Students lead the march toward mobile: Three strategies for adapting and responding

Mobile textbookIt is becoming increasingly clear that students want and need to use mobile devices as a supplement to their print and e-textbooks and LMS course platforms. In fact, many students prefer reading on mobile. Students are leading the market to mobile, and publishers are following. Some authors are working to adapt existing materials to the mobile platform, but in many cases the publisher adapts the material with little or no author input. Authors have a vested interest in keeping up with this transition in terms of the technology opportunities, content quality control, and enhanced marketability of their works.

As publishers race to adapt and develop new platforms, what can authors do to create content that is mobile friendly? How does the medium of mobile change the way we think, write, and design content? The change to a smaller screen is only the beginning. Reading (and interacting) on mobile devices is a fundamentally different experience than reading a print text or even on a laptop. Students are often reading on the go, in brief windows of time, and they are accustomed to adding their own voices and feedback to what they read, via comments, replies, or “likes.”

For authors who value and produce long-form texts designed for deep reading, this shift is jarring. As an author and development editor, I have worked on projects designed for mobile from the start, as well as projects adapted from print to mobile delivery. I’ve become an evangelist for mobile—not because it replaces print, but because it supplements it. For many students—including working, non-traditional students, as well as students with sensory or cognitive challenges—mobile is a revelation. Mobile devices open our work to new readers. What can we do to ensure that our texts are useful, and usable, for these readers?

1) Become a mobile reader yourself

If your publisher has a mobile app, download it! Read and explore your own text on your phone. If you teach online, or use an LMS like Blackboard or Canvas in a hybrid course, download the corresponding app as well and practice reading and posting to discussion boards via your phone. Designers and publishers have made huge strides in the last few years. Mobile has surpassed desktop as the preferred point of access for most online readers, and the industry has responded. Test your own materials often on your phone or tablet. I teach fully online courses and test every page and video on my phone before pushing it live, because I know that’s how most of my students will view and experience the materials. This semester, a student in one of my courses is legally blind, and he is grateful that I have made the course text and website mobile, because his phone is far more accessible and usable than his desktop computer. Modern smartphones have built-in accessibility features that laptops lack.

Yes, the screen is smaller, but designers have responded by creating responsive page designs that flex and flow to adapt to different-sized viewports. Remember that contemporary smartphones have far better resolution than the desktop monitors all of us were using just a few years ago. The experience of becoming a mobile reader will help you understand the mobile reading and learning experience and will open up new ideas and possibilities for your own authoring.

2) Give students choices

For me, this is the biggest shift from an author perspective. Mobile readers can jump around from section to section, carving new pathways through our texts. They rarely read a chapter in linear order. For authors, this feels like a loss of control. We are used to obsessing over details of chapter outlines and structures to compose effective learning paths for our students. Designing for mobile feels like a loss of that flow and a fragmentation of our content.

Textbooks are designed, even in print, to be modular, so the shift to mobile is an evolution of that modularity. Authors know that teachers often remix chapter order and jump around to meet their own learning goals and needs. Writing for mobile accelerates this trend. The best advice I have been given recently is to think of each section of my text as a short podcast of about two to three minutes. What story can I tell about the content that will make a compelling point in a small space? Whether I actually narrate the text as audio or not (and I often do), thinking this way helps me to see short sections as empowering rather than limiting. If my students are only paying attention for a few minutes at a time, I had better give them something interesting for those minutes!

Writing content in short, modular chunks allows students to choose different pathways through the material. We can suggest a sequence that we find useful, and many students will read in that order. But we can provide alternate pathways as well: a student might focus on case studies and examples first, and then read theory and concept sections. Another student might jump to the end of the chapter and try out some of the activities and assignments to assess what she already knows about the topic. Because we do not control the order in which students may encounter parts of a text, we need to write them to be more self-contained. “In the previous section, we saw that…” may not work—because we don’t know which section the reader has come from.

3) Think multimodal

Mobile phones are multimedia powerhouses. As authors, we are not limited to text and static images. Multimodal learning takes advantage of the affordances of mobile devices to engage students more deeply than is possible on a printed page. As educational psychologist Richard Mayer reminds us, “People can learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone.”

Textbook authors and publishers have devoted considerable time and resources to developing videos, animations, and other visual and interactive features. Often, these features have been segregated from the main text of our books, requiring students to use marginal icons or links or QR codes or some other method to move back and forth from text to media. Smartphones allow us to merge these modalities into a seamless experience. Each module of our texts should be supported with visuals and other media wherever possible.

Many of my students e-mailed to thank me this fall when I made course materials accessible to them on their mobile devices. My courses meet online, and I now use a web platform for most of my course content (Weebly) that is fully responsive and mobile friendly. I am also using, for the first time, a textbook I wrote and designed specifically for publication on mobile devices (The Technology of the Book). My courses still rely on Blackboard (for grades and discussion forums) and on a printed text as well. Student engagement has noticeably improved as a result of the move to mobile.

I talk with many textbook authors and publishers who are reluctant to embrace mobile. My opinion is that their reluctance is based on the idea that a mobile phone is a reduced or limited approximation of long-form print: “How can you read long-form texts on a small screen?” My advice is to shift perspectives and seek to view mobile devices as a new pathway and a new part of our evolving learning ecosystem. If we learn to organize, write, and design content with mobile readers in mind, we open our content to a broader range of learners—and we give them a richer learning experience in the process.

Student Perspectives

“As a graduate student with a visual impairment, my academic growth and success depends upon whether or not I can access materials digitally. Like most students, my phone is in my hand at all times; however, without my iPhone and the VoiceOver screen reading software, I would not have a fair chance at education. Although I hold the technology, it is up to institutions, such as textbook publishers, to allow print books an opportunity to evolve into our mobile culture, granting those like myself an even greater chance at growth and success.” ~ Eric Yarberry, graduate assistant, teaching assistant, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

“I work full-time and I have found that having the opportunity to access all of the course information from my phone has been very helpful. I download the readings to my phone and using a text to voice app on my cell phone, I can listen to the readings at work and on the go. Since I don’t have computer access at work, I can read the forum discussions and access all of the course information on the course website during my lunch hour. Having course access on my phone has made the learning process more accessible and efficient for my situation.”  ~ Cindy Davis, graduate student, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Michael Greer is an educator, editor, and author who has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He worked as a development editor at Pearson for 15 years before starting his own company, Development by Design, and has recently published his first textbook specifically for smartphones in collaboration with Gadget Software (using their virtual publication vPub™ technology).