Learners and Mobile Devices

Incorporating m-learning into learning and teaching in the cross-faculty Culture and Society paper

Carol NeillStephen CoxKeri-Anne WikiteraDebbie Corder


Our team’s part in this project has been centred on developing a new, faculty-wide paper which would provide a basis for learning about culture and society for all undergraduate degree programmes at Auckland University of Technology. The opportunity was presented by bringing together a team of experienced tertiary teachers and developing new pedagogical, engagement and assessment approaches.The paper development team established a collective willingness to break out of traditional delivery and assessment practices and to trial new modes of engagement and tools for teaching and learning activities. The support provided through the #NPF14LMD project empowered us to be bold in this regard. Consequently, a number of new practices have been trialled over 2015 (in two consecutive semesters) that have sought to incorporate and engage with digital and mobile learning in the Culture and Society (C&S) paper.

This paper provides some explanation of the context of the C&S paper’s development, reflects on the experiences of the staff and students in using the online and digital tools so far, and summarises some learnings that have been gained and will continue to inform its  development.

Objectives and strategies

The C&S paper was developed around an agreed set of objectives that informed the learning outcomes for the paper. These were created to reflect the expected part that the paper would play in curriculum across the Faculty, and for what it sought to achieve for the students themselves:Ideas and perspectives across all disciplines as well as from specific disciplines were drawn on to expose students to critical ways of thinking and understanding. This was not just about building knowledge, but providing a grounding for students’ future academic, professional, personal development and engagement as citizens. This also meant providing learning and teaching environments within which students could safely explore their own views, engage readily with others, and develop a conscious understanding of their learning process.

Students would then be empowered to build intercultural competence, enabling awareness of other perspectives and gaining adaptability for effective interaction with others of different orientations in the world (Byram, 2008).

The pedagogical approach was accordingly experiential, seeking inclusivity as well as providing opportunities in a variety of modes for student/teacher and student/student engagement. It was important to the team that the students be able to learn both individually and collectively. Accordingly, the team sought ways to ensure that engagement opportunities in the paper were optimised, both in face to face and virtual spheres. Establishing a platform for engagement through digital and online tools became imperative for supporting the paper objectives.

The use of online and mobile technology tools in the Culture and Society paper was accordingly driven by pedagogy. The team established a learning and teaching schedule which provided space and time for discussion, sharing and workshop activities. However, with large student cohorts of 300+ students across 12 streams (in the first semester), and over 150 students across 5 streams (in the second semester), it was necessary to provide platforms by which students from across all classes could engage as easily as possible with each other.

An online Google community was established to provide a portal for sharing student work through community posts, blogs and shared resources through the Google Drive. This platform was decided upon as one which would provide students a supportive, real time and easy access portal for engagement through their own mobile devices to share ideas and develop understanding through viewing each other’s work.

Reflections on experiences

Staff perspectives; decision making and capability building

Digital and online media were observed by the staff development team as providing solutions for managing interaction across a large student cohort. It was planned that students would submit their work via the Google community so that it was displayed for all members to view. This made sharing across all of the group and different tutorial streams easy; something that would otherwise have been very difficult to do in physical terms.

The design-based research approach (Reeves, Herrington, & Oliver, 2005) nested within a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) provided a framework for ongoing embedded professional development for all the staff involved in teaching the C&S  paper. The approach provided a basis for constant reflection on the intricate facets of learning and technology and the use of innovative mobile social media tools in the paper. It also afforded the staff opportunities to explore and experience mobile social media tools such as Google+ Communities, blogging and creative alternatives to PowerPoint presentations.  Effective student-centred social constructivist pedagogies enabled staff development where they could move beyond traditional teaching practices and explore and actualise contemporary pedagogies.

The staff Google community was developed as a platform for communication, sharing and reflection on the teaching process on a regular basis beyond the weekly meetings. This allowed team members to ‘practise’ with the new tools, thereby building an understanding of the system, pedagogical affordance and readiness for effective use with the students in class. Staff built their individual and collective capabilities in iPads, tablet and smartphones. The staff engagement platform also maintained the community of practice and enabled staff to build ideas that continuously evolved through discussion and reflection, in turn, helping inform the overall learning and teaching process.

The approach ensured that students became collaborative partners in the learning process. The close collaborative teaching approach enabled the team members to elicit regular student feedback on the learning process and the use of technology in the tutorial sessions. This helped the team to evaluate and revisit teaching elements of the paper on an ongoing basis.

