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Media Tablets For Mobile Learning

Tablets offer hope for improving learning and collaboration but only if truly integrated into learning settings.
digital tablet drawn on blackboard
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. The Study
  4. Key Findings
  5. Implications
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Authors
  9. Footnotes
  10. Figures
  11. Tables
  12. Sidebar: Data Collection Methodology
digital tablet drawn on blackboard

As consumers continue to shift everyday activities onto personal mobile devices, organizations seek to provide similar capabilities for their employees. Introduction of the iPad in April 2010 and ensuing explosion of the worldwide media tablet market was yet another impetus to the rising importance of mobility in the enterprise. Tablets offer a sweet spot for mobile workers looking for media, collaboration, and basic personal productivity capabilities on the go. Forrester Research expects almost one-third of tablets to be sold directly to businesses by 2016.7

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Key Insights

  • Learners are comfortable using tablet solutions but struggle incorporating them into the way they learn and collaborate.
  • Success with mobile-learning initiatives requires a close fit between course design and the mobile functionality being offered.
  • Mobile learning initiatives should be viewed as long term; expected benefits may not come quickly, and management must guide and support learners through the process of evolving their practices

Enterprise initiatives involving media tablets span multiple contexts: as notepads for executives; showcase and presentation tools for sales professionals; decision-support devices for technical staff in the field; and education support for organization training and development. Mobile learning, a strategy to facilitate, enhance, and extend teaching and learning through mobile devices, is often touted as a way to address the challenges of the world’s increasingly global, mobile, technologically savvy work force.9

Recent industry reports, drawing on anecdotal evidence and casual case studies, point to anticipated benefits from tablet-enabled mobile-learning initiatives, including making learning more personalized and continuous,12 increasing its relevance by providing timely access to context-specific information,11 and helping learners maintain a sense of community and collaboration.3 They also identify potential drawbacks involving mainly the technological limitations (such as an inadequate typing experience for input-intensive tasks) of today’s tablets and broader implementation concerns (such as data security and cost).5 In general, however, there is common sentiment among industry analysts that tablets will improve the overall learning experience once key technical and organizational wrinkles are worked out.

A significant number of mobile-learning studies have been carried out in higher education, including several set up as research studies aimed at understanding the effects of mobile tablets on learning, tablet usability and adoption patterns, and best practices for tablet deployment and implementation (see Table 1).

Besides generating insight, their applicability beyond higher education is limited. In particular, all have focused on full-time undergraduate and graduate students whose learning needs could differ significantly from those of working professionals. Moreover, no study we know of from higher education has involved mobile apps custom-built for a particular learning environment, an approach common in corporate learning. Finally, no study, except one at Pepperdine University, incorporated a control group to ensure more robust analysis of iPad effects.

The research we report here aims to overcome these limitations and give technology and learning experts a more nuanced understanding of how media tablets might influence key dimensions of learning and collaboration by working professionals.

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The Study

Our 2011 study was based on a three-month field experiment with 124 students enrolled in an executive-MBA (EMBA) program at IESE Business School, a top-ranked international business school with campuses in Barcelona, Madrid, Munich, New York, and Sao Paulo. We conducted the experiment at the school’s main campus in Barcelona, Spain. Participants (average age 32, with 7.6 years of professional experience) were from a variety of educational backgrounds and worked in a range of industries.

The EMBA program is based on the case-study method, where learning takes place through discussion and students are required to prepare case analyses before class. As most students have full-time jobs, classes are held on weekends. Teamwork and collaboration are key parts of the learning process, with students assigned to small teams (roughly six students each) to prepare the cases, as well as course projects. Hour-long team meetings are held mornings before class; additionally, most teams employed a combination of email, videoconferencing, and face-to-face meetings during the workweek to facilitate collaboration. The setting and participant profiles in the study were thus like many organizational environments, especially those with semi-distributed collaborative teams where mobile devices for supporting learning might be considered.

A separate 2011 study commissioned by the International University Consortium for Executive Education (UNICON, identified five main use areas where mobile technologies could enhance learning: digital content, support and coordination, collaboration, assessment, and gaming/simulations.12 Accounting for the nature of the learning environment in the EMBA program (emphasizing cases and teamwork), our study focused on digital content and collaboration. To examine how mobile learning affected them, we distributed iPads to 62 students in a randomly selected section of the EMBA program for one academic term and also distributed cases, readings, and preparation questions for all courses in digital format through the iPads. These were first-generation iPads with a prepaid 3G connection and preinstalled software suite, including a custom-developed application for digital-content delivery and review (the Case app),a a social-collaboration tool, general productivity apps (such as a pre-configured iOS mail client), and an office-productivity suite (iWork). Not included were printed course materials, though we did allow students to print any of the digital materials provided through the Case app.

