4 Key Considerations When Using Mobile Phones To Support Synchronous Learning Scenarios

4 Key Considerations When Using Mobile Phones To Support Synchronous Learning Scenarios
Summary: Based on student feedback and our own trial-and-error, we have developed 4 key tips for successful integration of mobile phones in both distance-mode and face-to-face learning contexts.

What To Consider When Using Mobile Phones To Support Synchronous Learning Scenarios

A recent infographic on this website highlighted that 87% of Millennials have their smartphone by their side at all times. The prevalence of such a powerful, web-connected, pocket-sized computer would have seemed fanciful even 20 years ago.

Now that the device has become commonplace in students’ lives, there is an opportunity for both distance-mode and face-to-face lessons to embrace mobile phones for learning (Sarrab & Elbasir, 2016).

Indeed, mobile learning has the potential to speed up the education sector’s transition away from traditional lecture-style teaching and towards collaborative critical thinking and problem-solving (Ellis, 2015; Wallace, 2011). Students’ lackluster attitudes towards such traditional modes of teaching are enough to highlight the need to continue to pursue methods for more effectively engaging students. Students’ familiarity and enthusiasm for mobile phones offer an opportunity to progress this individualized, student-centered, and active technology-enhanced learning.

We have explored this potential of mobile phones for learning in one UK University using Collaborate Ultra and Socrative apps. Here are 4 key tips for successful integration of mobile phones in both distance-mode and face-to-face learning contexts:

1. Value Anonymity

One of the most important factors for using mobile phones in classes is confidentiality. Students like to keep their responses to questions hidden from peers so that they do not feel embarrassed with their response. The potential for public humiliation significantly decreases student enthusiasm for any mobile phone task. For students, the best learning experience is when the responses are kept anonymous.

In our attempts at using the Collaborate Ultra app, tasks where students’ names appeared on the ‘Chat Box’ rendered significantly poorer enthusiasm than anonymous tasks. In subsequent interviews with students about their experiences with Collaborate Ultra, fear of public humiliation was highlighted as a key downside of engaging in the chat box activities.

While anonymity increases students’ engagement, there is the potential that anonymized mobile phone activities might fail to adequately provide the teacher with formative details about individual students’ learning development. To address this, educators could select apps that can provide feedback reports for teachers’ eyes only.

2. Select Apps Wisely

App selection is dependent on the needs of the task. It is important to determine the learning needs of students and select apps that are catered to the type of learning that will be taking place.

Collaborative co-creation of knowledge requires apps that involve on-screen knowledge sharing. We delivered co-creation lessons through Collaborate Ultra – a common distance education lecture tool that has mobile learning functionality. Collaborate Ultra enables students to use lecture slides as a ‘shared space’ for doodling and writing comments.

For more individualized learning, game and quiz apps such as Socrative allow teachers to develop tests for students. One of the benefits of using Socrative is that educators can check students’ knowledge before or after the learning experience. Results can be obtained immediately after students have responded with their answer. This then can be created into a report where the progress of each student can be viewed. This also works towards addressing anonymity concerns laid out in our first point.

3. Make Mobile Phone Integration Flow

The use of apps to break up lessons and support knowledge consolidation can sustain student attention and interest. Our students reported a desire for apps to become naturalized elements of a well-flowing lesson in order to sustain their interest.

Interestingly, the students in our study emphasized that they still valued teacher guidance and information ‘delivery’. They felt that teacher storytelling, anecdotes, and explanations remained a valuable aspect of their university experience.

However, following cognitive-constructivist theories of learning (Jonassen, 2008; Sweller, 2010), we also believe delivery of too much information at once can put a strain on students’ working memory. In particular, when using apps in lecture-style contexts, students embraced the opportunity to break-up the traditional didactic lecture style with online quizzes in order to ‘catch up’ and ‘consolidate’.

The provision of mobile phone activities based on lesson content at regular intervals can be valuable, therefore, in helping effectively space lessons. Well-integrated mobile activities can enable learners to pause, consolidate, and apply new knowledge.

What we have found works well, therefore, is the development of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014) between teacher-led modeling and student-led mLearning activities, in which the mobile phones become an integral element of the learning. We came to see mobile phone integration in learning as needing to move away from being a novelty activity, and towards it becoming an integrated, natural and free-flowing part of everyday classes.

4. Plan For Battery Failure

Battery life is one of the key barriers that prevent students from using mobile phones in synchronous learning tasks. In our study, students often reported avoiding engaging in interactive activities because of the amount of battery life some of our apps soaked up whilst running.

Something to remember is that students will often turn up to a learning scenario with half- or quarter-full batteries, especially if it is late in the day.

Several methods can be used to preserve a phone’s battery life. In face-to-face classes, activities can be planned to be conducted in peer groups. This approach mitigates technology issues when one student’s phone breaks down. Similarly, educators can provide apps that are usable both on mobile and other personal devices, to give students a backup option.

Further, we found that encouraging students to reduce screen brightness and providing charging points for on-campus classes supported mLearning integration.


Mobile phones have become a commonplace technology in the pockets of students in colleges and universities across the world. These pocket-sized web-connected computers carry with them significant potential for enhancing students’ experiences both in distance-mode and face to face learning.

This article reflects on a project in which mobile phones were implemented in classes in one university in the United Kingdom. Based on feedback gathered from the students in our study, we argue that educators need to consider: respecting students’ anonymity, selecting apps wisely, ensuring phone integration enhances lesson flow, and considering technological limits such as battery life. These 4 key considerations for using mobile phones in synchronous learning scenarios would be valuable for educators considering implementing mobile phone apps in their learning.



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