The Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), established in 1989, has about 9,000 full-time, face-to-face students who are mainly recent secondary school graduates and about 8,000 part-time, distance students of whom the majority are working adults.
Dr. Eva Tsang, Director of the Educational Technology and Publishing Unit, outlines three main phases of development of delivery modes at the University: from 1989-1999, the focus was on print-based learning materials; from 1999 to 2009, the focus shifted to online learning and multimedia as the university welcomed its first full-time students; and in 2009 to present, increasing attention is paid to e-learning tools, mobile access, and using a blended learning model.
Two key projects provided the experience and skills to guide the move to mobile and e-learning. In 2010, OUHK was the first university in the Asia Pacific region invited to contribute resources to Apple’s iTunes University. OUHK created English-language open educational resources and free courses in such topics as Speaking Mandarin. Through this involvement, they developed skills in formatting and uploading for online learning. They focused their efforts on ePub formats as this allowed them to offer animation, photos, and other multimedia resources, in addition to documents.
In 2013, a major project for the Hong Kong Government Education Bureau involved the development of open e-textbooks for use in English-language subjects for all levels of education from primary to end of secondary. The e-texts were developed to save parents and students money on the purchase of expensive textbooks. This experience allowed OUHK to fully explore the development and advantages of online resources.
Full- and part-time students at OUHK use the learning management system to access course materials, announcement, activities and quizzes, but access was designed from laptop and desk-top computers. Mobile access was awkward and often not appropriate to screen size. Research showed the new generation of students used smartphones and tablets and they wanted to use these devices to access their materials. Dr. Tsang explains that mobile learning was introduced in response to requests from students and because the university wanted to offer anywhere, anytime learning and encourage student engagement. As she says: “Mobility is the future for learning channels”.
The initial challenge of introducing mobile access was to convince senior management and faculty members in the five schools of the University, each of which had different ideas and requirements, of the usefulness of mobile access.
The mobile app, iBookcase, offering access to the same materials as the laptop version, was launched in two phases. In September 2017, an iPad version was provided as senior management wanted students to have larger screens for better viewing and learning from multimedia resources. They considered smartphone screens to be too small. Students, however, requested a smartphone version of the app, which was launched in September 2018.
In-Class Use of Special Features: Faculty in full-time courses often teach classes of 300 students, so taking attendance is difficult. The polling feature in the mobile app is used in classes with a dual purpose, to gather responses and as a way of recording attendance. Online quizzes, used after an hour of lecturing, offer instructors insights into student understanding. Tutorial groups, such as in statistics courses, complete calculations on web-based versions of spreadsheets. These are transmitted to iBookcase for marking so students get individual feedback and teaching staff can map class and individual progress and understanding.
The School of Nursing and Health Studies introduced mobile-based learning for several purposes: as an assessment tool for nursing students during their practicum; for polling and quizzes; to support and guide nurses providing health assessments (screen shown below); and for a home health watch program for elderly patients.
Benefits and Outcomes
As of February 2019, about 13,000 students downloaded the mobile app, a steady increase since the launch in October 2017 when 1,126 students downloaded the app.
Almost 50% of students (49.4%) use smartphones to access iBookcase, with 35.6% using laptops or desktops, and 15.1% using tablets.
An online survey sent to all full- and part-time students in September 2018 provided feedback on iBookcase and resources. The response rate was 9.3%, with about two-thirds of these from full-time students. Key issues explored included stages of adoption of iBookcase, perceptions concerning usefulness and actual use of features.
Stages of adoption: students reported on their readiness to use iBookcase as:
- Awareness of app – 37.1%
- Learning to use – 16.9%
- Understanding and using the app – 21.5%
- Familiarity and confidence with app – 6.3%
- Applying app to studies – 10.1%
- Creative applications to new contexts – 8.1%
More than half of students agree with each statement of usefulness of iBookcase:
- More convenient to read course notes – 63.9%
- iBookcase allows me to learn anywhere, anytime – 63%
- The features in iBookcase are useful – 61.4%
- I like to install additional apps to facilitate my learning – 60.3%
- Overall, I am satisfied with iBookcase– 57%
- iBookcase is handy, user-friendly, works well with my device, saves time, and facilitate studies – 53% - 56%
Student reports on resources accessed on iBookcase reveal high levels for all content:
- Reading units – 90%
- Administrative tasks – 83%
- E-mails – 80%
- Watching multimedia – 78%
- Interactive activities – 75%
- Discussion boards – 72%
The full-range of learning materials are available to part-time students through mobile access. About half of them find mobile access useful, especially for review and communication and engagement with peers and instructors. As about half of students prefer hard-copy, especially for assignments, the university continues to provide print and online access.
