Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning: A Collaborative Study

Key Takeaways

  • Mobile devices provide new opportunities to support student learning in addition to their more common entertainment uses of watching video or listening to music.
  • The NGLC-funded Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning project is a cooperative effort between faculty members at multiple institutions of higher learning aimed at determining how to effectively incorporate mobile devices into the curriculum.
  • Research into effective use of media resources provided on mobile devices continues, especially in science lab environments, with results expected to guide future efforts.

Students arrive on campus with smart phones that can be used as a tool to deliver essential course content in addition to their use as communication tools. Many university students already use mobile devices for entertainment content delivery, watching YouTube videos, listening to music, and taking and sending photographs. Because mobile devices open the door to new learning opportunities, rigorous research into effective methods of incorporating these devices in the curriculum is essential. The Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning (MEIBL) project aims to harness the capabilities of mobile devices for the purposes of learning. From the beginning of the project we have attempted to:

  • Track patterns in student usage
  • Learn how use of mobile technology in laboratory classes affects instructor-student interactions
  • Track student assessment outcomes

The project aims to determine the best ways higher education can leverage mobility to increase learning opportunities for students. It arises from ongoing work in general chemistry laboratories at Abilene Christian University (ACU) using mobile devices (see Figure 1).

Powell Figure 1
Figure 1. Chemistry Podcast prepared at Abilene Christian University

Before the introduction of a mobile learning initiative on the ACU campus, we had been working on incorporating guided inquiry approaches in our curriculum. The move toward guided inquiry grew out of a conviction that the current research literature points toward a significant increase in student engagement and in deeper learning outcomes when students have more control over their learning environment.1 In the midst of revamping the curriculum, ACU's mobile learning initiative was announced: all entering freshmen would receive an iPhone or iPod touch for use as an academic tool, with the goal of student body saturation in 3–4 years. Faculty members were encouraged to dream about ways that these devices could be used to facilitate learning.

Fostering Laboratory Competency in Freshman Chemistry

One of the difficulties we had encountered in implementing inquiry-based chemistry experiments was the uneven high school laboratory experience of our entering freshmen. We could not assume a standard level of laboratory competency and had to spend valuable lab time teaching basic techniques and calculation methods.2 We decided to explore mobile support resources for chemistry lab students to address this challenge. The availability of mobile devices that could deliver audio/video content as well as written documents on an as-needed basis offered a possible solution to the difficulty of providing differential instruction. The added bonus of the constant accessibility of any online resources during lab via mobile devices also gave us new resources to draw from in planning. In a carefully designed quasi-experimental study, we found that student performance on assessments in General Chemistry labs taught with mobile resources and those taught via traditional lecture were not statistically significantly different, but that there was a significant difference in the number of times student laboratory teams sought assistance with techniques or strategies. Students who had access to mobile resources and no laboratory lecture were able to work more independently and with confidence in the inquiry-based laboratory setting and were performing at the same level as students taught using a traditional pre-laboratory lecture.3 The potential for innovation and collaborative and independent learning experimentation offered by using mobile devices in the laboratory setting appears unlimited.4

In Figure 2, Dr. Cynthia Powell of ACU explains the use of inquiry-based learning in a chemistry lab setting and the subsequent introduction of video resources on mobile devices. The video training helps students learn lab tasks as needed.

Figure 2. Dr. Cynthia Powell Explains MEIBL (3:46 minutes)

Departments in the STEM disciplines for many years have used video resources in addition to laboratory manuals or locally prepared documents to provide information on laboratory techniques and procedures. These resources have often been posted on a department or course website intended for use as pre-laboratory preparation. We saw a two-fold advantage with the introduction of mobile technology:

  • First, the availability of both video and written materials on demand while in the lab would give students the ability to check the appropriate technique and review information about procedures when questions arose in the process of conducting an experiment, going beyond what a printed laboratory manual or document can provide.5 We felt this could give students a confidence boost as they worked, break the cycle of depending on an instructor for routine information, and allow more time for discussion of the important concepts instructors try to communicate.
  • Second, with the growing availability of user-friendly software programs for screen capture and video editing, faculty could more easily prepare their own audio/visual resources to specifically address the techniques and methods students need to use the equipment in their laboratory lockers. The result is a more narrowly targeted resource that eliminates extraneous information and is brief, direct, and more likely to be used as an on-the-spot reference.

