Today I introduce our first guest bloggers who this year introduced a mobile learning exercise for environmental science students.  Welcome Ailie Gallant and Vanessa Wong!

For students, having a smartphone is as normal as having clothes. Used for social networking, web browsing, taking photos, texting and occasionally calling, smartphones have become an integrated part of the lives of young people. In the U.S., mobile phone use by university students is estimated at around 90% with a recent study showing students at two U.S. universities checked their phones 60 times per day on average.

Students check their phones 60 times per day on average (Image source:

Two major benefits of smartphones are their portability and app functions, which are small programs that share and store information with ease. As teaching and learning are also forms of information sharing and knowledge gaining, the smartphone lends itself strongly to being employed in a classroom environment. The fact that smartphones can be taken anywhere also means that learning can be taken outside the lecture theatre.

It was the above benefits, as well as the familiarity students have with the technology, that we decided to exploit when we trialled smartphones as teaching tools for a first year environmental science class in Semester 2, 2013.

Using the portability aspect, we employed smartphones in a self-guided field trip. Student feedback from previous years suggests that field trips are a big drawcard for students and are often the highlight of their study. Engaging students on field trips (regardless of the use of smartphones) encourages learning through inquiry-based activities and experiential learning. It allows ownership of an intellectual problem by students as they make their own investigation with only peripheral instruction, thereby better engaging them in activities. 

Using these ideas, we trialled the use of a smartphone app called “Locacious”, which took students on a self-guided walking tour of a bayside suburb in order to examine the potential impacts of sea-level rise. Multiple stops on a map, which students were guided to via the inbuilt phone GPS, had pre-recorded commentary from the lecturers. For those students without iPhones, a podcast of the same commentary and Google Earth .kmz file was also provided.

The start of the self-guided walking tour (Photo credit: Adeline Tay)

The activity was undertaken in groups and students were given three weeks to complete it in their own time. The tour took the students along the foreshore at Elwood and upstream along the canal. As well as listening to the provided commentary, students were directed to make observations about the natural and built environment to understand the potential impacts of sea-level rise in the area. Following the tour, the student reflected on their observations and knowledge in class, and prepared arguments for a mock debate about adaptation to sea-level rise.

Informal feedback received at the end of semester via a survey suggested that the students enjoyed the walking tour component of the course and appreciated the flexibility that it provided. They stated they found the format engaging and appreciated being able to contextualise a relevant environmental problem by being in the relevant physical space while receiving the information. Another important, but often overlooked benefit, was that a sense of cohort was established in this series of activities. Student engagement was further reflected in the exam, with many students answering the exam question using direct observations from the tour.

Overall, we found the format has strong potential to be used for teaching purposes in the field. Despite some technical glitches, the student experience was very positive overall. There are a number of benefits in integrating smartphones into teaching. They allow us to deliver more field-based teaching in a flexible manner. The evidence so far suggests that smartphones can provide a vehicle for implementing innovative teaching techniques, which allows students to better contextualise the information provided to them. 

Ailie Gallant and Vanessa Wong are based in the School of Geography and Environmental Science. Follow them on twitter (@SafariPenguin and @DrVanessaWong)
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