Distance Learning Enters Mobile Age with Smartphones, Tablets

University of Leicester took a unique step to make sure that every student taking advantage of its distance learning MSc course in security, conflict and international development has a good way of keeping up with their studies – it issued each one of them an iPad. Now each student can download the school-designed app that includes course materials and continue along with the lessons even when they don’t have access to the internet for weeks at a time.

Professor Adrian Beck who heads the university’s department of criminology said that this was a 21st century solution to the 21st century problem. Students who sometimes spend time in places like refugee camps in post-conflict countries needed a better way to carry their books and notes than a bunch of papers and bulky texts.

The solution was to give every student on the course a free iPad, on to which they could download a bespoke app and all the course materials. Despite concerns from the university about security and technical support, the plan has gone smoothly. A few months into the MSc, no iPads have been lost or stolen and students have responded with enthusiasm.

University of Leicester isn’t the first school in Britain to offer distance learning. The Open University has long been a pioneer in providing virtual learning environment for its students. Many who came of age in the 70s, 80s and 90s remember the late-night OU lessons broadcast on television, and the university has recently launched an app for tablets and smartphones that provides academic materials for some of their courses both on Apple and Android devices.

The OU Anywhere app also allows students to interact with each other and their tutors at any time. As The Guardian explains, that means a new level of flexibility for those who strive to combine academics with full-time jobs at the time when mobility means more than just a personal computer.

Stuart Sutherland, senior development and delivery manager at the University of Derby Online, which has recently introduced an app to allow mobile access to its VLE, thinks that the advent of free Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) is forcing traditional universities to raise their game, and to design content specifically for a mobile environment, such as short videos or podcasts. Terese Bird, a learning technologist at the University of Leicester who is evaluating the impact of tablets in distance learning, argues that mobiles can be ideal for bite-sized learning: “One benefit identified by scholars is that if you learn something in short frequent bursts, you may very well be able to learn better than doing a five-hour study spree at the weekend.”

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