Liberal Education

Mobile Technology and Liberal Education

It is perhaps too early to proclaim the death of the laptop, but the proliferation of mobile devices such as iPads, iPhones, and Android-powered tablets and smartphones cannot be denied. A recent Educause report revealed a stunning increase in mobile technology use by college-age students over the past five years: from 1.2 percent in 2005 to 62.7 percent in 2010 (Smith and Caruso 2010). The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports similar trends, particularly among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds (Smith 2010). Current projections suggest that within the next three years, the use of mobile tablets will overtake desktop usage. The fervor over mobile technology has penetrated learning environments nationwide. For example, in the fall of 2010, Seton Hill University, Abilene Christian University, and Hood College launched programs that provided iPads to incoming students. Stanford Medical School offered iPads to its incoming class in 2010. The Hawaii Preparatory Academy (a high school) designed an entire computer lab for the iPad: rather than fixed desktop computers, students grab an iPad for check-out.

In this article, I offer reflections on the impact of mobile technology for liberal education. These reflections are based on my own experience of incorporating iPads in my communication courses during the 2010–11 academic year. As a member of an interdisciplinary faculty learning community on the use of mobile tablets, I explored the opportunities and limitations of iPads for classroom learning. Each member of the faculty learning community received an iPad and had access to a set of iPads for in-class activities. The Center for Teaching and Learning and University Information Technology Services at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) selected and sponsored this faculty work group. Based on my experience, observations, and discussions with other participants in the learning community, I encourage an enthusiastic yet tempered embrace of mobile technology, and I offer suggestions for capitalizing on mobile technology to advance liberal education.

The “message” of mobile technology for liberal education

Almost every technological innovation promises access, innovation, creativity, and the opportunity to create new connections that promote responsibility and civic-mindedness. Mobile technology has been hailed as an educational miracle worker that can perform a variety of feats, from curing educational apathy to guaranteeing student engagement and learning outcomes. Consider the following account:

Can you imagine telling a kid to stop spending so much time on algebra? Or not to go overboard on researching historical sources? Sounds like pure fantasy, but that could become the new reality if we have the courage to discard an outdated teaching methodology that doesn't reach today’s students, and instead embrace their bustling, burgeoning digital world. Mobile devices applied in the context of education will engage students, foster deep and meaningful learning, and result in today’s kids reaching frontiers that generations before them could never hope to glimpse. (McCaffrey 2011)

Such grandiose success narratives present an incomplete picture, however. Some faculty and administrators resist the incorporation of technology for good reasons. To be sure, social networking, shopping, gaming, and other personal uses distract from and interfere with student learning. In my experience over the past year, almost every student eagerly used iPads for focused, educational purposes early in the semester. Yet by the end of the semester, the novelty had waned. Students became more readily distracted, playing online and exploring other iPad applications. New technology also creates a hidden curriculum for students who are unfamiliar with such devices. Lack of access and exposure can create trepidation for some students, and forcing these students to transition to mobile technology may actually hinder their learning. One student in my course explained, “I honestly spent more time trying to figure out the technology than I did considering the assignment.”

Mobile technology is ineluctable, and faculty and administrators would be remiss if they were to ignore it. However, foolhardy implementation of mobile technology can jeopardize learning outcomes. Mobile technology in education “will fall far short of its potential if it merely repackages our current educational models in digital format. Instead, it should enable students to become more proficient learners” (Weigel 2002, 2). Faculty and administrators must direct the use of mobile technology on college campuses toward liberal education outcomes. How, then, might mobile technology promote the values and outcomes of liberal education? Perhaps the medium itself provides some clues.

Marshall McLuhan (1994) provocatively argued that “the medium is the message.” He warned that people often become distracted by the content of any new medium and, therefore, fail to consider carefully the changes wrought by the medium itself—the ways new technologies alter human interaction, behaviors, and ways of knowing. Indeed much of the buzz about mobile technology focuses on the seemingly endless content: apps, music, videos, news, reference materials, and much more. Although this ready access to information certainly benefits education, I wish to direct attention to the message of the mobile technology medium itself: collaboration.

Mobile devices appear to alter the way students interact, because the devices themselves promote cooperation and invite collaboration. During the first class sessions in which I introduced iPads, almost every student who owned an iPhone attempted to share information, such as websites and pictures, between their personal devices and the loaned iPads. The students’ impulse to send information back and forth between devices suggests that the technology has already changed the way people think about knowledge sharing. Students who grow up with these devices are conditioned to think and create collaboratively. Moreover, the size and design of mobile tablets invite increased collaboration. Computer labs often restrict students to individual stations with screens and towers that prevent easy information sharing. Laptops still create physical barriers in the form of screens. While laptops are more easily twisted and passed, they hinder a more communal and synergistic interaction. Mobile devices diminish some of these physical barriers; they can be passed among students as simply as a book. The hands-on device encourages easy sharing of work, and requires a physical closeness that fosters greater interactivity.

In my classes, the medium seemed to have enabled a heightened level of collaboration. The physical closeness and lack of barriers allowed students to see their peers’ work immediately and encouraged real-time critical questions: What does this concept mean? Why did you say those theories had something in common? Student feedback highlighted this collaborative potential. According to one student, “linking [the iPads] together really helped move the pace along and allowed us to get more stuff done at one time.” Another student explained that “the amount and quality of information” improved because students could work interactively on the devices. That is, students could quickly share files and resources and build on one another’s work using applications that allow them to syncronize their work across multiple iPads and to see updates to shared documents. “Working together,” the student continued, “and focusing on the same idea allows the iPad to become very productive.” In short, the design and functionality of the mobile tablets enabled greater co-construction of knowledge and testing fo ideas.

Mobile technology uniquely invites collaboration while also providing more opportunities for students to apply their knowledge. Students readily access research materials and information through the web and other applications. A medium that both encourages collaboration and provides unparalleled access to information has great potential to foster a learning environment where students can gain confidence in their ability to discuss, understand, and apply new concepts. The dual benefit of collaboration and information access also has the potential to enhance problem-solving activities. As one student noted, the technology “helps to stimulate and engage the individual in the learning process better than just sitting and taking notes. When you feel that you can apply the concepts you are learning in a hands-on entertaining format, it can be more enjoyable to learn while also making it easier to comprehend the material.”

Recommendations for incorporating mobile technology

The incorporation of mobile technology in higher education appears to be both inevitable and beneficial, so proponents of liberal education should actively and prudently direct it. On the one hand, futile resistance to new technologies disadvantages educators and students alike. On the other hand, plunging with abandon into the waters of new technology unwisely jeopardizes student learning outcomes. How, then, can liberal educators incorporate mobile technology responsibly and with healthy skepticism?

Interrogate technology as more than a tool. Liberal educators must guide students not only to use mobile technology as an educational tool, but also to study the technology itself and to reflect carefully on the implications and consequences of its various uses. How do mobile devices alter our communication, business, and educational practices? How do they affect political interaction and personal relationships? How do the form and structure of the iPad affect our ways of knowing? What insights does mobile technology give us about our culture? Critical inquiry of the medium itself, from multiple perspectives, promotes the development of broadly applicable analytical and interpretive skills. By inviting students to consider the stakes of new technologies, we create opportunities for them to grapple with the ethical, societal, environmental, and global consequences of choice and action.

Promoting inquiry among our students means little unless faculty and administrators model this expected behavior. My interdisciplinary faculty learning community, for example, fostered communication between technology and educational support staff and liberal arts and sciences faculty members dedicated to exploring the educational impact of mobile technology. Such working groups allow faculty to engage in problem solving that transcends individual disciplines and enhances our ability to facilitate similar modes of inquiry in the classroom.

Identify new and shifting learning outcomes. Liberal educators must interrogate the impact of mobile technology on the entire program of liberal education, remembering that the immediate areas of integration, such as the classroom, may not be the most affected. What new literacies must liberal educators incorporate into the curriculum? What old literacies transform in the digital environment? For example, the speed and access to information cultivates a sense of immediacy: users access what they want, when they want it. The onslaught of customized, attention-grabbing information may foster distracted, impatient learners and diminish students’ ability to persist through challenging, critical tasks. When answers are not readily found, the effort may be abandoned or new distractions may thwart the effort. In such an environment, it becomes vital to help students develop “intellectual perseverance” so that they willingly engage intellectual endeavors and challenges for as long as necessary to reach satisfying conclusions or find appropriate information (Nosich 2012).

