Research and Design of a Mobile Application for K-12 Professional Learning

Written By:
Justin Bruno, Michigan Virtual
Ken Dirkin, Michigan Virtual

Suggested Citation

Bruno, J. & Dirkin, K. (2018). Research and design of a mobile application for K-12 professional learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from https://mvlri.org/research/publications/research-and-design-of-a-mobile-application-for-k-12-professional-learning/

This report provides a brief literature review on the use of mobile devices for formal learning, as well as an overview of the design and development of Michigan Virtual’s own mobile application built to serve three basic functions:

  1. Serve as a platform for teachers and education professionals to network and connect to other professionals within their school buildings and to the larger whole-group user base,
  2. Provide a space for users to ask and answer questions about their profession in an effort to improve practice, and
  3. Offer professional learning content on a variety of topics relevant to the teaching profession.

Lastly, the report concludes with an overview of planned research efforts as the application is implemented in K-12 school pilot settings.

Introduction

Michigan Virtual staff have developed a digital mobile application for use by K-12 teachers. The application serves three basic functions:

  1. Serves as a platform for teachers and education professionals to network and connect to other professionals within their school buildings and to the larger whole-group user base,
  2. Provides a space for users to ask and answer questions about their profession in an effort to improve practice, and
  3. Offers professional learning content on a variety of topics relevant to the teaching profession.

This report provides a brief literature review on the use of mobile devices for formal learning, as well as an overview of the design and development of Michigan Virtual’s own mobile application. Lastly, the report concludes with an overview of planned research efforts as the application is implemented in K-12 school pilot settings.

The Rise of Mobile and its Implications

The use of Internet-connected mobile devices is now commonplace in American society, with 77% of American adults owning a smartphone, a 42% increase since 2011. Additionally, smartphone ownership rates are higher among younger and more educated Americans: 92% of Americans between ages 18 and 49 own smartphones, along with 91% of U.S. college graduates (Pew Research Center, 2018). Nearly 75% of U.S. adults own a laptop or desktop computer and over half own a tablet computer. In 2016, web browsing from mobile devices surpassed that of desktop devices for the first time (StatCounter Global Stats, 2016). The rise of mobile connectivity has brought changes to many areas of American life, with multiple social, economic, and educational implications.

The basic lifestyles of American adults have changed with the affordances of mobile technology. Approximately 77% of Americans go online at least daily, and 26% report that they are online “almost constantly” (Pew Research Center, 2018). Studies have shown that the average U.S. consumer now spends five hours per day on mobile devices (Flurry Analytics, 2017). Half of all digital media usage in the U.S. is driven by smartphone applications or apps; additionally, 87% of time spent on mobile devices is devoted to apps, as opposed to web browsing (ComScore, 2017). The most frequently used apps in the U.S. are centered on entertainment and social media, including Facebook, YouTube, and Pandora. Popular apps for information exchange and productivity include Google Search, Google Maps, and Gmail. In an attempt to meet American consumers where they are, more companies are devoting resources to mobile applications, leading the “app economy” of 2016 to total over 1 trillion dollars across mobile app stores, in-app advertising, and mobile commerce (Delgado, 2017).

Mobile device usage has changed the way we live; furthermore, there is also data to suggest that it is changing who we are, specifically with regard to memory and knowledge. Studies have shown an effect referred to as “digital amnesia,” or the “experience of forgetting information that you trust to a digital device to store and remember for you” to be evident across all age groups and genders (Kaspersky Lab, 2015, p. 2) Additionally, broad concerns have arisen over the effects of mobile technology on attention span and cognitive performance. Lee, Cho, Kim, and Noh (2015) determined that individuals who display higher levels of smartphone addiction are less able to achieve flow, or focused concentration, and accomplish self-regulated learning. Relatedly, Leiva, Böhmer, Gehring, and Krüger (2012) found that task completion within one smartphone app can be delayed by up to 400% by interruptions from other apps. These studies and others show that while there are many opportunities provided through access to mobile devices, there are many necessary considerations for the use of mobile devices for formal and informal learning.