Students in the other section (62 students) did not receive iPads but were instead given binders with printed versions of the cases and course materials (typically several thousand pages). This non-iPad section served as the study’s control group.

To collect data, we conducted three rounds of surveys in both sections, as well as multiple rounds of interviews with the iPad group and participating professors. Our focus was on understanding the adoption and usage patterns of the mobile learning solution and their influence on key dimensions of learning: outcomes, communication/collaboration, and team dynamics (see Figure 1 and the sidebar “Data-Collection Methodology“).

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Key Findings

Digital content. The interviews showed us that the students perceived greater accessibility and portability of digital content among the main benefits of participating in the study. Being able to carry around all course materials and download new cases on demand was especially appreciated. Also appreciated was more efficient browsing and searching within documents, especially during team meetings and class discussions. One student said, “By browsing annotations, I can quickly and easily find the part of the case concerning the current discussion. I can look up numbers or facts and plug those into the discussion on the fly. This is very powerful and something I could not do before with the paper cases.”

We found adoption and usage behavior was generally consistent with this observation. Depending on the course, 52% to 89% of the students in the iPad section always or almost always read cases and other assigned materials on an iPad. Moreover, they relied on an iPad more for reading materials in more qualitative courses (such as entrepreneurship and human-resources, or HR, management) and less in more quantitative courses (such as finance and operations) (see Figure 2). Our follow-up interviews showed this occurred due to limitations of iPad hardware and the .pdf document format; another student said, “Cases that include many exhibits and appendixes with numbers (such as those in corporate finance, for instance) are more difficult to work with on the iPad. You have to constantly go back and forth between the text and the tables, which is a bit of a pain.”

We observed a reverse pattern with respect to printing. Students printed the case documents more often in quantitative than in qualitative courses (see Figure 3). In addition, 2% to 20% of the participants (depending on course) reported reading materials on the iPad while also printing them, with overlap greatest in HR management and economics. When we probed the reasons for printing, participants cited (in descending order of importance) the need to see multiple pages at a time, a preference for reading and taking notes on paper, and the desire to back up digital documents/notes. This finding is consistent with the University of Notre Dame’s 2010 mobile computing study in which participating students viewed e-content offered through tablets as less viable in more technical courses.

Communication and collaboration. Whereas digital-content features won significant adoption among the iPad-using students, collaboration-related features went largely unused. With anytime/anywhere mobile Internet connectivity and a user-friendly online collaboration platform, we gave the students a chance to decrease the frequency of their face-to-face meetings by shifting a portion of it online. With busy schedules and plenty of travel during the week, they had a strong incentive to take the opportunity. Despite the fact that seven of the eight teams established workspaces online, none used the platform regularly. Likewise, the “share annotations” feature of the Case app (viewed by Case app developers as a major improvement over paper-based cases) went largely unused, with 75% of the participants never or almost never using it.

One student said, “We just didn’t know how to make productive use of this feature. In the beginning our team tried. But everybody was highlighting so much, and people tended to focus on different things; so in the end, once you put it all together it really was not helpful.”

Another intriguing, if counterintuitive, finding concerns student satisfaction with team communication and collaboration practices, as well as with the perceived contribution of these practices to course quality, learning, and team coordination. We found a consistent pattern in which the control group showed significant improvement on all such dimensions, from the time of the first survey (pre-iPad) to the second survey (post-iPad), whereas the iPad group’s performance was unchanged.

Consistent with differences in team communication and collaboration, survey data also revealed differences in how members of the two sections interacted with one another. For example, we asked them to identify classmates with whom they interacted most frequently to discuss topics and materials seen in class, with respondents able to choose any number of classmates from a complete list of section members. Surprisingly, the number of classmates chosen by the iPad group decreased from the first to the second survey, while the number for the control group was the same.

Team dynamics. Introduction of the mobile learning solution also had a mixed effect on team dynamics. We collected survey data about students’ perception of team conflict, cohesion, satisfaction, and commitment. Concerning team conflict, neither group showed significant differences, though they did differ in terms of team satisfaction and team commitment. Here, the two groups reflected a pattern similar to that for team communication and collaboration; that is, the control group showed significant improvement between the first and the second surveys, while the iPad group failed to show improvement.

Being able to carry around all course materials and download new cases on demand was especially appreciated.

We also saw general improvement in team cohesion over time in both sections, a finding consistent with what is typically observed in the EMBA program. By the end of the first year, teams tended to function more effectively, as students spent time together, completing a number of group assignments and projects. The mobile learning solution did not seem to change this dynamic.

