Beyond Mobile Learning Design: Considering Students who Self-Initiate Mobile Device Use for Online Courses

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

As more students elect to use mobile devices for courses not designed specifically for mobile learning, challenges faced by this group should not be overlooked. The focus of this session will be on current research in this area and how institutions may support this group toward an improved student experience.


Dr. Karen Milheim’s formal training is in adult education, instructional design, and training and development; she has served in various roles in these areas over the span of her career. She has extensive experience consulting for online and traditional higher education institutions in areas such as needs assessment, course design and development, media conceptualization/development, competency mapping, and evaluation. Dr. Milheim has presented and published extensive research in areas related to adult education, online teaching and learning, and related. She has also taught at several universities in these areas as well. Dr. Milheim began her career at Walden University in the Center for Undergraduate Studies. Since then, she's held teaching and leadership roles in the Center for Student Success and Riley College of Education and Leadership. In her current role within Walden University's Commercial Operations area, she directs the training and development initiatives for all Enrollment teams.

Extended Abstract

Think for a moment about the rapid evolution of the mobile device (i.e. smart phones or tablets). What were once described as “personal digital assistants” not too long ago are now minicomputers, offering much of the same functionality as a PC or laptop at one’s fingertips. Technology advancement has influenced a continued increase in the number of students who choose to use their mobile device to engage in their online coursework. This shift illuminates the need to further explore the experiences of this group of learners, and ways institutions can support them.  Research focused on students who self-initiate mobile device use for coursework or course-related activities is minimal; yet they should not be overlooked (Vasudeva et al., 2017).

In addition to portability, students value the use of mobile devices for courses or course-related activities for a variety of reasons. Not only are they efficient collaboration and communication tools (Dabbagh et al., 2019; Heflin et al., 2017; Tang & Bradshaw, 2016), but they also allow for socialization and relationship development (Dahya & Dryden-Peterson, 2016; Jiang & Zhang, 2020 ; Sun et al., 2017). This is particularly important in online learning, where the absence of face-to-face interactions may be viewed as a missing aspect of the student experience, overall. Mobile learning (or, M-learning) considers these, and other features and benefits of mobile devices in the design of course elements. Yet, as Grant (2019) notes, the terms have been “unsystemic”, with no clear picture of the “attributes of successful mobile learners” (p.361).  Students who self-initiate mobile device use for online learning are often doing so in a course or course-related elements not necessarily designed for M-learning. Their experiences provide valuable insights to designers, faculty, and institutional leaders. Institutions focused only on M-learning, without considering wider mobile-friendly design concerns, may unknowingly create challenges or overlook barriers to the student experience for those who self-initiate mobile device use.

Presentation Format and Learning Objectives:

In this session, presenters will:

  • Provide an overview of the literature focused on students who self-initiate mobile device use in online learning;
  • Discuss key considerations in supporting learning and the overall student experience for this group; and
  • Present implications for future research.

We will begin the session with an engaging activity focused on challenges faced by students who self-initiate mobile device use in online learning. Presenters plan to further engage participants through guided discussion and a question-and-answer session.

At the end of this session, participants will be able to:

  • Describe the challenges faced by students who self-initiate mobile device use for online courses or course-related activities;
  • Identify ways they may be able to support this group of students; and
  • Consider future areas of research related to self-initiated mobile device users in online learning.


Dabbagh, N., Fake, H., & Zhang, Z. (2019). Student perspectives of technology use for learning in higher education. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación a Distancia, 22(1), 127-152.

Dahya, N., & Dryden-Peterson, S. (2017). Tracing pathways to higher education for refugees: the role of virtual support networks and mobile phones for women in refugee camps. Comparative Education, 53(2), 284-301.

Grant, M. M. (2019). Difficulties in defining mobile learning: Analysis, design characteristics, and implications. Educational Technology Research and Development67(2), 361-388.

Heflin, H., Shewmaker, J., & Nguyen, J. (2017). Impact of mobile technology on student attitudes, engagement, and learning. Computers & Education107, 91-99.

Jiang, D., & Zhang, L. J. (2020). Collaborating with ‘familiar ‘strangers in mobile-assisted environments: The effect of socializing activities on learning EFL writing. Computers & Education, 150, 103841.

Sun, Z., Lin, C. H., Wu, M., Zhou, J., & Luo, L. (2018). A tale of two communication tools: Discussion‐forum and mobile instant‐messaging apps in collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(2), 248-261.

Tang, C.M., & Bradshaw, A. (2016, October 27-28). The role of text messaging in team collaborative learning [Conference session]. European Conference on E-Learning, Prague, Czech Republic.

Vasudeva, S., Colthorpe, K., & Ernst, H. (2017, October). Student-initiated Mobile Learning in Higher Education [Conference session]. World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning.