Moving to Seamless Learning: A Framework for Learning Using Multiple Devices

Greig Krull and Josep M. Duart

Introduction

It is difficult to imagine current day-to-day life without mobile technologies and it is expected that in the coming decade, mobile technologies will continue to be more popular, personal, robust and social. The ubiquity of connected mobile devices influences how learning takes place. Every person with a smartphone and a network can generate, share and discuss information, images, ideas and opinions, via cloud services and social networks (Traxler, 2016). The use of mobile technologies enables communication, collaboration and learning in informal settings with peers, friends and family, not limited by time and location (Looi, Seow, Zhang, So, Chen & Wong, 2010). However, it is not only the devices themselves that are important for learning, as the devices cannot be separated from their associated services such as social networking, instant messaging, cloud computing and other services (Traxler, 2016). The availability of these technologies enables students to seamlessly move between different learning settings. There is growing interest in the role and adoption of mobile devices in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) and the associated changes in study habits and learning experiences of students using these devices (Cross, Sharples, & Healing, 2015). These electronic devices include mobile devices as well as fixed technologies such as desktops. Educators need to be aware of not only what students study, but also their access to certain technologies, how, where and why they study and their levels of digital literacy skills (Cross, Sharples, & Healing, 2016; Looi et al., 2010).

In the context of distance/online students using different devices to participate in seamless learning, educators may wonder: How can students take advantage of learning opportunities using different devices? How can educators design materials and activities accessible from different devices? How can educators support students learning with multiple devices? This chapter proposes a framework to help answer these questions. This chapter explores how online/distance students make use of multiple devices to support their learning. Student access to and use of various devices within higher education and ODL is explored. The concept of seamless learning is explained that emphasises how technologies enable students to easily move between different learning scenarios. The methodology is described and then a multi-device framework is proposed that looks at how students take advantage of learning opportunities with multiple devices, locations and learning activities. Finally, some guidelines are provided for educators to support students using multiple devices for learning.

Use of Multiple Devices in Higher Education

According to the 2016 ECAR survey of university students and information technology in the United States, student device ownership is growing close to market saturation for laptops and smartphones (96% of students own smartphones, 93% own laptops and 57% own tablets). The survey reveals that students have access to multiple devices with just over half (52%) of students owning all three of the aforementioned devices, while conversely only 1% own none of these three devices. The most common combination of device ownership is a laptop and a smartphone (38%) (Brooks, 2016). These results were similar to the 2015 ECAR survey, where more students owned Internet-capable devices than ever before (Dahlstrom, Brooks, Grajek & Reeves, 2015). According to that survey, 92% of students owned at least two internet-capable devices, with 64% of students owning three or more devices. Furthermore, 61% of students attempted to connect at least two devices to a university network at the same time (Dahlstrom et al., 2015).

This increased access to devices has led to the proliferation of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategies by educational institutions. BYOD refers to the use of a student’s own technologies for learning, instead of institutions supplying technology for learning. A benefit of BYOD is that students are likely to be more comfortable and have greater expertise in using their own devices (Murphy, Farley, Lane, Hafeez-Baig & Carter, 2014). BYOD goes beyond the devices themselves as students can make use of their own services and connectivity. Students are no longer limited to the use of institutional systems, networks and services (Traxler, 2016).

Thus the question facing educators is no longer whether students have access to these technologies, but shifts to consider how to integrate these technologies into teaching and learning (Dahlstrom et al., 2015). Access to and use of devices does not guarantee effective learning (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013). Although students use technologies extensively, the use of many of these technologies have not yet achieved their full potential for academic use. For example, both students and educators have high levels of interest in using mobile devices to enhance learning, but actual use of these devices remains low in academic settings (Dahlstrom et al., 2015). Effective use of devices also refers to the digital literacy skills of the student, including the ability to use and evaluate digital resources (Chen, Seilhamer, Bennett, & Bauer, 2015). Universities need to promote the development of digital literacy skills to help educators and students engage with digital media for learning (Chen & DeNoyelles, 2013).

