Developing a Mobile Learning Environment to Support Virtual Education Communities


Dozens of reports over the last 35 years have documented the decline in the number of students pursuing science and mathematics degrees. For instance, from 1995 to 2000, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the physical sciences never exceeded 1.7%, while in mathematics that number never rose above 1% (Morgan 1998; Knapp 2001). Therefore, the ability of the nation’s colleges and universities to produce scientists and mathematicians is not keeping pace with the need for a technically competent workforce.

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) faces retention problems in science and mathematics similar to those at other comprehensive universities. The computer science, chemistry and mathematics departments each lose about 25% of their majors before the freshman and sophomore years. However, in all three departments, the number of declared majors remains relatively steady from the sophomore through senior years. Obviously, the biggest issue surrounding the retention of these majors is their experience in their introductory courses.

Fortunately, the situation is not entirely without hope. There is evidence that the loss of students from our science and mathematics courses can be curbed by implementing curricula designed to incorporate the principles associated with learning communities (LCs) and modern technologies that support anytime, anywhere learning.

Learning communities gained attention in 1984 after the publication of the “Involvement in Learning” report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Education Department. The authors of the report stated that active engagement in learning processes enhances learning and leads to two fundamental principles:

1. The amount of student learning and personal development associated with any educational program is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement.

2. The effectiveness of any educational policy or practice is directly related to the capacity of that policy or practice to increase student involvement in learning (NIE 1984).

Promoting Learning Communities

The promotion of learning through participation in LCs is evidenced in various research studies that report positive outcomes, including improved quality of learning, greater engagement in learning, and fewer course withdrawals and incompletes (MacGregor et al. 2002; Lenning and Ebbers 1999; Levine and Tompkins 1996). These findings indicate that LCs in the sciences can have a direct, positive effect on students’ decisions to pursue degrees in science or mathematics, as well as a major impact on retention. Despite these advantages, a review of 183 LCs from universities around the country revealed that only about 10% of them currently contain a mathematics or physical science focus.

Unfortunately, traditional LCs face significant limitations because they rely solely on direct physical interactions among students, as well as between students and faculty. This means that students are required to be housed together in designated residence halls, and they must be available to attend seminars, study sessions, and group meetings at specific times and locations.

In order to address these limitations, we are developing a mobile learning environment (MLE). This MLE will provide communication and collaboration tools that enable virtual interactions to take place which are independent of time and location - replacing the need for common residence halls and face-to-face meetings outside of the classroom. An MLE makes it possible to create virtual learning communities (VLCs) that incorporate all of the positive aspects of traditional LCs, but without their time and space limitations.

Table 1 compares the important elements of traditional LCs with the corresponding features provided by the MLE in support of a VLC. It shows that LCs stress the importance of student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions. In the VLC, these interactions will take place through the use of collaborative online tools developed for the MLE such as interactive whiteboards, video/audio/text chat, shared notebooks, and shared documents. These interactions can take the form of one-to-one (personal communication), one-to-many (presentations), many-to-one (group tutoring and seminars), and many-to-many (study groups and seminars) communications.

In the near future, it is anticipated that students at campuses across the United States will make extensive use of mobile computing devices which they will carry with them at all times. In our own research, we have found that limited output options for mobile devices prevent students from easily printing assignments or submitting them electronically. This is because both involve multistep processes that require the use of additional applications and an understanding of how these applications work together. Electronic submissions also create issues for instructors such as how to store, access, grade and return files to students. Moreover, this form of electronic submission is not easily scalable to multiple instructors and class sections. Other limitations of mobile computing devices include minimal input and output options, small screen size, as well as potential file and system disasters with the loss of battery power. While these problems are not insurmountable, they do require time, effort and creative thinking to resolve.

