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Curating A Technology-Rich Authentic Learning Environment (Tale) Using A Mobile App

Written by: Koh Noi Keng and Ng Chiew Hong
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8 min read

This paper considers how technology-rich authentic learning environments (TALE) can be achieved through mobile applications for teaching and learning within the subject ‘elements of business skills’. The affordances of technology open up a seamless authentic learning environment, which can effectively engage both individuals and groups of learners. This is a natural learning approach, where learning occurs in the classroom and beyond the classroom, in both public and private authentic social settings.

Introduction and aims of study

This paper focuses on a two-year study on the impact of technology-rich authentic learning environments (TALE) on the effectiveness of using mobile apps for teaching and learning elements of business skills (EBS) in Singapore secondary schools. The app provides a means for students to build and transfer knowledge in and across different sites of learning, including in the classroom and outside the classroom, as part of the knowledge curation process. Mobile learning (M-learning) has been defined by researchers and educators as learning through the use of portable computing devices, such as smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.

Literature review

Four theories of learning can be related to M-learning: behaviourism, constructivism, informal or situated learning and collaborative learning (Supyan et al., 2012). These types of learning are made possible due to three features of M-learning: instant access, portability and context sensitivity (Reychav et al., 2015). Viberg and Grönlund (2013) have highlighted the shift from authentic learning to M-learning, while Herrington and Kervin (2007) have detailed the nine key aspects of authentic learning. These are authentic context, authentic activities, expert performance, multiple roles and perspectives, reflection, collaboration, articulation, coaching and scaffolding, and integrated authentic assessment. The first three components of authentic learning enable students to participate in ‘real-world’-based tasks in a ‘real-world’-based environment, through first observing and then emulating the role of professionals as they tackle these tasks (Herrington et al., 2004).

M-learning through collaboration can be both beneficial and enjoyable for students. When 26 13- and 14-year-old Taiwanese students were evaluated for their performance after three different tasks via a mobile learning system, which was either individual-based, loosely collaborative or tightly collaborative, the collaborative group had the highest levels of performance and learning (Shadiev et al., 2017). M-learning makes learning enjoyable and engaging. The general opinion of 135 undergraduates enrolled in a ‘digital media and society’ course using their own mobile devices was positive, in terms of M-learning allowing for efficiency, convenience, engagement and interactivity, and many predicted that mobile devices could replace textbooks (Kinash et al., 2011). Motiwalla (2007) surveyed 44 university students regarding an M-learning system (MLS). To them, MLS was considered an effective learning tool with flexible access from anywhere, and a convenient- to-use application with effective delivery of personalised content.

Research questions

To find out the students’ overall experiences of learning using the mobile application, the two key questions were:

  1. What are students’ perceptions of the mobile app as a tool for learning content?
  2. How does the mobile app transform their learning environment?

Participant demographics

Sixty-one students took part in the focus group discussions (FGDs), with seven to eight students per school. Students were aged between 14 and 16 years as of 1 January 2018. They belonged to the Normal Technical Secondary Three and Four streams in the Singapore education system. The male to female ratio was 1:1.

Methods

The mobile application supports picture snapping, notification pushing, leaderboard and back-end analytics to inform teachers of students’ progress. The app uses gamification and game mechanics, which are often found in digital electronic games (e.g. computer and video games), such as:

  1. rewarding students with game points for learning activities to motivate them to engage with their classroom academic learning
  2. the teachers closely deciphering the back-end analytics of the application to understand what students have learnt and/or the transfer of student learning
  3. integrating the learning opportunities that arise from learning transfer to the institutional and/or vocational education curriculum.

Students were taught EBS through the traditional method, where the teachers provide face-to-face instruction and face-to-face teacher–student and student–student interactions. Students were also instructed to download the application to learn EBS via the application in class. However, the app also provided learning experiences outside the classroom, through the chapters being available online anytime and anywhere. The app was also used by teachers for learning trails in shopping malls, the airport and workplaces. For instance, after learning about the retail industry, to enhance authenticity in learning, the teacher brought students to the mall to learn about the different types of retail stores. Students explored the mall, answering questions through the app about types of stores and marketing mix, including aspects such as pricing strategies and customer service, all of which aimed to enhance understanding of retail concepts in real-life applications. The app also allowed students to take pictures depicting fast-moving products from their everyday experiences, which they then uploaded through the app, thus extending their learning beyond the classroom.

To assess the usability of the app, we administered a usability survey and conducted FGDs. As the data collection is still ongoing for the survey, we will report on the completed FGDs as part of the pilot study. The research team held FGDs with 61 students at their respective schools.

Data analysis and research questions

The FGDs’ interview recordings were transcribed and analysed in two key stages. Initial analysis was carried out to identify the general attitudes and experiences that the students had regarding the app. The subsequent analysis allowed for consolidation of students’ recurring opinions and experiences.

Findings

Key themes emerging from the FGDs were that the application was convenient and had an easy-to-navigate interface, content that successfully introduced and tested the topic, and a positive effect on the learning environment, and that it provided a good induction into M-learning.

Table 1: Summary table of key findings from TALE FGDs
Theme
Convenient Students appreciated the convenience of having a mobile textbook wherever they went.
Self-paced learning Students reported that they valued the ability to learn at their own pace.
Suitable interface Students described the application as easy to navigate and self-explanatory. Students did not need teachers’ supervision to use it.

Research question 1: Students’ perceptions of the app as a tool for learning content

Convenient

Based on transcribed interview recordings, 80 per cent of students found the convenience of the app to be the greatest asset. The students appreciated having a ‘pocket-textbook’ with them wherever they went for easy reference and revision.

FL001: I think that it is easier for us to access the mobile phone since we carry it around everywhere we go, instead of bringing our textbook along, so it’s easier for us to, like, read… and it’s easier for us to study on the way to school as well.

Design, interface and content

Fifty-five per cent of participants said that the app was easy to use, though one or two students reported that they struggled initially, and it was only after explanation from their teachers that they were able to easily navigate the app. Additionally, the students felt that the app was well organised and appreciated the prompts to alert them to finish a question in the topic if it had not been completed.

The students found the learning aids, in the form of videos and pictures, very informative, as they felt that videos and pictures could explain concepts better than words. Additionally, the quizzes after the topic and the topic summaries at the beginning of each chapter were reported to be useful in introducing the topic and cementing the information introduced. The students also liked instant self-marking multiple choice questions (MCQ) for quizzes, as these were less tedious and saved time.

Research question 2: How does the mobile app transform students’ learning environment?

Transformation of the learning environment

The students cited a few key factors that contributed to effective learning through the app: a quiet environment, encouragement, competition, collaboration, interest and engagement with the subject. For instance, the students liked the app for providing a quieter environment, as they repeatedly talked about how it was difficult to concentrate in class due to their classmates talking during lessons. They also found traditional lessons monotonous; in the traditional classroom, the need to cover the curriculum within a stipulated period means that teachers have to rush through the content in class, and students are often unable to retain all the information simply by listening, a problem exacerbated by their ‘noisy classmates’. With the app, the students reported that the same information could simply be read at their ‘own time and own target’. This was because the bite-size chapters and quizzes led to efficiency in retrieving only the sections that they needed for catching up on what they had missed. They also served as a form of self-directed, personalised learning outside the class when students accessed the chapters for revision purposes.

The students also reported that the textbook was too wordy and that it was hard to find specific information. In contrast, just by searching a handful of keywords with the app, specific information could be found. Therefore, the app helped students to overcome daily obstacles, by mitigating the more problematic aspects of the traditional learning environment.

However, the biggest source of unsuccessful learning reported by the students was the mobile phone itself. The students repeatedly said that a major source of distraction was the temptation to use social media or gaming apps instead of working through the app for EBS.

Conclusion

From the data collected from the FGDs, despite suggested improvements to enhance the interactive aspect of the application, students generally found the mobile application effective in delivering EBS lessons, in terms of a) the convenience of having a mobile textbook wherever they went; b) an interface that was easy to navigate and self-explanatory; and c) the provision of an environment for self-paced and self-directed authentic learning.

The study has mainly reported how the app can be used by teachers to link content learning for EBS between the classroom and outside the classroom, in terms of online, bite-size chapters and quizzes for self-directed learning. The app can also be used for simulated and non-simulated environments (e.g. learning trails, students’ work attachments, competitions or carnivals).

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the teachers and students who took part in this study, the Ministry of Education (MOE), OER 07/15 for funding this project: AFD 03/16 KNK, and the Center for Research and Innovation, Singapore, for the pro bono use of the app.

References

Herrington J and Kervin L (2007) Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International 44(3): 219–236.

Herrington J, Parker J and Boase-Jelinek D (2004) Connected authentic learning: Reflection and intentional learning. Australian Journal of Education 58(1): 23–35.

Kinash S, Brand J, Mathew T et al. (2011) Uncoupling mobility and learning: When one does not guarantee the other. In: Kwan R, McNaught C, Tsang P et al. (eds) Enhancing Learning Through Technology: Education Unplugged: Mobile Technologies and Web 2.0. Berlin: Springer, pp. 342–350.

Motiwalla LF (2007) Mobile learning: A framework and evaluation. Computers & Education 49: 581–596.

Reychav I, Dunaway M and Kobayashi M (2015) Understanding mobile technology-fit behaviors outside classroom. Computers & Education 87: 142–150.

Shadiev R, Hwang WY, Huang YM et al. (2017) Facilitating application of language skills in authentic environments with a mobile learning system. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 34(1): 42–52.

Supyan H, Mohd RM, Zaini A et al. (2012) Mobile learning readiness among Malaysian students at higher learning institutes. Asian Social Science 8(12): 276–283.

Viberg O and Grönlund Å (2013) Systematising the field of mobile assisted language learning. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning 5(4): 72–90.

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