The patterns of use differ considerably between fixed desktop technologies and personal mobile technologies. Using a desktop for learning typically takes place at dedicated times and places where a student is focused on specific learning activities for a substantial and usually premeditated period. In contrast, learning interactions with mobile technologies are woven into the different times and places of a student’s life. In addition to the differences in contextual usage, learning content delivered via mobile devices is chunked, structured and connected differently from other technologies (Traxler, 2010). This is reflected in the different ways that students value and use devices for learning. Returning to the results of the 2016 ECAR survey, students use laptops extensively for learning and considered them to be the central device for academic study, with 95% using a laptop in at least one course. This is supported by 93% of students who considered the laptop to be extremely important to academic success, compared to 46% for smartphones and 41% for tablets (Brooks, 2016). In the 2015 survey, students indicated the most common tasks for mobile devices were to access grades and course content (Dahlstrom et al., 2015). The benefits of mobile learning are that students can access information quickly, easily communicate and collaborate with others and learn in different settings. However, students face challenges regarding educators who are anti-technology in class, challenges in using devices and for some students, devices can be distracting (Gikas & Grant, 2013).

The access to and use of these devices by a majority of students presents challenges and opportunities for the provision and support of learning (Traxler, 2010). This includes a need to change the way learning is designed and learning support is provided (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013). A further challenge is that not only are devices different, but they change over time and patterns of use vary (Traxler, 2010). Although broad patterns of device usage can be determined, educators cannot be certain which devices individual students will use for learning. Furthermore, students may make use of different applications for formal and informal learning, making it difficult to determine exactly what technologies they use and how they are used (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013).

Multiple Devices in Open and Distance Learning

ODL students are diverse, with many of mature age who are also are employed. Due to work and family responsibilities, ODL students have a need for more flexible study (Andrews & Tynan, 2012). ODL students make use of multiple devices in their studies. In fact, distance students have always had to rely on BYOD or other ways to access devices for learning. A survey of the use of mobile devices for learning conducted at the Open University of Hong Kong in 2011 found that 56% of students owned two or more mobile devices (Cheung, 2012). A 2013 survey of the use of e-readers, tablets and smartphones for study at the Open University (United Kingdom) found that 50% of students had access to a tablet and 37% had access to an e-reader (Cross et al., 2015). A 2013 survey of device ownership and use at a dual mode university in Australia found that students accessed and used a wide variety of devices, with laptops and smartphones being the most commonly used devices (Farley et al., 2015; Murphy et al., 2014). However, students were challenged by a lack of educator support for mobile learning.

Different devices have particular technical features, opportunities and limitations in distance/online learning. However, usage depends on the device characteristics as well as the nature of the learning activities undertaken (Cheung, 2012). Laptops and desktop computers are better for carrying out more complex learning tasks such as writing and data analysis (Wong, 2012). Students predominately use laptops to support their learning (Murphy et al., 2014). Past surveys have found limited use of tablets for learning, the preference of smartphones for chatting and social networking and the preferred use of notebooks for most learning activities (Cheung, 2012). Students who used mobile devices for study used them more for reading purposes and less for assessment tasks such as preparing assignments (Cross et al., 2016). Mobile phones are useful tools for learning tasks on the move, such as taking photos or quick notes and instant communication (Wong, 2012). They can be used to study when commuting or on a trip, to check notifications or updates while waiting and to access resources from any location (Ferran-Ferrer, Domingo, Prieto-Blázquez, Corcoles, Sancho-Vinuesa, & Santanach, 2014). Students make use of smartphones and tablets for specific learning activities, however, the usage of mobile phones for learning has moved beyond the communication features such as calls, text messages and emails. Students use their mobile devices to support increasingly sophisticated learning activities, that in the past, would have been undertaken using computers. Students make use of the greater functionality and connectivity of smartphones and tablets to support their learning (Murphy et al., 2014).

Students who use mobile devices across different settings do not only migrate existing study practices to their devices, but also change how, when and where they study (Cross et al., 2016). Many learning activities undertaken on mobile devices are migrated activities (activities previously performed on another device). However, in addition to migrated activities, mobile devices also enhance the study experience by enabling activities the student otherwise would not have done (Cross et al., 2015). Thus mobile learning can be considered complementary to other ways of teaching and learning and extends the possibilities for learning in new directions (Ferran-Ferrer et al., 2014).