In the initial steps of introducing use of mobile devices in our laboratories, we learned many lessons about patterns of student use of resources and how to prepare and deploy effective resources.6 Faculty members were polled to gather information about the most useful topics for short video podcasts. The podcasts were reviewed by a focus group before deployment and edited based on feedback to assure that presentations were clear, concise, and accurate. Research on student use during the first years of podcast deployment taught us that students had to be trained to go to the video resources; they had the habit of asking for help before searching for answers. Assessment in laboratory courses that required knowledge and understanding of laboratory techniques and manipulative skills helped focus students on the importance of accurately using those techniques.

As students adjusted to the new platform, feedback was positive. In one evaluation of student laboratory technique we compared technique performance of students taught via live laboratory lecture with accompanying written explanation and those taught via podcast. Podcast-instructed students performed at or above the level of students taught a comparable technique via traditional laboratory lecture. This outcome gives us confidence that the podcast approach is providing training students need in a format that is more accessible.7

Assessment Through Collaboration

The next step in learning how students adapt to the MEIBL approach is to assess their engagement and depth of learning. At ACU, curriculum development continues. General Chemistry podcasts and other resources are being updated, and laboratory assessments are being adjusted to push students toward deeper understanding. In addition, as participants in a Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) grant, ACU is partnering with principal investigators at two other institutions, California University of Pennsylvania (Cal U) and Del Mar College (DMC).8

The NGLC grant gives us the opportunity to test the scalability of the MEIBL approach in new settings and in additional STEM disciplines. ACU is a private institution with a predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class student demographic. Our partner institutions are implementing the MEIBL approach with student populations that include a higher percentage of minority students and students who are economically disadvantaged. At ACU MEIBL is used primarily in chemistry instruction, but at each of the other institutions biologists lead the MEIBL teams. The ultimate goal is to use MEIBL to foster increased student engagement, independence, and persistence to course completion with deeper learning outcomes at each institution.

A significant strength of the MEIBL project is that it combines existing successful strategies, methodologies, and technologies. To establish a level of sustainability for the project, a weeklong workshop was conducted using the "train the trainer" approach to equip faculty at ACU, DMC, and Cal U to deploy the MEIBL strategy and to assist in preparing other faculty at their respective institutions to use MEIBL. During the workshop ACU instructional designers produced podcasts and additional resources for development of an online asynchronous course on the MEIBL approach that will be open to the higher education science community for investigation, analysis, and feedback.9 The opportunity to work with colleagues in various STEM disciplines has been a valuable experience because we each bring different perspectives to the table and have different challenges in implementation.

MEIBL at Cal U

At Cal U the MEIBL approach has been deployed in Genetics, a course taken by all biology and environmental science majors. The inquiry-based curriculum has been in place for several years, and faculty developed a series of video podcasts that cover core techniques. Special challenges in implementation are the large number of nontraditional and commuting students and students without home Internet access. To address this difficulty, all students enrolled in the course received an iPod touch, with iPads available to use during class.

Although Genetics is not an entry-level course, Cal U students show variations in the amount of laboratory experience due to differences in the course sequence requirements for each major. An attractive aspect of the MEIBL approach in the Cal U environment is that it provides a means of supporting students with different degrees of expertise and allows them to view video podcasts when they reach the point of needing to learn a new technique. This circumvents the difficulties associated with either demonstrating all techniques at the beginning of the laboratory or waiting until most of the class is ready to move on before demonstrating a new technique.

During the fall 2011 semester Cal U offered two Genetics laboratory sections; one taught using the MEIBL approach and one using the same inquiry-based curriculum paired with traditional lecture/demonstration. Comparison of data for these two cohorts will allow assessment of the impact of the MEIBL approach on the depth of student learning and engagement.