Learning. Surprisingly, we found a negative iPad effect on how students perceived the outcomes of their learning experience. The iPad group’s satisfaction with the contribution of cases to learning decreased during the pilot; that is, the students came to believe the cases contributed less to helping them understand course topics and create new knowledge. On the other hand, students in the control group reported increased satisfaction with case-based learning. This is an important, if somewhat surprising, finding, as one of the main objectives of the study was to enhance students’ case-based learning through digital content; Table 2 outlines the study’s main insights with respect to how the mobile learning solution affected the students’ learning experience. The general pattern was the control group showed significant improvement on a number of learning and collaboration dimensions, whereas the iPad group showed no improvement.

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Important implications apply not only to educational institutions but to a much broader range of organizations looking into the training and development needs of their increasingly mobile workers.

No quick payoff. Despite the overall satisfaction and general enthusiasm shown by study participants, the mobile learning solution seemed to have a negative effect on several important dimensions of the learning experience. Team communication and collaboration were affected, as was student satisfaction with case-based learning. This should raise a flag for organizations launching mobile-learning initiatives, even while it is important to understand why these effects take place. Our data and interviews with study participants showed a number of factors were in play. First, the iPads caused disruption in personal work habits and teamwork practices by shifting student learning curves. The students seemed to no longer focus on how to work as a team and analyze cases but were forced to learn to accomplish these goals through technology that some likely never encountered before; that is, the students had to cope with the pressure of maintaining their academic performance while creating new learning and collaboration practices to incorporate the iPads. In many cases, the result was frustration and heightened tension within the teams. The significant learning curve tablets bring to a learning setting was also recognized by other studies, including those at Pepperdine University and at Indiana University.

The tension was further exacerbated by the fact that, at least in some iPad-using teams, different team members opted for different ways of working with cases and course materials. Some relied exclusively on the iPad; others exported the cases out of the case application, reading them on PCs and laptops; and the third group would print cases and use them on paper. As a result, multiple use practices coexisted within the same team, adding complexity to sharing materials and coordinating work among team members. Added complexity contributed to decreased student satisfaction with collaboration and learning. This disruption mechanism was not reflected in any of the previous studies yet will play an important role, as many organizational settings are built around small self-led teams.

Note, too, our findings regarding deterioration in learning satisfaction and team collaboration are not necessarily consistent with the earlier studies; for example, studies at the University of Notre Dame and at Oklahoma State University found iPad use improved student perception of the learning experience in undergraduate settings. This difference might have been due to the team-based nature of the learning environment in our study, leading to additional tension among students. Another possible explanation reflects differences between undergraduate students and the working professionals who participated. The former were digital natives whose main focus was education; the latter were digital immigrants balancing professional and family responsibilities with academic activities.

While alarming, the initial deterioration in performance should not be viewed as a trigger to discontinue or scale down mobile learning initiatives. The main causes of deterioration—disruption to individual habits and work practices and diversity of user behavior within a team—are short term and can be managed proactively. Organizations should shift their mind-sets and view mobile learning initiatives as long term. The expected benefits may not accrue right away, and learners may need significant help to refine their habits and practices. Management is responsible for guiding and supporting them through this journey.

Support and education. When it comes to support and education in technology implementations, the focus is too often on troubleshooting technical difficulties and helping individual users master functional features of the solution. Relying on this approach in the context of mobile learning is risky; for example, learners do not struggle with how to use the solution (tablets support an intuitive user experience) but rather how to incorporate it into the way they learn and collaborate. Insofar as learning and collaboration practices are deeply ingrained in one’s mind, this challenge is much greater than retraining employees to switch from an old workflow to a new one. The most effective approach to creating a winning mobile learning strategy is to understand what can promote such a change in practice.

Perhaps mobile learning will also help organizations finally bridge the gap between learning in the classroom and learning in the workplace.

In our study, use cases with immediate and visible benefits (such as digital content) enjoyed significant adoption among study participants without much effort from the project team. Being able to readily access, annotate, and search digital cases and course materials allowed them to be more productive quickly. To enjoy this visible increase in productivity, most study participants willingly overlooked the wrinkles of the technological platform and adjusted their reading habits. The other iPad studies also found significant reading benefits from tablet use, with two—Oklahoma State University and the University of Notre Dame—finding, at times, tablets increased the amount of reading done by undergraduate students. In our study, use cases offering attractive but less immediate benefits (such as collaboration) were generally overlooked. The students in the iPad section were intrigued by the possibility of moving part of their team collaboration online but never followed through. Yet, it is this second category of use cases—collaboration support—that often promises the most dramatic long-term improvement in the learning process.