Educators need to consider the physical context (location) and the intentional context (intention of use) of how students use their devices. Different devices are used with different intents, for example, mobile phones “to check”, tablets “to immerse” and computers “to manage” (Hess, 2012, as cited in Ferran-Ferrer et al., 2014). This view of the importance of context will influence the way learning experiences are designed across and between devices and better support learner goals (Ferran-Ferrer et al., 2014). The combined and complementary use of different devices provide possibilities to improve learning experiences. The variety in usage described above confirms that access to multiple devices is changing study habits. Multiple devices can enhance learning effectiveness by enabling more flexibility in time and physical locations for learning and encourage active and collaborative learning (Cheung, 2012). Educators need to “develop flexible pedagogies, learning designs and resources that allow students to take control and adapt their learning to the specific mix of technologies and locations in which they study” (Cross et al., 2016, p. 5392).

A useful framework when considering the use of mobile devices in distance learning is the Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) which considers the technical characteristics of mobile devices as well as social and personal aspects of learning in a distance environment (Koole, 2009). Learners move within different physical and virtual locations and interact with other people, information and systems, anytime and anywhere. The FRAME model is represented by a Venn diagram (Figure 5.1) in which the three aspects of Device (D), Learner (L) and Social (S) intersect. Devices refer to the physical, technical and functional characteristics of a mobile device (including hardware and software). The learner aspect refers to the learner’s cognitive abilities, prior knowledge and motivations. The social aspect refers to the processes of social interaction and cooperation. The device and learner aspects intersect at Device Usability (DL) that describes how devices are used for learning activities. Devices and social aspects intersect at Social Technology (DS) that describes how mobile devices enable communication and collaboration among multiple individuals and systems. Learner and social aspects intersect at Interaction Learning (LS) that describes how learners interact with each other, the educator and the materials. Effective mobile learning occurs at the intersection of these three aspects (DLS) (Koole, 2009). However, one of the limitations of this framework is that it focuses only on mobile devices and does not consider how different devices can be used together.

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1 The FRAME Model (Koole, 2009, used with permission)

Seamless Learning

Wong (2015, p. 10) defines seamless learning as “when a person experiences a continuity of learning, and consciously bridges the multi-faceted learning efforts, across a combination of locations, times, technologies or social settings”. Students can learn wherever they are curious, in a variety of scenarios and can to “switch from one scenario to another easily and quickly using the personal device as a mediator” (Chan et al., 2006, p. 6). These learning scenarios can take place in classes, at home, at work or outdoors, face-to-face or online. Although seamless learning can take place without the use of technologies, electronic devices and connectivity play an important role in maintaining learning across settings. The availability of cloud computing technology means that a personal learning hub does not need to be a specific mobile device, but cloud-based learning environments accessible from a variety of devices (Wong, 2012).  Students are provided with the means to search for previous learning content or activities and recall the context and connection. This enables learners to carry on from where they left off and to easily re-establish learning activities (Milrad, Wong, Sharples, & Hwang, 2013). Seamless learning occurs when “learners are active, productive, creative and collaborative across different environments and settings” (Chan et al., 2006, p. 10).

Wong and Looi (2011) developed a framework for Mobile-assisted Seamless Learning (MSL) consisting of 10 dimensions that remove the seams and empower and support learners whenever and wherever they are stimulated to learn. The 10 dimensions can be broadly grouped into a technological focus, pedagogical focus and a learner focus. The ten dimensions are:

  • (MSL1) Encompassing formal and informal learning
  • (MSL2) Encompassing personalised and social learning
  • (MSL3) Across time
  • (MSL4) Across locations
  • (MSL5) Ubiquitous access to learning resources
  • (MSL6) Encompassing physical and digital worlds
  • (MSL7) Combined use of multiple device types
  • (MSL8) Seamless switching between multiple learning tasks
  • (MSL9) Knowledge synthesis
  • (MSL10) Encompassing multiple pedagogical or learning activity models