In the spring 2006 semester at DMC, biology classes for majors began using inquiry-based laboratory exercises. The students reported that they developed a better conceptual understanding of data collection and processing of data using statistics than they did in their traditional bio-statistics class. From these beginnings faculty at DMC have worked to deliver enhanced inquiry-based experiences to beginning undergraduates in the classroom in an effort to expose them to the excitement of true scientific discovery as early as possible. Biology students at DMC are experiencing the MEIBL strategy for teaching laboratory techniques and concepts for the first time during the fall 2011 semester.

The MEIBL-earmarked DMC laboratory courses are using iPads preloaded with podcasts demonstrating critical laboratory techniques. Weekly assessments during the first weeks of implementation indicate that the vast majority of students (over 95 percent) strongly agree that the podcasts covering lab techniques are a valuable resource. Faculty and student assistants have noted an elevated level of student excitement and engagement in the MEIBL courses compared to the traditionally mentored science labs. In the long term the DMC MEIBL project team believes MEIBL will engage DMC students and faculty in a common experiment, building a student-faculty community with shared laboratory resources and expertise.

Assessing the Results

Across partner institutions, evaluation of student outcomes will involve measuring learning approaches10 and academic performance. Along with weekly ratings of lab experiences, faculty and students will complete end-of-semester surveys assessing perceptions of program success. Comparison of MEIBL and traditionally structured class sections will be examined at each institution as available, with respect to course completion rates and stability of program enrollment. Cross-institutional comparisons will also be calculated for each assessment methodology.

Data collected during the duration of the NGLC grant should provide insight into the viability of the MEIBL strategy in diverse settings with students from variety of demographic groups. Each partner institution has plans to continue emphasizing student-centered learning environments that encourage deep learning. The DMC-MEIBL project team hopes to leverage mobile learning devices to give students wider access to the basic course content, allowing the classroom to emphasize the core competencies and key concepts. Cal U faculty from a wide array of STEM disciplines are piloting podcasts and considering how they can incorporate inquiry-based instruction to enhance learning. Faculty at ACU continue to fine-tune the MEIBL approach in General Chemistry courses and are gradually introducing elements of the MEIBL approach in upper division courses and chemistry courses for non-majors.

The NGLC granting agency has given the principal investigators at the three institutions the opportunity to spend dedicated time developing curriculum and resources and has provided expertise including assessment support through Stanford Research Institute (SRI) International to assist us as we pursue our goal. We look forward to sharing what we learn during this year of focused research. The initial results look promising.

  1. Mary B., Nakhleh, John Polles, and Eric Malina, "Learning Chemistry in a Laboratory Environment," in Chemical Education: Towards a Research-based Practice, John K. Gilbert, Onno De Jong, Rosária Justi, David F. Treagust, and Jan H. Van Driel, Eds. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), pp. 69–94.
  2. Laura B. Bruck and Marcy H. Towns, "Preparing Students to Benefit from Inquiry-Based Activities in the Chemistry Laboratory: Guidelines and Suggestions," Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 86, No. 7 (July 2009), pp. 820–822.
  3. Mary Cynthia Barton Powell, Podcast Effectiveness as Scaffolding Support for Students Enrolled in First-Semester General Chemistry Laboratories, PhD thesis (Denton, TX: UNT Libraries, 2010).
  4. See the "Abilene Christian University: 2008–09 Mobile-Learning Report" (2009) and ACU ConnectEd.
  5. James R. Yocom and Gretchen L. Anderson, "Production of Effective Media for iPods in the Organic Chemistry Teaching Laboratory,"Abstracts of Papers, 237th ACS National Meeting, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, March 22-26, 2009, CHED-016.
  6. Powell, Podcast Effectiveness.
  7. Ibid.
  8. To find more information, see Next Generation Learning Challenges (2010).
  9. See, 2011.
  10. See also the approaches and study skills inventory for students (ASSIST) deep learning subscale as discussed by Hilary Tait, Noel J. Entwistle, and Velda McCune, "ASSIST: A Re-conceptualization of the Approaches to Studying Inventory," in Improving Students as Learners, Chris Rust, ed. (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, The Oxford Center for Staff and Learning Development, 1998).