Creating a Fluid Learning Environment

Key Takeaways

  • By 2025, mobile natives — students born after the Apple iPhone went to market — will be entering higher education, bringing with them an era of mobile learning.
  • To successfully attract these students, institutions and faculty members must begin now to find innovative ways to transform student learning experiences with mobile devices.
  • In addition to emphasizing content consumption, performance support, and content creation in designing learning activities, institutions must shift the focus from mobile learning to fluid learning — the flow of learning between mobile and non-mobile devices.
  • Five attributes are key to successfully design content and activities for fluid learning: neutrality, granularity, portability, interactivity, and ubiquity.

Berlin Fang is director of Instructional Design at Abilene Christian University.

One of the few things my pre-teens and I have in common is the shared need for Wi-Fi. As a matter of fact, they probably need it more than I. Whenever Wi-Fi goes down at home, everyone quickly runs upstairs to unplug and reset the modem to get it back. That is the world I am living in. Although I claim to be an educational technologist, I find that I am actually a mobile immigrant dealing with mobile natives who soon will roam university campuses. By 2025, we will have the first group of students born after Apple's iPhone went to market, and will thus usher in an era of mobile learning.

Naturally, universities want to be proactive in competing for these future students. Some universities give students devices to use in school through mobile learning programs; this was a particularly popular practice between 2008 and 2010. To augment such programs, universities create apps that let students check campus maps, cafeteria menus, local restaurants, and even the availability of laundry facilities, thereby making the campus experience more enjoyable and convenient. On the educational side, mobile programs make it easier to share class rosters, so that students and faculty can more easily learn each other's names. Certain LMS features, such as discussion boards and announcements, are also sometimes available on mobile devices. Beyond this, mobile programs are exploratory at best and struggle to find a direct, positive impact on learning.

Mobile programs for learning have even inspired distrust. Administrators and faculty do not always share the same vision about mobile learning, and some resist letting students bring such devices into the classroom. Their main concern is that mobile devices distract students from learning. These concerns are legitimate: many students might lack the discipline and self-regulation required to develop healthy digital behaviors in the class or outside it. Yet, I wonder if fighting mobile device use is the optimal solution to the problem. In 2009, I suggested that, rather than fight an uphill battle with distraction, it might be more helpful to create innovative, engaging learning activities mediated through the use of mobile devices.1 Such devices have technical functions that could potentially change teaching for the better and should be embraced as opportunities for "disruptive innovation."2

Faculty members are increasingly becoming consumers of mobile devices. As they become familiar with their capabilities, they can begin to find innovative ways to transform students' learning experiences with these devices. Mobile devices become more than digital toys to attract potential students. They are increasingly being used for content consumption, performance support, and content creation.

Content Consumption

Digital reading is probably the lowest-hanging fruit for using mobile devices in learning. Five months after the release of Apple's iPhone in June 2007, Amazon released its Kindle device; two years later, Barnes and Noble released its Nook. All these devices give students the option of reading digital books. Kindle next introduced the Kindle app, which can be used on other hand-held devices or even on the computer. This lets students use their smart phones or computers to have reading experiences identical to that afforded by a Kindle device. Consuming reading materials on small-screen devices has become commonplace, and will be more so as libraries make advances in mobile access through apps such as Hoopla, which lets patrons borrow books or media using mobile phones.

Reading is not students' only "consumption" behavior; they also use their devices to read blog feeds or check microblog updates, listen to podcasts, and watch lecture videos. According to Scott Hamm,3 easy access to content reduces the cognitive load for learners in that knowledge does not always stay in the head, but it can be located "in the world" as Donald A. Norman describes in The Design of Everyday Things.4 Having materials easily available in a mobile device frees up mental bandwidth and lets students focus more on learning important concepts, while also letting the knowledge base remain, literally, in their hands or pockets.

Performance Support

Just like everyone else, educators quickly discovered that the iPad helps improve personal productivity through performance support. Not all human performance problems have to be addressed through learning; people might perform some tasks only once or twice a year. Professors, for instance, typically export and copy their courses only a few times a year, and it is unfair to expect them to internalize the steps required to complete such tasks.

iPads can create a small electronic performance support system5 to help us as we carry out tasks requiring just-in-time help. Professors could use iPads to view a video tutorial that guides them through the process of course copying, for example, just as sales consultants at Home Depot might use their phones to check a particular tool's specifications.

In addition to such instant performance support, educators can also use mobile devices to store or retrieve class instructions, syllabi, and rubrics using cloud-based storage services such as Google Drive or Dropbox. They no longer have to carry such documents around; if nothing else, this has environmental benefits in reducing paper usage.