Wong (2012) reconceptualised some of the dimensions and elaborated on the relationships between the dimensions. The relationships are from the perspective of the individual seamless learner. MSL3 (across time) and MSL4 (across locations) are the highest level dimensions that create a two-dimensional space for the other dimensions. Within this space, there are three continuums of learning spaces: MSL1 (formal/informal learning), MSL2 (personalised/social learning) and MSL6 (physical/digital worlds). Within these learning spaces, a learner may use multiple devices (MSL7) to mediate multiple learning tasks (MSL8) which may lead to knowledge synthesis (MSL9). Two additional inputs, MSL5 (ubiquitous access to learning resources) and MSL10 (multiple pedagogical models) shape the learner’s specific learning tasks. Mediated through technology, learners should be able to identify and explore latent learning opportunities that daily living spaces may offer, rather than being restricted by externally defined learning goals and activities (Wong, 2012). Wong and Looi (2011) encourage researchers to further investigate specific dimensions of this framework, particularly how learners switch between multiple learning activities.

Methodology

The proposed framework is based on research undertaken at two ODL universities in 2016, The University of South Africa (UNISA) in South Africa and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Spain. A mixed methods approach was followed, with the use of a quantitative survey followed by qualitative interviews. Ethics applications had been approved at both universities. The survey consisted of mainly closed questions asking students about their access to electronic devices, frequency of use of devices for studies, locations of use and range of learning activities. A random stratified (by discipline) sample of undergraduate students at each university was sent an invitation to complete the electronic survey. 488 responses were received from UOC and 613 responses were received from UNISA. The results were analysed using descriptive, bivariate and multivariate analysis. In order to describe and explain the survey results, follow-up qualitative interviews were undertaken with a subset of survey respondents, either telephonically or via Skype. 18 interviews were conducted with UOC students, while 16 interviews were conducted with UNISA students. Interview data were analysed with the use of a grounded theory approach (Corbin & Strauss, 2015) to identify emerging themes and relationships.

Framework for Multi-Device Learning

The aim of the proposed framework is to consider students’ usage of electronic devices for learning and how students make use of different devices for study. It is based on the results from the student survey responses and interviews undertaken at the two ODL universities. The multi-device framework (Figure 5.2) consists of three aspects to consider: Multiple Devices, Locations and Learning Activities. These aspects emerged from the study as the main aspects that, in combination, influence how students use different devices for learning.  Each of these aspects are further explained in the sections below.

There are a number of factors that influence the selection of a specific device for learning (used separately). According to student responses, the most common factor is the location or contextual environment of the student. Another important factor is the learning task or objective to be performed (intentional context). The third most important factor is the amount of time that is available or needed for study. Other factors that may influence device choice are the characteristics of the device, available software, the device interface and screen size.

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2 Multi-Device Learning Framework

Multiple Devices

The multiple devices aspect (Table 5.1) refers to the access to and use of different devices for learning. The most commonly accessed devices for learning include laptops, smartphones, desktops and tablets. Other electronic devices less frequently used for study may include e-readers, basic mobile phones, game consoles and smart TVs. Some educators are also looking at the potential of wearable devices (such as smart watches and glasses) in education (Brooks, 2016). In addition to these devices, students may use peripheral devices such as extra screens or printers to support their learning. Internet-capable devices include fixed devices as well as mobile or handheld devices. Handheld technologies are devices small enough to be held and operated in the hand (Cross et al., 2016). Mobile devices include smartphones, games consoles, digital cameras, media players, netbooks and tablets (Traxler, 2010). Smartphones are mobile phones which provide computing, processing and communication functions (Cheung, 2012) and are typically touch-screen and make use of a variety of apps. They can be contrasted with earlier basic mobile phones or feature phones.

Distance/online students frequently have access to more than one electronic device. Access to devices includes personal ownership of devices as well as the use of devices that belong to others or are shared with others. These can include work devices or devices owned by family members or friends. Students who own devices are able to use them at more times than if they have to share devices or use devices belonging to others. Most students will have access to two or three devices. The most commonly accessed devices are smartphones and laptops. Although the combinations of device access vary, common sets of devices that students have access to are: a laptop and smartphone; a laptop, tablet and smartphone; a desktop, laptop and smartphone; or a desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone.