Management can employ various mechanisms to facilitate and motivate desired user behavior on the part of learners, as in, say, the “quick win” use cases, helping them be more productive quickly and build up “good will” that can be leveraged to push for broader adoption of “difficult” use cases (such as collaboration). In our study, enthusiasm for digital content delivery led study participants to express openness toward experimenting with Socialcast (, a social-collaboration platform, in their teamwork.

Project team management can also encourage adoption of “difficult” use cases by embedding them into learners’ everyday activities; for example, in order to expose the students to Socialcast, first-line technical support during the study was offered exclusively through that platform. In our final round of interviews, many participants expressed satisfaction with Socialcast, suggesting they would, given more time, use it to facilitate teamwork.

Another reason the traditional approach to training, focusing on the individual user, might not be effective in mobile learning involves the team nature of this learning environment. As discussed, the clash of use practices within iPad-section teams made task coordination and knowledge sharing more difficult. One way to address it would be to focus on educating the team rather than just individual users. This can be done through, say, documenting best practices and use cases discovered by the learners, proactively disseminating it back to the learner teams. It could also be helpful to leverage competitive dynamics among teams by measuring their ongoing performance on key learning indicators, making it transparent to the broader learner community, along with the use practices adopted by each team.

Redesign. One main conclusion of two earlier studies—at Oklahoma State University and at Pepperdine University—was that achieving success in mobile-learning initiatives requires a close fit between course design and the mobile functionality being offered, a conclusion supported by our results. Moreover, organizations seeking to shift learning and collaboration onto mobile platforms must not only integrate the device into the course but revisit key assumptions behind the design of the learning process and content. Replicating the traditional “analog” experience in a mobile solution, even if integrated in a traditional course design, might work as a first step, but longer term, such replication will fail to take full advantage of the opportunities due to mobility or live up to learners’ expectations. In our study, participants quickly caught on to the limitations of using the old .pdf format on the iPad. One student said, “Now that we have the capabilities, it would be nice to see more interactive features built into the cases (such as short videos or interactive graphs). In the future, what would be really great is to ability to ‘ask’ the main characters of the case follow-up questions. That’s how it works in real life…”

Other previous studies—most notably those at Indiana University and at Oklahoma State University—also found that having new types of content (such as video and interactive) was important in engaging students with tablet-based learning materials.

Post-PC mobility lets organizations rethink how learning and collaboration take place. Producing new types of engaging content, delivering it when and where learners need it most, and embedding rich social interaction directly into learning scenarios are just a few approaches to consider. Personal mobile devices are becoming universal hubs that integrate the everyday activities of individuals, cutting across traditional divides of personal vs. professional and online vs. offline. Perhaps mobile learning will also help organizations finally bridge the gap between learning in the classroom and learning in the workplace.

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Market penetration of post-PC devices (such as smartphones and tablets) is expected to dwarf traditional desktop and laptop computers by a factor of four by 2016,4 transforming consumer behavior and expectations and reshaping industries and business models along the way. Education and workplace learning will be affected, and educational institutions and corporate training organizations alike must proactively prepare for the upcoming shift. As we found, the road to a sustainable mobile learning environment will likely involve many challenges and disappointments; learning outcomes might not improve immediately, team dynamics might suffer, and learners might simply refuse to adopt critical functionality. Organizations must take a long-term view, developing a roadmap rooted in their learning settings and objectives. That roadmap should account for the cultural change learners must cope with and detail support mechanisms to facilitate the transition for both individuals and teams. It should also include a fundamental rethinking of the design principles behind learning content and process to take full advantage of post-PC mobility. Organizations that manage to do so will be the places where people strive to work and study, redefining the idea of personal development.

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F1 Figure 1. Study design.

F2 Figure 2. For each of the following courses, how often did you read cases and other assigned materials on the iPad?

F3 Figure 3. For each of the following courses, how often did you print cases and other assigned materials?

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T1 Table 1. Main research-based iPad studies in higher education.

T2 Table 2. Effects of mobile learning solutions on the learning experience.

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    13. Van Der Vegt, G., Emans, B., and Van De Vliert, E. Team members' affective responses to patterns of intragroup interdependence and job complexity. Journal of Management 26, 4 (2000), 633–655.

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    a. The IESE Case app, built on top of the iAnnotate software library, is used for managing, viewing, reading, and annotating cases and other course materials in .pdf format. Features include: navigate and search through cases (by schedule, name, code, subject, and professor name); annotate with notes, highlighting, and free drawing; select and share annotations with other users of the app; and update and download the latest cases and course materials (can be synced with iTunes); see demonstration video at The app was custom-built for the iPad study by an external provider and pretested over several weeks by a team of eight EMBA students from the second year. We incorporated feedback from the pretest into the app before deploying it to study participants.

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