How educators and textbook authors can make learning mobile

mobile education“Next stop, mobile apps!”—that was the title of a webinar I attended last week, presented by one of the major textbook publishers. Like most educators, I’m skeptical about technology-driven claims made about mobile apps or other tools. Technology should serve learning, not drive it. Students and instructors should be supported in using the most appropriate and accessible tools and technologies for a given situation. Newer is not necessarily better.

At the same time, I recognize that it is vital to connect with students where they live, and to design learning experiences that work for them. And, increasingly, where students live is on mobile devices. As our presenter explained, students this fall will be arriving on campus with smartphones and tablets and not always laptops. Smartphone ownership on campus now exceeds laptop ownership.

Here are two interesting findings from a December 2015 Educause report:

  • Students and faculty have similarly high levels of interest in using mobile devices to enhance learning, but the actual use of these devices in academics remains low, despite their increased prevalence.
  • Although students use technology extensively, we have evidence that technologies are not achieving their full potential for academic use.

The web design and digital publishing worlds have been wrestling for a few years now with the concept of “mobile first” and “responsive” design. I’m sure you’ve experienced the frustration of tiny type and unusable buttons when trying to access non-optimized sites on your phone. And I’m sure you’ve experienced the delight of a well-designed mobile site or publication. I know I read much more on my phone today than I would have predicted a few years ago.

As educators and textbook authors, what can we learn from the experiences of the mobile pioneers? How can we adapt some of their concepts and tools in order to design learning experiences that can live up to the expectations students have for mobile technologies?

I’ve been exploring these questions for several years now in my own work. While I am not formally trained in instructional design, I have found myself working in close alignment with instructional designers in two ways. As an instructor teaching online courses, I have worked with an instructional designer to plan and implement courses for online graduate and undergraduate courses. As a development editor and subject-matter expert (SME), I have worked with instructional designers to design, organize, and build mobile apps for college courses in writing and rhetoric. I’ve learned a ton from working with talented instructional designers, and I’ve come to appreciate what they bring to the process of writing and designing educational content.

My first conclusion is rather obvious. Making learning mobile is not simply a matter of breaking text into shorter chunks and making the type reflowable. While those things are important, the process is far more than a cosmetic makeover.

Making learning mobile is really about a conceptual shift, and I think it’s long overdue. I would describe this conceptual shift as a move from one learning model to another. In the first model, textbooks and online educational content are primarily vehicles for the delivery of content. In the second, they become experiences, communities, or environments in which meaning and learning are created actively. In the first model, students are mostly in the role of recipients or consumers of knowledge; in the second, students are active participants in the creation of knowledge.

Most of you will recognize that none of this is particularly new thinking. Educators have been advocating a constructivist model of learning for a long time. But you probably recognize, as I do, that the content-delivery model of learning is completely baked in to the design and organization of most textbooks, and, more recently, most online platforms (like Blackboard) as well. Students are being taught at every turn that their role is simply to consume the content, take a few quizzes, and move on to the next chapter. No wonder they are not engaging and retaining the material as well as we would hope.

The call to make learning mobile is an opportunity to revisit and revise some of our assumptions and practices. As textbook authors, we have a chance to rethink how materials are organized, written, and designed. As editors and publishers, we have an occasion to consider how new technologies and delivery platforms can make learning more active and engaging for students. And as teachers, in online, hybrid, or traditional classes, we have an opening to explore ways to improve the way we design courses and engage students.

How do we implement this conceptual shift in our work?

  1. Practice backward design. Begin by identifying a small number of core learning outcomes for the text or course. These outcomes may be assigned by institutional requirements or standards. Define what students should know or be able to do at the end of the course, chapter, or unit. Work backward by identifying tools and concepts students will need at each step of the journey toward the outcomes.
  2. Design content that is chunky and multimodal. Chunky content helps students learn, whether they are reading on a mobile device or on a larger screen or page. Think in terms of brief mini-lessons, and use visual and auditory modes as well as text. Multimodal content makes learning more accessible and engaging for different types of learners.
  3. Give students choice and opportunities to create their own content. When students can choose from among three different assignments, for example, they begin to take ownership of their learning and feel less like passive recipients. When they write or create content, even a simple summary or recall prompt, they retain far more than if they were to take a multiple-choice quiz.

These three principles offer a starting point for making learning mobile and improving the experience for students at the same time. These principles are supported by research and practice in a number of fields, including the science of learning, content strategy, and user experience design. They are simple and easy to grasp, and yet challenging to implement.

Many of us who work in textbook writing and editing are also teachers. The institutional pressures to define learning outcomes, do more with technology, and adopt new platforms and tools are often overwhelming. The imperative to “go mobile” can feel at times like the latest fad. But the risks of not engaging this technology are high. There is no shortage of ed-tech startups hoping to come in and develop new products for delivering mobile learning. We need to be prepared to engage their process and make sure that it is focused on learners and not products and technologies. We have an opportunity and an obligation to explore new ways of designing content and learning that not only works for students on their devices, but that makes sense to them in their lives today.


Michael GreerMichael Greer is an educator and editor who has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He has conducted a number of usability studies on college textbooks, published on textbook design and usability, and studied the ways in which students read and use textbooks. He worked as a development editor at Pearson for 15 years before starting his own company, Development by Design. Michael teaches online courses in editing and publishing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is editor for the journal Research in Online Literacy Education. Michael is a frequent contributor to the Beyond the Book podcast series, where you can hear more of his thoughts on students, learning, and the design of educational materials.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.