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Mobilizing the MOOC: A Review of Instructional Design for Mobile Learning

I recently participated in Instructional Design for Mobile Learning (IDML13), a professional development micro-MOOC hosted by Academic Partnerships using the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). I chose to enroll in this course for two reasons. First, I am a doctoral student specializing in mobile learning (mLearning), so the topic is of interest to me. Second, I had never taken a MOOC before, so I was curious to learn more about how they work. The IDML13 micro-MOOC seemed like a perfect opportunity for me. Having completed the program, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on what I liked about the course and where I see room to make it even better for the next offering.

Mobile learning and instructional design

Jenny Poole via Flickr

Mobilizing learning: Course structure

IDML13 was a micro-MOOC—micro referring to both duration and scale. The course spanned four weeks, with a week of orientation to the LMS and modes of participation and three weeks of formal content. As far as I can tell, several hundred participants enrolled in IDML13 (as opposed to the several thousand sometimes seen in some of the larger MOOCs offered by major U.S. universities). The course was led by Dr. Melissa Kaulbach (a leading educational technology specialist with over 23 years in the education industry), Robin Bartoletti (Director of Quality and Community at Academic Partnerships), Sarah Linden (Managing Editor of Academic Partnerships Faculty eCommons), and Whitney Kilgore (Academic Partnerships). Kaulbach, Bartoletti, Linden and Kilgore’s efforts brought a wealth of experience and resources and a strong sense of community to the learning environment.

The course included both synchronous and asynchronous elements. Synchronous elements included a series of live webinars featuring leading mLearning researchers and practitioners, as well as periodic “Tweet-chat” sessions. Asynchronous elements included a rich variety of background content hosted on the LMS, as well as links to multimedia tools and apps that are well-suited to mLearning integration. Participants were given the opportunity to peruse the background information, experiment with the tools in their own professional contexts, share their experiments and reflect on how such tools could improve their mLearning practice.

In order to accommodate the widest variety of collaborative tools and personal preferences, participants were encouraged to contribute to the course through the LMS or any other platform of their choice (such as Twitter or personal blog sites). However, in order to instill a deeper appreciation of effective mLearning, the course wayfinders (the MOOC term for the “coaches” who help guide participants to meet their own learning goals, as opposed to instructors who direct learning) strongly encouraged participants to access course content and complete learning tasks using their own mobile devices wherever possible.

As is typical with the MOOC format, participants were not required to complete every suggested learning task. Rather, they were encouraged to progress as per their own professional development needs, at their own pace, with a recommendation to try to complete at least one task each week. The content and learning tasks were compartmentalized, so sequential completion was not a prerequisite to pick up learning at any point in the course. While formal credentialing was not initially offered for participants in IDML13, the option to print your own certificate was provided within Canvas after popular demand.

Good connections: Strong points of IDML13

I began IDML13 with some apprehension as to whether I belonged on the participant list—whether I was perhaps overqualified to gain anything from the course. After all, I am focusing on mLearning in my doctoral studies, I have read extensively on the learning theories that are most widely referenced in the mLearning research community, and I have even tried my hand at mLearning research and published my results. However, I quickly felt very comfortable as a member of the micro-MOOC community. The course designers and wayfinders did an excellent job of engaging with every participant at their own comfort levels and levels of prior expertise. They also did a great job of teasing the experience out of participants to enrich the variety of learning opportunities available to everyone. [pullquote position=”right”]The structure of the MOOC allowed everyone—from absolute novices to experienced practitioners—to walk away rewarded for their efforts.[/pullquote]

Personally, I found the greatest satisfaction in the opportunities that IDML13 provided for me to network with fellow educators and to add a few new tools to my mLearning toolbox. The ongoing exchanges of experiences (including with the tools suggested by the wayfinders) helped me to broaden my perspectives on mLearning techniques that I could immediately integrate into my own practice. I have already adopted some of the tools and tricks that I have picked up, and I am grateful for the large number of new contacts that I have made (mostly continuing through the “Twitterverse”).

