Mobile Warming: A New Approach to Student Engagement

Mobile Warming: A New Approach To Student Engagement
Kyle Bowen, Director, Informatics, Purdue University

Kyle Bowen of Purdue opened his session with the anecdote about the two Australian girls who got lost in a tunnel. For their cry for help, they went to Facebook to update their status. In their moment of life and death, they turned to Facebook. When our students need help, where do they go?

Kyle’s group at Purdue has developed a suite of learning applications as part of their Studio initiative. The most popular is called Hotseat. Students can ask a question within a class. They can use Facebook, Twitter, a website, on their laptop or their phone. Students can upvote questions, have back channel discussions. The Back channel discussion in the classroom actually increased the amount of “real world” discussion in the classroom, and did not replace it. And the adoption rate in the pilot was great: out of 800 students in three classes, 86% of the students used it.

You do need to address the real concerns of the faculty. They may worry that the social back channel engages a counter culture that’s difficult to control. There is the “creepy treehouse” factor – a professor could unintentionally put a student in an uncomfortable situation and they need to learn about etiquette  Professors also worry about the credibility of the information. But in practice the back channel became a source of accuracy.

The philosophy behind the creative cycle at Purdue’s Studio is to create lots of tools to solve specific problems, instead on one big tool to do everything. Studio is “one part commitment, one part crazy, zero parts committee.” We want localized decision making, and minimal viable functionality. What is the least this technology can do and still be useful?

Creation cycle has to be informed by data. Developers need to need to know what our students are doing. They started down this road on building mobile learning apps by building platform-neutral mobile web sites as opposed to native apps, but then changed their mind after finding that 70% of students found native apps easier to use then sites in a mobile browser, and that there was an expectation among the students that these tools be available as apps. They only need to support two platforms though: Android and iOS.

The team also learned that technology can’t replace talent. Tools like PhoneGap get you so far, but they start to fail pretty quickly. The interfaces end up looking like “appleroids” – clunky and weird. The idea that you could build one app and have it work on multiple platforms turned out to be a fallacy. They had first tried to invest in technology fixes, when they should have been growing their own developer talent.

“This is our opportunity,” Kyle concluded. “There is a new classroom that has emerged and it is not just online.”