Table 5.1

Multiple Devices Aspects

Criteria Concepts and Examples Influence on Learning
Device Characteristics Screen size

Operating system

Applications

Capabilities

Quality (age, speed, cost)

The characteristics of the device influence how they can be used and in which contexts.
Device Types Desktop

Laptop

Tablet

Smartphone

Other

Students have access to multiple device types. These may include a mix of fixed and mobile devices. These devices may change over time.
Device Access Personal ownership

Shared use

Public or private use

If a student owns the device, it is more likely that they are more comfortable with the device and can use it at more times.
Device Use for Learning Frequency of use

Device expertise

Perceived value of device

Depending on what each device is used for, some devices may be used more frequently than others. Students may value some devices as more important for learning. Students may also have different levels of expertise in using the devices for learning.
Internet Connectivity LAN cable

Wifi connection

Mobile network

Students can access the internet in different ways. The speed or quality of the connection may be a factor for some students. High costs of connectivity may be an issue for some students.

It is important to consider student access to devices. However, access does not mean that students use devices for study purposes. Results from this study indicated that although smartphones are the most common devices that students own, more students make use of laptops for study. Laptops and smartphones are commonly used for study. Desktops and tablets tend to be less frequently used, while other devices are seldom used for study. Educators also need to consider how frequently students use devices for learning. Most distance/online students study part-time or are working as well as studying at the same time. Therefore they may not study every day, instead focus on their studies a few times a week or a few times in a month. Depending on access and purpose, certain devices may be used more often than others for study.

The characteristics of the students themselves also need to be considered. For example, the age profile of distance/online students includes a wide range, from students who have recently left school to students who have retired from their main form of employment. The socio-economic situation of students plays a role in access to technology. Many students may struggle to have access to devices or obtain connectivity at home due to their economic situation, being situated in a rural area or other reasons. It is also worth considering that if a student owns a device, whether the major reason for purchase was for study or not. Students who purchase a device for study are more likely to use the device for studies. Other student considerations include: the level of expertise in using the device and the perceived value of the device towards academic success. Students who have greater levels of expertise or value the device as important towards academic success are more likely to use the device more frequently for study.

As mentioned previously, seamless learning is enabled by internet connectivity and access to cloud services. Depending on the locations frequented by the student, there may be a wide variety of the type of internet access. Many students have internet access at home in the form of Wi-Fi or broadband connections. Students may also have access to the internet at work. Other students may rely on mobile networks for internet access, for which the costs of data can be expensive. Linked to internet access are the cloud computing systems that students use to seamlessly move between learning tasks, devices and locations. These could be institutional systems, such as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) / Learning Management Systems (LMSs), or cloud services such as Google Drive or Dropbox. When internet connectivity is not readily available, students may use a flash drive to move files between devices.

Learning Locations

Educators need to consider the physical contexts (locations) where students use devices to support their learning. As distance/online students move from place to place, they make use of devices in different locations (Table 5.2). The most common locations for study are:

  • Home
  • Work
  • Public locations with Wi-Fi (for example libraries, restaurants or cafes)
  • Homes of family or friends
  • University campuses or regional university centres
  • In-transit (public or private transport such as buses, trains and cars)

Students may also make use of devices for learning in locations other than those listed above. The variety of locations emphasizes that students themselves are mobile and can take advantage of the portability of mobile devices to use in different locations. Yet it also emphasizes the use of mobile and fixed devices in stationary environments such as home. Devices are used in both public and private locations. Private locations include home and the homes or family or friends. Public locations include work, libraries, cafes and public transport. Many distance/online students work as well as study at the same time. They may have access to electronic devices and connectivity at their place of employment. Indeed, sometimes students negotiate with their employers to study during their breaks or after they are finished work for the day. For all devices, home is still the most common location for study. Desktop computers are either used for study at home or at work. As desktops are less portable than other devices, they are very rarely used in other locations. Laptops are mainly used for study at home, followed by work. As laptops are slightly more portable, they are sometimes used in public locations with Wi-Fi or when students travel (such as for work or to visit family). For mobile handheld devices (tablets and smartphones), their portability means that they are frequently used in different locations. Tablets and smartphones are used for study at home, at work, in public locations with Wi-Fi, universities, in-transit and in the homes of others. Thus, these results show that most formal distance/online (university) studying takes place in informal learning settings, such as home, work, in-transit or in cafés. Very little studying is done in formal learning settings such as university centres or libraries.

