Executive Summary: Student Mobile Computing Practices -- Lessons Learned from Qatar

Eden Dahlstrom is a Senior Research Analyst at EDUCAUSE.

Mobile computing is transforming information technology and the student learning environment in higher education. Institutions, faculty, students, and IT departments are learning how to meet the challenges of mobile computing and reap the benefits from its opportunities. In order for colleges and universities to evolve teaching practices, accurate profiles of student mobile use are needed. This study was motivated by the need to document the student voice and perspective on mobile computing. The aim was to profile students' mobile technology adoption, identify the key challenges and opportunities, and enable institutions to devise strategies for mobile learning that fit local needs.

Use of mobile devices in the Middle East is among the highest around the world, and young people have adopted this technology faster than any other segment. Education City in the Gulf state of Qatar brings together several U.S. and European institutions of higher education to teach a variety of disciplines. The vision of Qatar — as pursued by the Qatar Foundation — is to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and for Education City to lead in this effort. The institutions represented in Education City are seeing students' prolific adoption of mobile technology and wondering what strategies will benefit the teaching and learning environment, and these concerns are mirrored at higher education institutions around the globe. The Education City institutions collaborated with ECAR to jointly conduct this study on student mobile computing, and the results not only are relevant to their students' experiences but also speak to the global revolution of mobile technology in the academic environment.

Through research involving 369 student survey respondents and 26 focus groups participants at seven Education City institutions, ECAR found that students are avid users of mobile devices and are open to expanding those uses; students find mobile technology convenient and engaging; and institutions/instructors need to invest more in mobile device use and support. Some of the study's key findings are as follows:

  • Mobile devices don't supplant the standard tools—such as laptops—that students use for academic work.
  • For students, mobile technology plays an equally important role in productivity and communication.
  • Students want technology to be integrated into their academic experiences and look to faculty and campus leaders to meet this expectation.
  • Students want to better utilize mobile technology in their learning environments, including using their mobile devices as tools to create nontraditional content for course assignments, having access to course-related materials, and pushing the limits of mobile device productivity.

Despite the rapid growth of mobile device usage, standard devices (e.g., laptops) and basic software applications (e.g., office software) still dominate students' toolboxes. Even in an environment such as Education City, where students demonstrate "extreme mobility" traits, students continue to choose standard technology and tools for productivity and sourcing information. The present niche of mobile technology in higher education is in the area of communication — keeping students connected to one another, to their support network, to their instructors, and to their institutions. Embracing the use of mobile technology to engage students in their academic experiences — through efforts such as optimizing mobile screens for student-directed interfaces, encouraging faculty acceptance and adoption of mobility computing, and exploring students' interest in mobility technology on your campus — helps meet student expectations for mobile device usage. ECAR's May 2012 Student Mobile Computing Practices, 2012: Lessons Learned from Qatar provides additional insight about the relationship that students want to have with mobile technology in higher education. The results of this study have implications beyond the Middle East, as higher institutions around the world find burgeoning mobile proliferation among the populations they serve.