Using mobile technology to learn – does the reality live up to the hype?

Back in May, 2011 I read an interesting article  about how students at Stanford University were loaned iPads to help them with their studies.  On the face of it Stanford University would seem an ideal choice to try such an experiment – a well financed and technologically advanced campus – as the article points out – “…birthplace of Google, Yahoo and Cisco…” and students who use the latest mobile devices in their everyday lives.  Before embarking on such a venture Stanford had already taken the precaution to survey its 200 iPhone using students and found out that they were “digitally obsessed”.  Armed with this information Stanford’s School of Medicine decided, in August 2010, to loan an iPad to each new student in the hope that this would reduce the need for students to print out their course material and encourage more innovative ways of learning as they moved around the campus.   With such a scenario you would think everything would go smoothly and the iPads would be readily embraced by the students.  However, their findings were quite surprising.   Rather than accessing everything online, the students still demanded printed notes and half the students stopped using their iPads after a few weeks into the new term.  So what went wrong and what can we learn from Stanford’s experience?   

The main problems and issued encountered can be summarized as follows –

  • Handing out an iPad or an iPhone to every student and expecting them to get on with it is not enough
  • Expensive investment in campus infrastructure to support mobile technology is essential i.e. wireless networks need to be reliable and extensive, mobile devices put a huge strain on wireless networks and students will get frustrated if the network is constantly down
  • If you want mobile technology to be used for learning, the course needs to be structured and taught with mobile technology in mind.  Regarding mobile technology as a useful bolt on to an existing course is no good, you need to make sure that the course is designed for or is suitable for mobile technology.
  • Some subjects lend themselves more readily to mobile technology than others.  For example, the iPads were useful for students attending an anatomy class because they could draw and annotate structures easily, as a consequence, “80 percent of medical students used their iPads for that class, compared with 40 to 60 percent in other classes.”
  • Think carefully about which students/years are going to receive the mobile technology.  iPads may not be useful for 1st year students but ideal for students who are on clinic.
  • It is important not to adopt a “top down” approach, trying to impose new technology onto students will not work.  Stanford found that the successful take up of mobile technology is more likely if it is student led.  A more co-operative approach which encourages lecturers, staff and students to work together to see what works and how it can be used is a better strategy.
  •  Finally, it is important to be patient and to have realistic expectations.  Adopting new ways of learning and accessing material takes time, the process can be slow and progress can be uneven.

This Autumn (September, 2011) it was announced that 4th year medical students at Manchester University would be offered an iPad 2 to help them with their studies, more information can be found at and also a report in The Mancunion at

It will be interesting to see how the students at Manchester react to their iPads – will they find them useful or will they encounter difficulties accessing wireless networks? The problems of negotiating between academic and NHS networks can be a problem. 

Posted by:  Sue Stevens

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One Response to Using mobile technology to learn – does the reality live up to the hype?

  1. Jon A. says:

    Interesting, thanks Sue. Maybe the problem of moving from NHS to Uni networks is a bit easier since all Medical students (not just those on placement) were given NHS Athens passwords, so are used to having a choice of access points.

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