Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mobile Apps for Higher Education Videos

There has been a lot of discussion over the last year or so on the Web over the merits of using tablets and apps within education, more notably primary and secondary schools. In higher education there have been various initiatives to encourage staff and students to get more value from their smart devices going beyond the stock use of email, calendar and Social Media. Yet there is an increasingly growing conversation on the Web that the tablets have not changed learning and teaching in the way they were heralded a couple of years ago. Some academics are reaping the benefits of their mobile devices by using a multitude of apps, but from my own personal experience these are in the minority. Part reason for this is there are still only a small number of good quality academic apps out there, or ones that can be applied to higher education. 

Again for the most part staff are using their devices as bigger screen versions of their smartphones to access emails and calendars with some taking and reading notes. Tablets represent a great example of the Gartner Hype Cycle, although according to the technology forecasters we were on the slope of enlightenment a year ago and probably should be somewhere near the plateau of productivity any time soon. It may be the case for many uses for tablet devices, as I said school education, there are no shortage of useful apps for kids (when you remove the U.S biased ones), in addition to apps on cooking, consuming, playing and communicating. Whilst some of these can be applied to higher education, the list of really useful, mass-appealing academic apps remains just a handful and rarely used by most academics and students. The reasons for this lack of uptake is many, that some of the apps are no good, poorly designed or just do not do enough compared to their desktop/laptop counterparts; that it could be argued that the app was created for the sake of having an app. That staff and students do not invariably have the time to explore these apps beyond the ones key to their work, email, calendar, PDF reader and those they are instructed to use institutionally, Turnitin, Pebblepad etc. There are of course exceptions to these rules and communities, student doctors use tablets increasingly to diagnose patients and check medications, whilst for anyone working out in the field, archaeologists, engineers and suchlike there is greater uptake. For the majority of mostly office and lecture-theatre based academics and their students there is still so way to go before they truly do reach the heady heights on the plateau of productivity.

Whilst tablets will increasingly seep into our working environment there needs to be a better understanding of not only how they work, how to stay safe using them and maintaining them but what apps are out there and how can they be employed within a university environment; in a streamlined process rather than just for the sake of it. The reality is that most apps have very small learning curves and are often just lightweight versions of software packages, that an awful lot of them are free and some are hidden gems not always spotted by certain communities. Take Evernote for example, the tablet version allowing for note, image and audio capture are perfect for students in classrooms and academics at conferences, yet many do not apply an academic use for it beyond taking meeting notes. 


The Evernote issue is understandable as with many applications it often takes a colleague or friend to explain and show the benefits of using a certain technology. It very much feels like the period shortly after Web 2.0 had arrived in 2005, and a couple of years later when innovative platforms like Prezi, Mendeley, Dropbox and Twitter appeared and where starting to gain popularity, yet the academic uptake was still fairly low. The reason behind that takes us back to the Hype Cycle again and reasons behind many technology adoptions, that users are wary of new technologies, cannot afford them, do not have the time to explore them and can often feel overwhelmed by them, the same is happening again but on a bigger scale as we have more platforms than before.


With regards to apps there have been Initiatives at our own institution through workshops, short seminars and such as the App Swap Breakfast idea. Another option is by making short videos that not only explain an app's use but also that it exists in the first place, awareness at least opens the mind to the possibilities. At present I have created just seven short videos hosted on the Information Resources YouTube channel and later on the University's iTunes U, but the intention is to create more. The videos explain briefly Evernote, BibMe, Harvard Easy Referencing, Mendeley, Readability and Browzine - the series can be viewed here.


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