile devices have a limit to the amount of internet data users can download in a billing cycle. Communicating file sizes can help learners understand what to expect for their plan as well as the time required to access files.
  5. Use mobilefriendly tools. Tools like podcasts and Google Drive can help courses become more mobile-friendly and integrate commonly used forms of technology.

Putting students’ needs first is critical to their success. Universities should design online courses with mobile as an assumption and not a luxury. It can start small. For instance, setting up a communication platform and following with optimized video and course content is a good way to get started in mobile.

As the 2019 OCS report demonstrated, mobile access is quickly becoming an expected feature of online students, and experts agree. The future of higher education rests on technological savviness. Learn more by reading the additional insights on our resources page.

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