Researching the Impact of Mobile Technology on Students and Learning

As we evaluate the technology available to students and Ohio State launches its Digital Flagship Initiative, the need for research into exactly how these evolutions impact students and learning has never been greater. In the Office of Distance Education and eLearning (ODEE), Shanna Jaggars and Marcos Rivera sought to examine key questions essential to developing effective implementations.

Jaggars and Rivera identified relevant reviews suggesting tablet deployment can – but does not necessarily – improve students’ learning experiences and outcomes. For instance, the research indicated that positive learning outcomes are associated with deployments that included:

  • Strong usability and accessibility feature integration, including cameras, accelerometers, microphones, dictionaries and screen readers; as well as training for students on how to customize text color/size, screen viewing modes and other accessibility features.
  • Strong technology infrastructure, allowing for simultaneous wireless connection among all students in a large class at the same time, planning for supplementary technology integration (e.g., VGA display adapters), as well as proactive planning related to mid-year tablet hardware or software upgrades.
  • Cultivation of a supportive culture, including a pedagogical change management strategy focusing on teacher collegiality and empowerment.

Key themes across other findings included:

App Integrations

App integrations included Facebook, iBooks, Dropbox, FaceTime, Prezi, various LMS apps and apps related to virtual lab experimentation, e-textbooks, audio/memo recording, collaborative concept mapping, brainstorming, graphing and video analysis. If apps were intentionally integrated into course pedagogy or assignments, students liked them (although some experienced difficulties with app stability and connectivity); however, iPads and associated apps were typically not integrated strongly into course design, which limited their potential impact. Students were also interested in some specific apps that were not provided or integrated (including campus maps, course advising and calendaring, library resource guides and grade tracking).

Student Reactions

Students had positive attitudes toward iPads and found them particularly useful for instantly accessing internet-based learning resources (e.g., YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Scholar, the learning management system, library resources), enhancing time management and productivity (e.g., through calendars, notes and reminders), and enhancing collaboration and interaction (e.g., sharing work with a group and receiving feedback, facilitating more efficient group work in the classroom).

Faculty Concerns

Faculty were confused about how to use iPads in their teaching and wanted more ideas and guidelines on how to use them effectively. Many were concerned about iPads distracting their students in class; others were concerned that the most useful/relevant apps for their pedagogical purposes did not exist or were too expensive. Faculty also experienced challenges in switching between their desktop/laptop and iPad.

Looking back over 35 mobile learning projects in which he’d participated, Cochrane (2012, 2014) compared the “failures” versus “successes,” and argued that two factors are particularly important for successful mobile-learning pedagogy implementation in the higher education context:

Providing faculty technological and pedagogical support

Providing faculty technological and pedagogical support in terms of how to leverage mobile devices to shift toward a more active-learning pedagogy was a key factor for success. Cochrane suggests that “a short series of introductory workshops” cannot effectively accomplish this; instead, an ongoing “community of practice” (COP) is necessary. A COP might consist of the group of faculty and TAs teaching introductory courses in a given department, who have weekly meetings facilitated by a tech-savvy instructional designer. Faculty then collaboratively redesign course activities and assessments with tablet functionalities in mind, and with the input of students.

Increasing mobile affordances across course levels

New college students in introductory courses are often not emotionally prepared to be active learners. Cochrane suggests building this student capacity intentionally across courses. For example, in a film studies program, faculty gradually shifted the three-year core course sequence from paper-based student portfolios and faculty lectures to the following:

  • Freshmen: Instead of a year-long paper-based journal, students established an online journal and e-portfolio “for formative and summative assessment and peer critique,” and used mobile devices for blogging.
  • Sophomores: Instead of writing essays on the impact of mobile devices on the film industry, students “formed teams to create, share, and critique their own mobile films.”
  • Juniors: Instead of a lecture series from industry experts, students “participated in an authentic project involving global collaborative creation of mobile films by creating production teams across three countries enabled by mobile social networking.”

Moving forward, the university and ODEE will focus on prioritizing key opportunities with our faculty and instructional staff. This community of practice will be known as Digital Flagship Educators. The other primary takeaway from the research is a need to consider student needs primarily and specifically in relation to skill development.

Spring 2018 will launch pilots in five courses across the university. Within the pilots, instructors and students will be deployed the same technology that will be provided to all first-year students in autumn. Each course will be supported with online engagement, assessment and observation in an effort to evaluate approach efficacy and student experience. Instructors are included throughout the process, as the pilot course instructors provide valuable and critical feedback around meaningful integrations into their curricula.


Cochrane, T. (2012). Secrets of mlearning failures: Confronting reality. Research in Learning Technology, 20(SUPPL), 123–134.

Cochrane, T. D. (2014). Critical success factors for transforming pedagogy with mobile Web 2.0. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(1), 65–82.

Hargis, J., Cavanaugh, C., Kamali, T., & Soto, M. (2014). A federal higher education iPad mobile learning initiative: Triangulation of data to determine early effectiveness. Innovative Higher Education, 39(1), 45–57.

Hassler, B., Major, L., & Hennessy, S. (2016). Tablet use in schools: A critical review of the evidence for learning outcomes. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 32(2), 139–156.

Link, A., Sintjago, A. & McKay, M. (2012). “Geeking out” with iPads: undergraduate instructors discuss their experiences during the first year of a large-scale tablet initiative. Paper presented at the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education.

Nguyen, L., Barton, S. M., & Nguyen, L. T. (2015). iPads in higher education: Hype and hope. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 190 – 203.