Using mobile behavior data to build better mobile learning

In the early days of online education, our industry copied what worked in the classroom into an online environment. Over time, we found that students did not behave the same online as they did in the physical space, and that a new form of teaching needed to be developed. We are on a similar threshold with mobile learning, but we need to learn from our experiences: we cannot take what we know about learning via a computer and apply that to a mobile space. Let’s first learn how people naturally behave in this medium and marry it with learning science. Then can we build to its strengths, understand its limitations, and integrate its capabilities to support learning in everyday use.

Exact Target recently released the results of their Mobile Behavior study. Although the study focused on consumer behavior, the data provides insight into the natural tendencies, habits, and thought-process of all people as they engage on their mobile devices, including learners. Other studies have been conducted in the past, specific to the educational field – such as Fares Benayoune and Luigi Lancieri’s study in 2004 and Noel-Levitz survey in 2012 – but the Mobile Behavior study tracks user behavior on their devices and conducted a survey to provide context and insight to behaviors. Also, we needed a study on devices that weren’t around in Benayoune and Lancieri’s study (i.e. smartphones and tablet computers). Below are the key take-aways for us in education.

Mobile means behavior, not transportability

People associate the term “mobile” with specific capabilities and behaviors – not transportability. Note: the study refers to all participants as consumers, but the word user may be more apt. “Consumers most frequently associate ‘mobile’ with a smartphone/cellphone (54% selected this association), while only 14% said tablets/e-readers” (6). The reason for this is based on what users do on each of the devices.

[box type="shadow"] Tablets are used more frequently than smartphones for passive activities like watching videos or movies (40% do this on a tablet, vs. 30% on a smartphone) and reading (57% do this on a tablet, while 43% do this on a smartphone) (7). [/box]

Tablets, although are compact and transportable, are not sen as mobile devices by users because they are more often used for sedentary or passive activities, such as reading and videos (7) rather than shorter bursts of interactivity: texting, emailing, etc. On the other hand, the most performed activities on a smartphone are those that engage with someone or something else: 91% check email at least once a day, and 90% text at least once a day (13) on their smartphone.

Armed with this, we can create frameworks for mobile education that seamlessly fits with the natural behaviors of tablet smartphone usage:

  • Tablet behaviors: learning knowledge transfer (reading, videos), mid-form writing (i.e. longer emails, more comprehensive dialogue, etc.), quizzing, etc.
  • Smartphone behaviors: communication activities, like discussion boards, group chat, FaceTime, short-form email, texting with faculty or TAs, etc.

When building educational technology for the mobile devices, ensure your feature set supports activities for each device appropriately. For example, all LMS mobile apps should allow for seamless access and input to the discussion boards and/or instant message.

All About Ease of Access + Completeness of Content

Ease of Access

Unsurprisingly, “90% of consumers say access to content any way they want is important to them” (17). People like choice, and when it comes to adult learners especially, having your learning content available on all forms of devices is vital.

In addition to having content on any device, ease of access is also important. Using any extra technology, like QR codes or augmented reality, can get in the way of the end result if too much cognitive demand is needed to navigate the systems. “In some cases (like scanned coupons or QR codes), people may not know how to activate these mobile relationships. Brands must overtly explain how to opt in, the frequency of communications, and above all, why opting in will be of service” (26). Our key take-away from this is that we need to use technology to get itself out of the way of the learning. Don’t use it for use sake, but use it because it makes the learning experience EASIER, more accessible.  “The brands with the easiest-to-access content wins”. (34)

A simple helpful tool: make a week’s learning content a downloadable zip file. People can download everything they need for the week and take it offline.

Completeness of Content

“While 54% of consumers agree that it’s easier to find information on mobile-optimized websites, 54% are also dissatisfied, saying mobile-optimized websites don’t provide enough information…they aren’t meeting the user’s demands for how much content is actually stored on a mobile site.” (27). I would argue that this is true of all online learning content: if students can’t get to the content they need, it lowers their chances of getting to it at all.

Create for All Devices

We see this all the time in online education – content is not developed for consumption on a mobile device. There are few schools that have a robust mobile strategy that takes into account the multi-device accessibility of an online course and the ease at which they are accessible. Are videos designed with the intent of being watched on a tablet? Are discussion questions written in a fashion that can be answered on the train to work? Can a student take a quiz over the lunch break on their Android? Our content isn’t being developed with the behaviors of the student in mind. We’re building to an outdated design – let’s shake that off and do something better. Something more human-centric; if we really are trying to foster life-long learners, we need to integrate learning into their daily lives, their daily behaviors.

NPR’s strategy, Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) is a great example of how this can work in action. Check out NPR’s Zach Brand’s slideshare on how they implemented their system.

Equity for Accessibility

[box] Those of lower income (<$25K) [users] are significantly more likely to spend more time per day on their smartphones (reporting 4.6 hours a day of use, compared to the average 3.3 hours a day) and tablets (they reported 5.1 hours a day of use, compared to the average 3.1 hours a day) than all other income levels. (12)[/box]

Our greatest charge in digital education is accessibility for all. The gap between the have and have-notes is directly correlated to the number of immediate access points a household or individual has to the internet.  We’ve known this since 1995, when the U.S. Department of Commerce conducted a slap-in-the-face survey of rural Americans. Although it focuses on connectivity, my favorite line from this sums the issue up nicely: “While a standard telephone line can be an individual’s pathway to the riches of the Information Age, a personal computer and modem are rapidly becoming the keys to the vault.” I would argue that with the creation of the smartphone and the tablet, this divide is growing at a startling rate.

This throws an interesting curveball for curriculum designers building for those types of students. Often, because of budgetary or time constraints, they can only design for one medium: smartphone or tablet. However, if you are in education and you are not creating learning content that can be accessible on a smartphone, you are not providing equitable access. Rethink your design strategy. There is an answer out there waiting to be found. Go forth and find it.

Smartphone Behaviors

A few key points that we can immediately bake into our DNA:

  • Smartphone activity is highest between 8am – noon & then again from 6pm – 9pm
  • Total amount of time on a smartphone per day: 3.3 hours

Use this to help identify when students will be likely to text faculty with questions, drop ideas into the discussion boards, or even check in to download the week’s material.

Push Notifications

People interact with push notifications at an alarming rate of consistency: “Only 8% wait or ignore the notification before checking it” (22) However, this should come with a warning: like any good thing, moderation is key. If you over-send push notifications, users will turn them off and you’ve lost them. They should be poignant, at a time where they can respond or interact with them (8am – noon or 6pm-9pm), and short.

Some great uses of push notifications in mobile learning:

  • Announcements
  • Notification that someone responds to you on discussion post
  • Someone instant messages me: The education field really needs to figure this one out. An LMS should have an instant message baked into it. Take a cue from Gmail: I can chat with someone in the browser and I can continue that chat via the Google Hangouts App on my phone. Texting and IM is the way we communicate now – more so than email.

Closing: Why mobile?

Our goal of educators is to develop life-long learners, which means we need to integrate learning into everyday life. We have a rare opportunity in this age to disperse our learning science application into everyday behaviors, breaking down the idea that “acceptable” learning only happens in the confines of a building. Injecting ourselves into the natural behaviors of the everyday is a tall order, but you know what: challenge accepted.