Mobile devices also make some mundane teaching tasks more efficient. Grading and basic student communications, for instance, might be done using an iPad. At Abilene Christian University (ACU), for example, Professor Karen Cukrowski grades student papers using Notability,6 while some professors provide audio feedback to students using SoundCloud or the audio comment feature of Turnitin. Also, it is easier to compose short e-mail messages to students using a mobile device's voice input method than to type. Professors can be more efficient in completing basic tasks using the unique functions their devices have to offer. Used in this way, a device becomes a powerful tool of personal productivity.

Content Creation

Most mobile devices do more than allow the consumption of information. To take full advantage of mobile devices, we ought to examine the affordances — that is, an object's perceived property, or what the object "affords" — that each can bring. A desk, for instance, facilitates writing, while a chair is for sitting.7 An iPad enables users to use touch commands, to record audio, and to take photos or videos, among other things. These functions, along with the increasing number of user-friendly apps, make it possible for faculty and students to create content.

It is in content creation that possibilities for creativity flourish. Professors can create podcasts and use apps to create content in various media. For instance, they can use Whiteboard HD to create drawings or flowcharts, YouTube Capture to produce videos, and ShowMe to create narrated demonstration or presentations. Also popular is composing document files using the iPad, with applications such as Pages. The laptop is still the mainstream device for such creation, but the voice input method on iPads and other smart devices promises an advantage that laptops usually lack. Students are also using iPads to do homework, including writing papers and producing media content, such as shooting and editing videos and creating other types of digital stories.

Towards Fluid Learning

Content consumption, performance support, and content creation on mobile phones have built the critical mass in mobile use in educational settings, leading to irreversible trends in learning habits.  Project Tomorrow's 2013 Speak Up Survey identified the following top 10 technology usage trends among U.S. students:

  1. Personal access to mobile devices
  2. Internet connectivity
  3. Use of video for classwork and homework
  4. Mobile devices for schoolwork
  5. Using different tools for different tasks
  6. Paying attention to the digital footprint
  7. An increased interest in online learning
  8. Gaming is growing, and the gender gap is closed
  9. Social media in schools
  10. What devices belong in "the ultimate school"?8

The first nine trends culminate in the tenth, which is curiously in the form of a question. For an answer, how about "it all depends"?  As trend five indicates, students use different tools for different tasks. Even for gaming, it is probably more enjoyable to play on a laptop with Skype turned on so you can constantly talk to other gamers. The laptop–mobile device dichotomy should not exist. In fact, both teachers and students still use computers for a variety of tasks. Some universities even have computer labs for computer-based assessments that require authentication and proctoring.

It has been seven years since Apple released the iPhone, and we seem to be observing something like a "seven-year itch" in our love for mobile learning. As smartphones become consumer products, mobile learning's hype is wearing off — mostly in a good way — and we can now discuss the business of learning, instead of the coolness of devices and applications.

Indeed, to avoid wasting social resources, schools are moving away from mandating a particular brand of device and toward the "bring your own device" (BYOD) model, which encourages students to use devices they already own. This calls for a new mobile learning paradigm: When BYOD is the norm, learning should be device agnostic and fluid across device types.

Instead of mobile learning, I call this second-generation mobile learning fluid learning, which focuses on the flow of learning between mobile and non-mobile devices, such as a desktop computers. Fluid learning is enabled by a consideration of five attributes when designing content or instructional activities: neutrality, granularity, portability, interactivity, and ubiquity.


Content must be produced to be accessible via various devices and platforms, using not what is "leading edge" or "bleeding edge" in the market but rather the more generic protocols or formats that most, if not all, devices accept. This includes using PDF files for attached content, HTML5 for web content, and YouTube or Vimeo to publish video content, so students don't have to figure out which file format plays on which device.


Educators must re-present content in smaller units when possible so that students can access them anywhere, anytime. A major benefit of mobile devices is that people can use them to fill in little gaps of time when they are waiting in line at the box office or waiting on a meal in a restaurant. Although they probably would not use this time to watch a 45-minute lecture, they might watch a one- or two-minute video demo of a concept. So, when possible, it is good to break explanations into short, discreet, and yet meaningful units. Granularity also makes it easier for users to download and replay content on various devices when Internet access is a concern.


Content must be transferable across platforms. One reason Evernote has gained popularity among educators is that users can easily access it on most smart phones and computers.  Apple's iBook, while easy to use and appealing in its interface, faces sluggish adoption because of its restriction to the Apple platform. For instance, previewing a digital book produced with iBook Author can only be done on an iPad. Although such a restriction might yield commercial benefits, it is not necessarily appreciated on a university campus, where people use a wide variety of devices.