Table 5.2

Device and Location Aspects

Devices Common Locations  Influence on Learning  
Desktop Home

Work

Desktops are fixed devices so tend to be used in only one place. The majority of desktop usage is at home, while some students have access to desktops at work.
Laptop Home

Work

Public locations (with Wi-Fi)

Due to the size of laptops, they are portable, but not portable enough to use in most locations. Generally, laptops are used at home or at work. Occasionally, they are used in public locations or during travel.
Tablet Home

Work

Homes of families of friends

University centres

Public locations (with Wi-Fi)

In-transit

Tablets are portable so can be used in many different locations.
Smartphone Home

Work

Homes of families of friends

University centres

Public locations (with Wi-Fi)

In-transit

Smartphones are portable so can be used in many different locations. Additionally, they tend to always be on-person so can be used at any time.

Learning Activities

Educators need to consider the intentional context (purpose) of how distance/online students use devices to support their learning. The learning activities that students perform also influence which devices are used for study. The following list shows common study activities performed with the support of an electronic device, adapted from Cheung (2012), Murphy et al. (2014) and Cross et al. (2015):

  • Search for information
  • Communicate with educator
  • Communicate with other students
  • Write assignments or essays
  • Read course resources
  • Listen to audio resources
  • Watch video resources
  • Participate in discussion forums
  • Review assessment feedback
  • Use the virtual library
  • Check news and announcements
  • Plan or organise study time
  • Take quizzes or tests
  • Participate in synchronous online meetings or lectures
  • Take examinations

Each device can be used in different ways, depending on the device characteristics as well as the learning activity. Students tend to use a central device such as a laptop or desktop to perform the majority of learning activities. Laptops are the most commonly used devices for learning across all learning activities. Mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones tend to be used for specific activities, based on the device characteristics. Although each individual student will use their devices in their own way, some patterns of use can be generalized for most students. Table 5.3 shows the most common learning activities performed on specific devices by distance/online students (ordered by most common uses). Desktops and laptops tend to be used to support almost all learning tasks. They are the devices most frequently used for writing or preparing assignments. Tablets tend to be used for a variety of tasks, but many students feel more comfortable using tablets for consuming information (searching, reading materials or watching videos). Students very seldom use tablets for tasks related to writing. Smartphones tend to be used more to check information and make use of communication tools (calling or instant messaging). Students very seldom use smartphones for tasks related to writing and assessment.

Table 5.3

Most common learning activities usually performed with specific devices

Desktop Laptop Tablet Smartphone
Communicate with educator

Search for information

Write assignment

Read materials

Take quiz/test

Review assignment feedback

Participate in forums

Communicate with students

Communicate with educator

Review assignment feedback

Write assignment

Search for information

Watch video

Communicate with students

Read materials

Participate in forums

Search for information

Watch video

Read materials

Check news and announcements

Check news and announcements Communicate with students

Search for information

The Intersection of Devices, Locations and Learning Activities

The multi-device framework considers the intersection of learning activities, locations and multiple devices. Although the use of devices for specific learning activities in specific locations will be different for individual students, some patterns of use can be determined for learning activities that are frequently performed by most students. Table 5.4 shows the learning activities that distance/online students are likely to frequently perform using their different devices in different locations. The frequency is represented by very likely to perform the activity (xx) or somewhat likely to perform the learning activity (x). Tables 5.4 and 5.5 show that there is an influence of the location or environment and the specific device on which learning activity are performed.

