Designing for Mobile Learning

By Alfred Siha, DEd

What is Mobile Learning?

Mobile learning takes place when students use mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, as primary devices in their learning environment. Because of their unique user interface and user experience, mobile devices are notably different from a laptop or a netbook in a few important ways:

  • Mobile devices are truly mobile! In other words, our students can carry these devices anywhere they go and oftentimes, in the case of smartphones, carry them in their pockets.

  • Mobile devices make use of wifi and cellular networks and are constantly connected, allowing our students to receive unique notifications from various apps, thus replacing email communication with our students (not like they read their emails, anyway).

  • Mobile devices have easy-to-use cameras that allow students to create at any moment.

  • Mobile devices have access to a world of apps, whether it be Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play store.

Build  Tech Lessons Into Your Classes

It is easy to assume that our students know exactly how to use mobile technology for academic purposes. Oftentimes, this is not true. According to Dr. Nicole Kraft of Ohio State University, assuming our students are digital natives is a myth. It is important to take time to assess your students' familiarity of mobile technology and build in mini lessons to teach your students how to use mobile apps for academic purposes. In my face-to-face writing classes that make use of iPhones and iPads, I build in 15 minute lessons on major apps we use throughout the semester, such as Keynote and iMovie. After delivering demo videos to their devices through iTunes U, I give the students a low-stakes assignment to assess their digital fluency with a specific app. The low-stakes assignment mirrors the process needed to complete a larger assignment later in the semester. Once students begin creating content within certain apps, give them a chance to showcase their work informally.

Create Bite-Sized Lesson Videos

One benefit of online and mobile learning is that much of the content that is traditionally delivered via classroom lecture can be delivered to students via videos or recorded lectures. While you may have a good workflow for creating desktop quality videos, consider the consumption habits of mobile users.


Video Resolution: Mobile videos should be easily accessed and consumed. Be mindful of the file size. High definition videos will increase file size and download time. And while they will look fantastic on a desktop screen, the high resolution is not always necessary for the mobile device. When it doesn’t negatively impact the content of the video, always use lower video resolution for faster user download and stream. And while widescreen videos look fantastic on desktops, they aren’t the best for smartphone consumption. Note how social media apps like Twitter or Instagram handle video screen size. We’ve always been told to shoot our video in widescreen, but to give our students a seamless experience, consider using a square video format, like what is found in Clips.

Video Length: consider keeping mobile videos short. The viewing habits of users on mobile devices isn’t always conducive to watching long videos. Instead of one 15 minute video, consider several shorter videos with rolling captions. My students constantly tell me they access course material in public settings where audio is not always a possibility: at a hockey game, when with a group of friends, or between shifts at work. Inserting captions into your videos allows students to keep the volume off and still engage with the content.

Empower Your Students to Create

If you limit your mobile design to consumption of course material, you are missing out on allowing your students to create. When I began creating public and private iTunes U courses and teaching with iPhones and iPads, I didn’t want to use the mobile devices as paper replacements. A worksheet is still a worksheet, even if it is a PDF on a screen. I looked for ways to allow my students to create content. Mobile devices allow students to create content that is different from what they may create on a desktop. Because of the  wealth of productivity and video apps, students can use their mobile device cameras to document their learning process in a variety of engaging ways. In my developmental writing courses, I ask students to create a short video project that is paired to each essay. For example, after writing their literacy narratives, students create a short video dramatizing their narrative by making use of the Six-Word Story technique. In my college-level writing courses, I ask students to create a reflective confessional-style video discussing their writing process after each major writing assignment. If you are using Apple products in the classroom, Apple Teacher is a fantastic resource for ideas and training.

Connect Your Students with Collaboration

The primary benefit of mobile course design is that it allows students to collaborate easily. If your learning management system has a share option, make use of it. If not, make use of universal apps like Dropbox, Google Drive, Seesaw, Padlet, and share and collaborate features found in iCloud and Google Docs, for example. If you are teaching in a physical classroom, make use of projectors with mirroring capability to wirelessly share your screen to students.

Author Your Own Content

There are obvious limitations to mobile learning namely digital textbook options and mobile-friendly learning management systems. Consider authoring your own content. For all of my public and private iTunes U courses and multitouch textbooks, I used the foundation of my existing course content, but made sure it was mobile-friendly. I didn’t recreate an entire course; rather, I modified what I was already using in my classes to meet the needs of mobile users. And not only did my mobile learning students benefit. I found by focusing on what I teach, how I teach, and why I teach it that way forced me to change my teaching methods and procedures for my face-to-face classes as well. For example, I wasn’t thrilled with my physical textbook content or price (over $100!) for my developmental writing course. So I wrote my own using iBooks Author, published it on the iBooks Store that is accessible in 50 countries, and delivered it directly to my students in my face-to-face iPhone and iPad courses. I have plans to write more course-specific textbooks and even use those digital texts in my face-to-face classes in place of physical textbooks. BookCreator for iOS and Android is a great way to get started writing your own course content and publishing it in a digital format. Students can make use of BookCreator for portfolios or projects. Explain Everything is a powerful whiteboard app that allows you to create live, interactive videos that are perfect lecture replacements.

If you have an iPhone or iPad and are interested in learning more about incorporating mobile technology into your classroom, subscribe to my free iTunes U course and download my free multitouch book that offer practical lessons, how-tos, and more resources for mobile learning.


Within the last ten years, mobile technology has exploded into our classrooms and learning environments. As educators, we are not only seeing more of our students with powerful smartphones and tablets, but we are also seeing the next (few) generations using mobile technology in elementary, middle, and high school. Thousands of students across the country are given tablets and netbooks at the start of each academic year and it is only a matter of time before these young students show up in our classes. We must keep mobile design in mind when building our courses. Here are a few tips and resources to get you started.