In addition, it is often necessary to use several applications to assemble a final instructional product. Despite vendor claims, educators recognize that no single app does everything. To create dynamic content, educators must "app-smash"9 — that is, use multiple apps to create a final product. For instance, you might need to use a laptop to organize photos albums, and then sync them to an iPad and use Keynote on the iPad to create a presentation before you finally use Explain Everything to produce a narrated presentation.


Learning flows when it is active and interactive; when learning stagnates, it is finished. Using various devices not only makes content consumption and creation easier, it also creates possibilities of interaction — with content, among students, and between teachers and students. Applications such as Quizlet and Brainscape let students interact with content through retrieval and self-test, which are evidence-based learning activities that make learning "stick."10 Students can collaborate using Google Docs, which they can access on most computers and handheld devices. Some educators use Twitter or Facebook pages to interact, adding a social dimension to the classroom experience.  Educators can also interact with students using platform-neutral applications. At ACU, Professor Tim Sensing interacts with his ethnography class using Evernote, which students use to send in media-rich field notes.

Such interactions need not take place using fancy new apps; it is better to find the lowest common denominator app that everyone knows how to use. Google docs, for instance, might be just as effective as any expensive interaction software.


Fluid learning does not limit learners to the time they spend using devices. Fluid learning flows out of classrooms into multiple social contexts that provide authentic learning opportunities. The real promise of mobile devices (such as iPads) and emerging devices (such as Google Glasses) is that they might facilitate what John Traxler and Jocelyn Wishart call contingent learning, situated learning, authentic learning, context-aware learning, and personalized learning.11 Fluid learning takes learners beyond traditional learning boundaries to a variety of authentic contexts, such as museums and workplaces, where devices can augment reality and help users both interact with the contexts and process such interactions.


When designing for a BYOD learning environment, it is important to keep these five attributes in mind to create a fluid learning experience.  Fluid learning shifts attention away from mere consumption and a world where students use small-screen devices to "simply reading a homework assignment on a couch instead of at a desk."12 Focusing on these five attributes can help us avoid simple substitution: that is, providing more of the same, only on smaller screens and with more fragmentation in the learning process.

To enable fluid learning, educators must change their instructional design methods to fully utilize the benefits of various devices. Ruben R. Puentedura proposes the SAMR model (the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition model) of technology integration, which encourages educators to move from "substitution" and "augmentation" to "modification" and "redefinition" of instructional activities. As an instructional designer, I have witnessed faculty members redefining learning activities in amazing ways with multiple devices in mind. Activity redesign considers the functionality of the tools, the attributes of content as mediated through such tools, and the needs of learners. The argument over whether technology is driving education or education is dictating the selection of technology is no longer relevant. Technology and learning change each other in deep ways.

Although the BYOD learning environment is closer to the "real world" environment beyond campuses, it presents challenges for educators, who must deal with not one but a variety of devices and applications. So, rather than viewing a learning activity as a solo performance on a particular instrument, it might be best to view it as more like an orchestra, with students using their own devices to the best of their ability, while the same content flows like music through them to create the grand harmony of learning.

  1. Berlin Fang, "From Distraction to Engagement: Wireless Devices in the Classroom," EDUCAUSE Review, December 22, 2009.
  2. Clayton Christensen, Curtis. W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).
  3. Scott Hamm, "Towards a Mobile Learning Pedagogy," in Mobile Pedagogy and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning (Advances in Mobile and Distance Learning) (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2013), pp. 1–20.
  4. Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
  5. Gloria Gery, Electronic Performance Support System (Gery Assoc., 1991).
  6. Karen Cukrowski, "Grading Assignments with an iPad," blog, Adams Center for Teaching and Learning, Abilene Christian University, February 14, 2014.
  7. Norman, "The Design of Everyday Things," p. 54.
  8. Chris Riedel, "10 Major Technology Trends in Education," THE Journal, February 3, 2014.
  9. Lisa Johnson, "App Synergy: The Art Form of App-Smashing," TechChef, July 31, 2013.
    10. Peter C. Brown, Make It Stick (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  10. John Traxler and Jocelyn Wishart, eds., "Making Mobile Learning Work: Case Studies of Practice," ESCalate Education Subject Center, April 14, 2011.
  11. Colleen Carmean, Jill L. Frankfort, and Kenneth N. Salim, "The Power of the Personal: Discovering the M in M-Learning," in Handbook of Mobile Learning, Zane L. Berge and Lin Y. Muilenburg, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2013).