Attempts to remedy this situation have primarily involved piecemeal approaches. For example, the University of Louisville’s Health Sciences Center requires all incoming medical and dental students to own a PDA. However, its solution for providing students with content and new applications is through HotSync stations distributed around campus (Greenberg 2003). By contrast, an MLE provides direct drag-and-drop methods for downloading content and applications over the wireless network without the need for special devices or software. Thus, it is critical that the overarching problems facing mobile computing be addressed by creating an environment that is flexible, easy to use, and conducive to campuswide collaborative communication anytime, anywhere.

Table 2 depicts a hierarchical view of computing services. Individual software services such as FTP and e-mail are ranked under the “Disaggregated Services” category. Multiple service protocols, typically requiring a common login, are included in the “Aggregated Services” stratification. What is required is a layer of “Integrated Services” for which no solution currently exists.

Applications, software and commercial solutions currently available to users lack what is
needed to make anytime, any-where mobile computing a reality on campuses. Table 2 includes examples of current applications, software and projects. The placement of these examples within the table indicates why they are not adequate solutions for the envisioned MLE.

MLE Development

Currently, we are developing an MLE to connect students and faculty in a 24/7 VLC. This infrastructure will give students and faculty the ability to collaborate regardless of their time or location, using the most effective educational tools. The MLE infrastructure includes:

· Smart mobile devices with wireless connectivity that enable rich data sharing and efficient multi-way communications.

· Collaboration tools and reusable modules for rich data sharing.

· Team productivity tools compatible with multiple platforms and devices.

· Robust multimedia server architecture with integrated support for location-aware applications.

The MLE includes a versatile, intuitive set of collaborative hypermedia tools and multimedia applications for science and mathematics education. New software has been devised, created and tested along with a novel combination of information technologies. The goal is to construct a seamless, integrated learning environment accessible by modern computing platforms - with an emphasis on mobile devices. To reach this goal, we are pursuing the following design objectives:

Develop for multiple devices and platforms. Students and instructors participating in the VLC will have access to a multitude of devices, including tablet PCs, pocket PCs, notebooks, desktops and smart phones running on Windows, Mac OS and Linux that will be connected by wired and wireless networks. Develop-ment efforts will focus on maximizing the user experience in the MLE regardless of the device or platform.

Build on a high-performance client-side runtime model. Current Web applications, built upon a legacy HTML model, do not provide an optimal end-user experience and have performance limitations. Next-generation environments, such as Flash MX, combine code, content and communications logic into a richer, high-performance runtime model designed with broader applications in mind.

Create synergy through the comprehensive integration of collaboration, communication and computing components. While current Internet activity is based on many disparate interfaces (e.g., browsers, IM/chat clients, media players, file transfer or file sharing, etc.), the MLE will provide a powerful object-oriented model for applications and events that integrates user interface, multi-way communications, rich data sharing, personalized application access, and collaborative learning services into a common object model that can be used by educators of varying skill levels. The integrated environment created by this project will generate a synergy that is impossible to achieve with disaggregated applications based on a traditional client-server model.

Enhance the interchange of data through the use of Web services. Rich data sharing will be based on Macromedia Flash Remoting and Web services created with XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI. This will allow applications with different sources of data to communicate with one another, thereby alleviating the need for time-consuming custom programming.

Shorten the development cycle and increase reliability through the use of reusable components. The MLE will employ component-based development methods while maintaining a consistent and easy-to-use interface. The reusability of components will facilitate the assignment of developers to different areas of the project, improve the reliability of the MLE, and shorten developer training time.


This article presents an MLE to support VLCs in science and mathematics. Although we are in the early stages of this multidisciplinary research project, we have designed and implemented a number of the basic elements of the MLE infrastructure and have an ongoing development effort. Faculty members participating in the VLC project are currently developing new instructional materials for introductory chemistry and mathematics courses which will take advantage of the tools and capabilities of the MLE. These materials will be used in a pilot program that is planned for this fall. The two courses offered will be coordinated around a common set of conceptual themes, instructional formats and cognitive skills. A comprehensive assessment program is also under development to collect data addressing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum content in satisfying the pedagogical issues being studied.


The material in this article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0002935 and Grant No. 0333628. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.