Faculty members were also surveyed on their stages of adoption and perceptions of mobile-based learning. The results indicate lower levels of readiness for iBookcase and less positive perceptions.
Stages of adoption of iBookcase by faculty indicate many more at the stage of awareness and none achieved the level of creative applications:
- Awareness of the app – 55%
- Learning to use – 18.7%
- Understanding and using the app – 15.7%
- Familiarity and confidence with the app – 1.7%
- Applying the app to studies – 8.9%
- Creative applications to new contexts – 0.0%
In terms of faculty members’ perceptions of use of iBookcase for teaching, those reporting disagreement with or neutrality towards each statement were considerably higher than with students. They were most receptive to iBookcase as an app that allows anywhere, anytime learning (56.5%) and that it is handy and user friendly (48.4%). To the statement “Overall, I am satisfied with the iBookcase app’, 40.3% expressed agreement, while 43.5% were neutral.
Senior management at the University welcomes the contributions of mobile access to learning, as well as to the image of the university as a leader in the systematic and comprehensive application of technology to learning.
Challenges and Enhancements
The adoption of the mobile learning app by students and academic staff remains one of the main challenges as it requires time and ongoing training. As half of the part-time students currently support the continued availability of print material, it is recognized it may take up to ten years for a generational change to allow the full transition to online only access to materials. Also, planning for the use of resources is different for the two groups of students, full-time youth and part-time adults. The adults learn at a distance, whereas the youth are in face-to-face classrooms. They also have different openness to, experience with and expectations for technology.
To encourage the use of the mobile learning app, the team in the Educational Technology and Publishing Unit spend considerable time promoting the idea of mobile learning. For example, an incentive scheme was introduced by granting students HK$ 500 if they download and use the mobile app within the required timeframe, as well as continue to use it during the next semester.
Academic and teaching staff look for ways to enliven three-hour lecture classes, possibly incorporating pop-up messages and student submission of questions. Students are encouraged to submit questions by offering bonus points, but this requires faculty to assess quality of questions to award points. Finding a less onerous solution for faculty is a challenge.
Another challenge is the constant evolution of mobile technology and the need for constant upgrades of the app and system.
Students offer numerous ideas for improvements and enhancements, including faster loading, addition of assignment submission and chat rooms capacities, fewer notifications, more lecture notes, access to previous course materials, weekly schedules on dashboard with room assignments, easier access, and more videos. As well, they offer supportive comments, such as: “I love ePub format and using its tools to study course materials, which is more effective”.
The team in Educational Technology and Publishing continue to work on enhanced features and improvement, many of the changes based on student input. For example, one goal is to consolidate all apps to reside within the iBookcase environment. Currently it is necessary to go outside the app for some features, such as the ability to input from study tours.
With the emergence of virtual and augmented reality and multimedia in learning and teaching, the inclusion of these components in the mobile learning apps will allow the collection of student data for the purpose of learning analytics. Learning analytics can help the faculty understand students’ learning behaviour, pattern and style, thus enabling them to modify instructional methods or resources to meet the requirements of individual learners, enhance students’ overall learning experience and ultimately improve student retention.
In addition, as students and faculty begin adopting the mobile learning apps, and understand and appreciate the benefits of multimedia for learning on mobile devices, they request more features and upgrades, such as AR/VR within iBookcase. These requests will be carefully considered and tested, particularly their implications for pedagogy.
For Further Information
Eva Tsang, Ph.D.
Educational Technology & Publishing Unit
The Open University of Hong Kong