Speaking as a practitioner with a background in mLearning theory and instructional design, I was greatly impressed with the caliber of the experts who hosted the live IDML13 webinars. Attending the live sessions was a bit difficult for me (given my time zone of GMT +3), but I appreciated the recordings of the webinars. Providing those facilitates the mLearning mantra of “anytime, anywhere” learning. I was also impressed that multiple online tools were used to facilitate participation, with the level of activity under the course’s Twitter hashtag (#IDML13) and with the relative ease of content access via the Canvas LMS’s mobile app.

Dropped signals: Possibilities to strengthen Instructional Design for Mobile Learning

While I enjoyed IDML13, I cannot help but think about some of the elements that could be improved before the next offering. First and foremost, while the course is called Instructional Design for Mobile Learning, the actual elements of effective mLearning instructional design take a bit of a back seat in the core course LMS to encouraging experimentation with tools and apps. It is great to show participants the variety of tools available to them and to get them more comfortable with going mobile in their practice. But to truly move beyond being an extended “show-and-tell” session, a course like IDML13 could benefit from grounding its own instructional design around key elements discussed by leading researchers and practitioners. I fully appreciate that busy front-line practitioners need to develop their skills with practical tools, but they also need a sense of confidence that developments in mLearning instructional design principles are supported by research and established learning theories such as Activity Theory, Transactional Distance Theory , Flow theory, Connectivitism , and Social-Constructivism (to name just a few).

Focusing on Koole’s (2009) FRAME (Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education) model  could work perfectly for a three-week micro-MOOC. FRAME was developed from major learning theories and offers a succinct description of the device aspects, learner aspects and social aspects that make up any mLearning endeavor. A three week micro-MOOC could integrate a distinct unit for each of these domains. These modules could contain both background information and the opportunity to do hands-on experimenting that was seen in IDML13. Tying the modules to FRAME would help to instill a greater appreciation for not just the use of tools and apps, but also how to maximize the learning potential such resources provide.

The three week program might also benefit from opening up all three modules right from the start, instead of just one per week. That would further reduce the need for sequential course progress, and would allow participants greater flexibility to skip modules that they are not interested in (and to spend more time on areas where they need more professional development). A novice practitioner could spend a week on each module to get a grasp on all of the elements of effective mLearning design. A more experienced practitioner could devote their efforts to one area of interest (such as the social collaborative aspects of mLearning).

Additional upgrades: Further recommendations

The IDML13 micro-MOOC experience could also be further enhanced by tweeking a few technical and administrative elements. I personally enjoyed networking with new colleagues—but the lack of a participant directory within Canvas (apparently for privacy reasons) limited this community building. A simple solution might be to incorporate an “opt-out” option for a directory listing when inputting personal details at the start of the course. A number of participants noted frustrations with navigating the discussion forums when using the Canvas mobile app (specifically, automatically returning to the top of the posting lists when trying to view a post in context, and not being able to search within the postings). These are technical issues that could easily be addressed in a future update to the app.

Greater consideration should also be paid to credentialing for participants who complete the program. IDML is about understanding and embracing a new paradigm of meeting learners’ needs. That goal could be further promoted by adopting a “badging” scheme (a form of digital, verifiable credentialing used by numerous major MOOC platforms), rather than self-printable certificates.

Overall impressions

IDML13 was an excellent professional development experience, made worthwhile by its expert presenters, knowledgeable and eager wayfinders and enthusiastic participant community. The course provided the opportunity to develop mLearning skills by working hands-on in an authentic mLearning environment. I have no doubt that the overall program will be even more exciting and effective next time around, especially if attention is paid to details such as those described in this review. If you are looking to find out what mobile learning is all about, or if you want to broaden your mLearning skills and resources, the IDML micro-MOOC is a great place to start.


Robert Power (1 Posts)

Rob is currently a Doctoral Student in the Doctor of Education in Distance Education program atAthabasca University. He is also a member of theInternational Association for Mobile Learning(IAmLearn), and is currently working as the Project Manager for the 12th World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning (mLearn 2013). His research interests include mobile learning and distance education applications of information technology. You can see his e-portfolio here.