Table 5.4

Common learning activities usually performed with specific devices by location (Desktop and Laptop)

Desktop Laptop
Home Work Home Work
Communicate with educator xx x xx
Communicate with students xx x xx
Read materials xx xx xx
Listen to audio xx x x
Watch video xx x xx
Participate in forums xx x xx x
Take quiz/test xx x xx x
Write assignment xx x xx x
Online meeting/lecture x x x
Search for information xx xx xx x
Take exam x
Use virtual library xx x x
Review assignment feedback xx xx xx
Plan study time xx x xx
Check news/ announcements xx x xx

Table 5.5

Common learning activities usually performed with specific devices by location (Tablet and Smartphone)

Tablet Smartphone
Home Work Other Homes University Public Transit Home Work Other Homes University Public Transit
Communicate with educator x x x x x x x x x x x x
Communicate with students xx x x x x x xx x x x x x
Read materials xx x x x xx x x x x x x
Listen to audio xx x x x x x x x x x x x
Watch video xx x x x x x x x x x x x
Participate in forums x x x x x x x x x x
Take quiz/test x x x x x x
Write assignment x x x x
Online meeting/lecture x x x x x
Search for information xx x x x x x xx x x x x x
Take exam
Use virtual library x x x x x
Review assignment feedback xx x x x x x x x x x x
Plan study time x x x x x x x x x x
Check news/ announcements xx x x x xx x xx x x x x x

Multiple Devices Used Together – Sequential and Simultaneous Usage

In addition to considering how students use specific devices in specific locations for specific learning activities, it is also useful to consider how students make use of different devices together for learning and what study patterns emerge. Although it is more usual to use one device at a time, sometimes students make use of different devices together, depending on the devices they have access to. Making use of different devices together can either be sequential or simultaneous. Sequential usage consists of moving from one device to another, while simultaneous usage consists of using two or more devices at the same time. Although this is not frequent behaviour, it illustrates another change in study patterns due to the availability of different devices and cloud services to synchronise files between devices.

Sequential usage means students move from one device to another. This means that they start a learning activity on one device and then continue or complete the activity on another device. This may or may not include a move to a different location. Seamless learners are easily able to carry on learning activities from where they left off previously. Table 5.6 provides some common examples of sequential usage. Students very often start an activity on a mobile device, such as smartphone or tablet and move to a less portable device such as a desktop or laptop. Alternatively, students move from one fixed device to another (such as laptop to desktop). Laptops are the most common devices to move to from other devices. Very seldom do students move from a fixed device to a more mobile device. For example, students who:

  • Begin an activity with a desktop, tend to continue on a laptop
  • Begin an activity on a laptop, tend to continue on a desktop or smartphone
  • Begin an activity on a tablet, tend to continue on a laptop or desktop
  • Begin an activity on smartphone, tend to continue on a laptop, desktop or tablet

Simultaneous usage refers to students using more than one device at a time for learning. Usually, this usage is complementary, where students make use of different devices to achieve the same learning goal. Occasionally, students can make use of multiple devices simultaneously for multi-tasking activities. Usually students make use of two devices together, but in some cases students can even make use of three devices at the same time. Table 5 provides some common examples of simultaneous usage. In addition to the devices, students may also make use of printed materials as well. Students make use of a wide variety of different devices together, based on the learning activities, location and device access. The most common devices used for simultaneous learning are:

  • Laptop and smartphone
  • Laptop and tablet
  • Desktop and laptop
  • Desktop and smartphone

This list reinforces the importance of the laptop as the central device for learning as it is the device most used in conjunction with other devices.

Table 5.6

Examples of common activities performed using multiple devices

Multi-device Learning Common Devices Used Together Examples of Use
Sequential Usage

 

 

Desktop -> Laptop
  • Start a learning activity at work using a desktop and continue the activity later on at home using a laptop.
Desktop -> Tablet
  • Search for materials to read using a desktop and then read these materials later on a tablet.
Smartphone -> Laptop
  • Begin to read materials on a smartphone while travelling home and then continue to read the materials on a laptop at home.
  • Read forum messages on a smartphone while travelling home and then post a reply using a laptop at home.
Simultaneous Usage

 

Laptop/Desktop + Tablet
  • Take notes using a laptop or desktop while watching a video at the same time on a tablet.
  • Write an assignment using a laptop while reading materials at the same time on a tablet.
Laptop + Smartphone
  • Use an instant messaging tool (e.g. WhatsApp) on a smartphone to communicate with a fellow student while preparing an assignment using a laptop.
  • Read materials on a laptop and search for the meaning of a term or concept using a smartphone.