The Use of Mobile in Learning

The increasing prevalence of mobile devices in Americans’ lives has naturally led to increased adoption of mobile platforms for formal learning. In a 2015 survey, 83% of students in grades 4-12 reported using a laptop to do school work during the school year (Pearson, 2015). Nearly half of all U.S. school students now use Google education apps, including Gmail and Docs, for learning, collaborating, and exchanging information; many do so using Google Chromebooks, which make up more than half of the mobile devices shipped to U.S. schools (Singer, 2017). At the higher education level, one report showed that the average U.S. college student carries with them seven Internet-connected devices on campus (Refuel Agency, 2017). Determining whether or under what circumstances the use of mobile platforms for learning is effective are questions that continue to be explored.

A growing body of scholarship has arisen on the topic of the use of mobile devices for learning with K-12 students. A 2014 synthesis of empirical research on the topic found that higher-performing countries began adopting mobile learning at an earlier stage, that student-centered pedagogy was necessary for mobile learning to personalize experiences for students, and that mobile learning helped students share ownership in the design of their learning process (Cavanaugh, Maor, & McCarthy, 2014). Ng and Nicholas (2013) found that successful implementations of mobile learning in K-12 schools can be dependent on positive attitudes in both students and teachers toward technology. In a systematic review of 113 research studies on K-12 mobile learning, Crompton, Burke, and Gregory (2017) found that 62% resulted in positive outcomes, demonstrating increased student learning. Wang, Hsu, Reeves, and Coster (2014) performed a study of middle-school science teachers’ use of technological tools, including mobile devices, as guided by professional development, and found that over time, teachers gradually ceded more control over the use of technology to students.

Perhaps more relevant to the purpose of this paper are studies focused on the use of mobile applications for K-12 professional development purposes. While the research in this area is not quite as extensive, with no large-scale research syntheses or systematic reviews, some studies are worth highlighting. Aubusson, Schuck and Burden (2016) argue that mobile learning is well-suited for teacher professional learning as it allows for seamless collaboration and reflection opportunities. Additionally, the researchers suggest that mobile technologies enable the capturing, sharing, and synthesizing of teaching artifacts to encourage collaborative reflection and improve teacher and student learning. Mittal, Gupta, Dewan, and Kumaraguru (2013) found that the social networking application Pinterest is widely used among educators and that education-related posts on the network have the highest amount of followers per post. In another study, Hunter and Hall (2018) found that K-12 teachers most often use social networking applications for three professional purposes: connecting with others, establishing professional relationships, and discussing and commenting on education-related topics. The three most-used applications for carrying out these activities were YouTube, online newspapers, and Pinterest. There is also a growing body of literature on the use of professional development focused on the implementation of mobile devices in the K-12 classroom. In this vein, Tilton and Hartnett (2016) found that professional development that involved modelling and coaching from colleagues and focused on mastery of mobile device use had a positive influence on teachers’ own mobile technology self-efficacy.

These findings, along with others, informed the design process for Michigan Virtual’s mobile application focused on K-12 professional development and learning and led the design team to focus on the following:

  • Smooth and logical opportunities for collaboration
  • Points of reflection
  • Spaces for sharing external resources
  • Appropriately-sized chunks of information for learning
  • Opportunities to establish and demonstrate expertise
  • Ways to encourage networking to build culture

App Design

(Note: At the time of this publication, NuTeacher is in build version 1.1 and was released in early August 2018.)

The design of the Michigan Virtual developed mobile application “NuTeacher” was founded on the theory of action that beginning teachers have a need to connect with master teachers, establish professional relationships, and maintain continuous discussions around classroom-related topics. The original concept of the mobile app, reflected in the name of the app, was to provide support for stronger teacher induction practices for “new teachers.” Research has shown that strong induction practices for new teachers’ organizational socialization – or onboarding – helps retain educators in the classrooms longer (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Teachers moving to another school or leaving the profession altogether in the first five years of their career is a significant issue nationally (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). In Michigan, teacher mobility and attrition is 10% higher than the national average, close to 20%, with the estimated costs of finding and onboarding a new teacher approximated to be $10,000 a replacement (Robinson & Lloyd, 2017). A small sampling of interviews with retired and active district superintendents conducted by Michigan Virtual found that a majority of district superintendents identified “teacher induction” as one of their top five areas for district improvement. Helping districts provide better just-in-time support for new teachers through a mobile application, with preloaded “primers”, or short 5-7 minute lessons, that could be accessed at will was one way of tackling the problem of administrators not being able to provide intensive hands-on training as often as they would like.