Student experiences

To meet the paper objectives it was important for students to share their work. The first ‘photo board’ assignment required students to present a picture (with a 50-word caption) which depicted their view of certain concepts of culture and identity. Sharing and viewing each other's photos and captions provided the basis for the first substantive writing assignment in which students were asked to reflect on how the experience affected their own thinking and perceptions The students’ reflections indicated that:The sharing of the photos was designed to push students outside of their ‘comfort zone’, as they were required to produce work for their peers rather than just for teachers. This presented the opportunity for students’ work to be a tool for engagement and further learning than just an assessment product. In a few cases, students expressed discomfort with this process, but strategies were pursued to ameliorate this, such as discussing the privacy of the community and the need for respect of others’ views. Also, staff discussed with students that they should present only as much information about themselves as they felt comfortable sharing, which also presented opportunities for discussion about how online profiles are publicly constructed and maintained, compared with how much people show and share of themselves privately.Students engaged well in these conversations and appeared to gain confidence in sharing online, and with peers, from them.

For some, the sharing of views through the online community and in class also provided  inspiration and/or appeared to empower students to make their own contributions, particularly in making decisions about what they would portray as their view of their culture and identity. Many students expressed at first that they were challenged in establishing whether they even had a culture or personal identity, but in seeing what others presented, they found ideas they could relate and compare to. A number of comments were made by students that they had a much better sense of their culture and identity by the end of the paper.

The two reflective writing activities were designed to foster students’ critical awareness and deep learning, both in relation to showing their understanding of concepts and their exploration and explanation of their own thought and analysis processes. Students were required to record and explain their representations of specific concepts of culture, identity, human rights and historical influences in society. In a final reflective writing piece, they were asked to reflect on their overall learning in the paper conceptually, personally and in relation to broader social and cultural contexts and issues that had been examined.

There were some challenges around the language used in writing blogs. This highlighted the challenge of writing instructions for reflective writing pieces that provided clear instructions and assessment explanation, while at the same time enabling students to be creative in how they presented and reflected on their views.

The personal nature of reflection did appear to challenge some students in terms of sharing with others, and even for some to question its usefulness as an academic exercise. To address these issues, private blogs were offered where they could share them only with their tutor. However, a fairly low proportion took this up. To address the second criticism, staff sought to review the instruction exercises and to provide more explanation to students of how reflective writing as an academic writing genre complements the paper objectives. Most students appeared to become more comfortable with the nature of reflective writing when they could discuss those issues.

Learnings and reflections for future development

In general, the student feedback has been very positive, with particular students identifying their enjoyment of using the online platforms, for example;
The best aspects of this paper for me was the photo board as this allowed various different points of perspectives from students to be viewed in google plus. As well as the reflection part of the paper, I found helpful as it made us think about our task and how we learned about different theories in this paper, and how it can be applied in daily life to different people. (Student J, Sem 1 2015)
All aspects! From the Google+ online community to having guest lecturers come and teach. This paper was really interesting and allowed students to interact with one another online and face-to-face. I enjoyed this paper very much. It also made me think in ways I've never thought before in relation to culture and modern society. (Student K, Sem 1 2015).

Staff reflections and review of paper

In summary, staff found the Google tools to work, especially in how the community provides an easy interface for sharing student work such as the photo board. It is also straightforward to provide links to resources in a shared Google drive. However, there have been some challenges - the volume of ‘traffic’ with a large community of students can make communications such as comments or questions to staff quite complicated to deal with. It is believed that this could be made more simple by creating ‘categories’ within the community for different content, but this has so far proved to be difficult to manage. As the Google interface is updated, staff will look for solutions to enable student engagement to be as straightforward as possible.

The review strategies have proved the enthusiasm, commitment and dedication of staff for proactively seeking ways to improve their own pedagogical practice for the betterment of their students. Incorporating the digital and online platforms in their teaching practice has been important in this regard. The team have recognised the importance of engaging with social media both as a teaching tool and as a phenomenon that academics cannot ignore in today’s world. The use of mobile technologies and digital, online platforms in teaching this paper has therefore provided an important basis for developing a critical understanding of technology’s role in today’s society and cultures. It is imperative that reflection, consolidation and improvement in this learning and teaching practice continues.


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