In addition, information literacy, or the ability “to analyze, organize, and make sense of information,” becomes paramount amidst rapid technological shifts of the “twenty-first-century knowledge commons” (Modern Language Association 2009, 30). Because of the ubiquity of information, Richard Lanham (2006) argues that we live in a time when human attention is a scarce commodity. Lanham believes liberal education is uniquely equipped to cultivate skills and sensibilities that will help citizens successfully navigate this “attention economy” and make sense of the overwhelming amount of information demanding our attention.

Liberal educators must also question the extent to which mobile technology alters standards such as the essential learning outcomes identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007) through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. For example, mobile technology rescripts conventions of “ethical reasoning and action” as evidenced by debates over intellectual property rights. Students today must be equipped to adapt to and decipher wooly boundaries of public and private property in relation to virtual space and personal knowledge. Consider also how mobile technology provides “civic knowledge and engagement” with national and global issues. Does this global village form at the expense of local engagement? If so, might mobile computing be used to direct equal attention to the local level?

Adapt to new literacies. Interrogating the ways mobile technology reshapes the outcomes of liberal education requires careful consideration of our practices and traditions. We must be forward-thinking in altering our educational approaches. For example, University Library at IUPUI is the first, and currently only, library in the Indiana University system with a mobile website that allows students to search databases and conduct research from their smartphones or mobile tablets. Libraries must recognize that today’s card catalogues are increasingly carried in students’ pockets.

Likewise, familiar pedagogical practices require innovative adaptation to mobile technology. New practices could be developed in performance-based, problem-solving educational settings where immediate review and feedback is essential by including mobile technology with video recording capability (i.e., the public speaking classroom, theater, or health care provider communication). Consider also how every shift in medium alters conventions of written and oral communication. Students require new skills and sensibilities to persuade and connect in a digital culture of tweeting, face-timing, status-updating, and 140-characters-or-less. Writing-intensive classes could encourage students to develop skills both in composing a standard written argument and in transforming that argument into a series of short, attention-grabbing tweets.

Balance liberal education and technological literacy. The proliferation of mobile technology emphasizes the development of technological skills, to be sure (Goldin and Katz 2008). Students without technological literacy face economic and professional disadvantages, diminished cultural and civic participation, and limited problem-solving capacity. Digital-divide disparities augment these already high stakes. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to privilege technological literacy or to allow technological skills to constitute the central focus of liberal education. Such a narrow focus would risk creating “graduates who have learned only the technical skills and who arrive in the workplace deep but narrow” (AAC&U 2007, 16–17).

Instead of skills associated with specific technologies, students need to develop adaptable performance skills and artful, critical thinking that will prove valuable for future technological contexts and transformations. The Modern Language Association has argued that “those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment” (2009, 32–33). Thus, the primary objective should be to incorporate mobile technology and reflect on its use, but not to teach mobile technology skills for job readiness. Moreover, emphasis on technical skills may thwart the natural emergence of peer teaching. In my classes, I witnessed students with expertise in mobile technology readily helping their peers with tasks as simple as turning on the device or functions like copying and pasting or saving images from the web. Significantly, some tech-savvy students seemed to be empowered as learners when they tapped into skills in which they had confidence. They built on the success of teaching technology to others and appeared more receptive to collaborative learning of the course material.

Mobile tablets are not magical harbingers of liberal education outcomes. Devices such as the iPad are born out of skills associated with liberal education, such as problem solving and innovative application of knowledge, but they do not naturally foster those skills. We cannot distribute mobile technology and expect critical thinking and communication skills to follow any more than we could give students a violin and expect them to be virtuoso violinists. Faculty and administrators must actively strive to direct the use of mobile technology toward liberal education outcomes. Neither avoiding mobile technology nor prematurely saturating our campuses with it will foster meaningful relationships to and understandings of technology. Only through thoughtful incorporation of mobile technology and ongoing inquiry as to its consequences and opportunities will faculty and administrators successfully harness this new technology for liberal education outcomes.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Goldin, C., and L. F. Katz. 2008. The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lanham, R. 2006. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCaffrey, M. 2011. “Why Mobile Is a Must.” THE Journal, February 8, _lang=en.

McLuhan, M. 1994. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Modern Language Association. 2009. “The English or Foreign Language Major and Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 95 (2): 30–39.

Nosich, G. 2012. Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking across the Curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Smith, A. 2010. Mobile Access 2010. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Smith, S. D., and J. B. Caruso. 2010. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010. Boulder, CO: Educause Center for Applied Research.

Weigel, V. B. 2002. Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jonathan P. Rossing is assistant professor of communication studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

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