Supporting Students using Multiple Devices for Learning

In order for students to make effective use of multiple devices for learning, they require support from educational institutions and educators. This support can be in the form of changing how learning experiences are designed and how learning support is provided to students. Learner support incorporates both pedagogical/academic and technical support. The first step is for educators to realise that students are making use of different devices for learning and to understand what devices students are using and how they are using them. This is not an easy task as devices and patterns of use will change over time. For example, smartphones and tablets did not exist 10 years ago. Not all students will have access to all the different devices. However, educators can begin by making a few key changes in the design and support of learning. The study patterns and habits of students are changing due to the influence of these devices and technologies and the opportunities they bring. This may prompt educators to examine how they design learning experiences and move beyond the traditional and dominate teaching methods at universities and explore alternative pedagogies (Farley et al., 2015). The following recommendations are made for supporting students using multiple devices for learning:

  • Multi-format of learning resources: Learning materials should be made available in different formats (text, audio and video) and file formats (pdf, doc, epub, etc.) accessible from different devices. As students use multiple devices with different operating systems, materials need to be accessible in a variety of ways (Farley et al., 2015, Ferran-Ferrer et al., 2014).
  • Design of learning activities based on device features: Educators can design learning activities for students to make use of the features of different devices. For example, instead of only writing an assignment, students can take pictures or video using a device camera, or record audio using a voice recorder.
  • Consider student usage of different devices together in the design of learning activities: Educators can design learning activities that enable students to use devices together. For example, educators can design materials that have certain break points, where students can stop and then easily continue from where they left off at a later stage. Educators could also create audio content / podcasts for students in metropolitan areas to listen to during commutes.
  • Accessibility of University Learning Environments: University VLEs or webpages should be accessible from a variety of devices. There are different options available to education institutions from responsive design, a mobile-friendly version or dedicated apps (Farley et al., 2015).
  • Recommendations of useful apps: Educators can recommend to their students the use of specific university or general apps that support student learning. These can include assessment apps, voice recorders, social media and cloud storage apps (Ferran-Ferrer et al., 2014).
  • Technical Support: Adequate technical support is necessary for students to effectively use their devices for learning (Cheung 2012).

Appendix 5.1 provides a checklist for educators to consider the different aspects of students learning with the support of multiple devices. The checklist can help educators plan, design and evaluate learning experiences and support provision for students learning with multiple devices.

Conclusion

One of the advantages of widespread access to technologies is that students are able to extend the continuity of learning experiences across different settings. This exemplifies seamless learning, where students are able to easily continue with their studies across times, locations, technologies and social settings (Wong, 2015). This is facilitated by the use of different electronic devices, internet connectivity and cloud services. This chapter showed that ODL students have access to multiple devices (both fixed and mobile) and frequently use these devices for learning (usually separately, but sometimes together). The usage of these devices for learning depends on the device characteristics, the learning activities undertaken and the locations of use. Although individual students use devices in different ways and these devices will change over time, several patterns of use can be identified that show changes in the study habits of distance/online students. Students perceive laptops to be central devices for study, while mobile devices are used in specific contexts related to the task at hand and the functionality of the device. The chapter proposes the multi-device framework for learning that explores the intersections between multiple devices, locations and learning activities. Students mainly use each device separately, but sometimes make use of different devices together, either sequentially or simultaneously. Educators need to consider both the physical context (location) as well as the intentional context (purpose) of how students make use of different devices for learning. Learning experiences need to be designed that can be facilitated across and between different devices and support the needs of students. The proposed framework is provided to optimise the use of multiple devices for teaching and learning, for both educators and learners to be able to take advantage of flexible and seamless learning. Future research will look at evaluating the proposed framework by considering the use or adoption of the framework by educators.