The original design of the mobile app focused on the area of teacher induction with early prototypes built around teacher mentoring functionalities and a heavy focus on classroom management and instructional strategies content, aligning with Michigan legislation (Michigan Revised School Code, Act 451 of 1976) that requires induction protocols for new teachers. By the end of development, the application had pivoted to focus more on the aspect of developing school culture, while still incorporating the same strategies used to support new teachers, including staff connectedness, access to just-in-time resources, and ongoing discussion on classroom-related topics. This pivot was influenced heavily by a prototype presented to administrators at the annual Michigan Association of School Administrators conference in Fall 2017 and research contributed to by Michigan State University Professor Ken Frank on preventing teacher burnout (Kim, Youngs, & Frank, 2017). Many of the just-in-time resources still focus on teacher induction training, but a variety of resources, lessons, and articles were created to focus on areas of support for social and emotional learning. Current research shows that positive school climate and social and emotional learning are linked:

School climate and social and emotional learning (SEL) have often been treated separately by researchers and practitioners, but both are necessary to build healthy schools, are co-influential, and benefit each other. A positive school climate creates the conditions for SEL; the social and emotional competence of each member of the school community, both individually and collectively, affects school climate.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2018

Thus the current design strategy of NuTeacher aims to improve both the connectedness of district faculty through professional dialogue, identification of expertise, continuous discussion, and resource sharing. The remainder of this report provides an overview of the design and capabilities of NuTeacher.

The Home Screen

The prototype app focused on a simple home screen which was replaced with the development of a “feed-lite” list of primers, resources, and Q&A discussion. The original prototype (Figure 1), was meant to provide very quick access to the app’s main three sections.

Welcome screen of the app with three options for user: Find People, Ask a Question, Explore Topics.
Figure 1. Prototype Home Screen.

In subsequent iterations, access to these topics was built into a navigation bar at the bottom of the screen (Figure 2), consistent with similar applications.

Icons shown at the bottom of the app screen, including home button, view messages button, a lessons button, and the personal profile button.
Figure 2. In-App Bottom Navigation Bar.

This new home screen allowed for quick access to personalized and relevant activity, helping cut down on the number of clicks to reach content (Figure 3). In images of the application below, users are represented by stock photos and auto-generated names.

App screen with horizontal swipe bar showing colleagues’ profiles; underneath, most recent posts from other app users.
Figure 3. Feed-lite Home.

Connecting Colleagues

The prototype app focused heavily on the identification and sharing of expertise among a school’s staff. The original design concepts put the school’s faculty front and center. The theory is that novice teachers would be able to find colleagues that could assist them in a wide range of issues quickly, by a simple search or scroll through the carousel. This was well received by participants in early prototyping, including teachers in their first three years of service, as a useful tool in helping to identify colleagues. The prototype contained a sliding carousel of profile pictures and various descriptor tags (Figure 4).

An app screen allowing the user to swipe through pictures and information for colleagues using the app, with a search bar at the bottom of the screen.
Figure 4. Prototype Carousel on Home Screen.

This design was modified to take advantage of a similar carousel concept with a difference in the feed-lite home screen that had no visible descriptors (Figure 5) and was separated from the “list view,” allowing a user to scroll and search for descriptors associated with individuals (Figure 6).

App screen with horizontal swipe bar showing colleagues’ profiles; underneath, most recent posts from other app users.
Figure 5.
Feed-lite Carousel.
A screen of the app showing the “People” section with tiles for pictures and information of other colleagues. Two tiles per row with multiple rows scrolling downward.
Figure 6. “View All” List View.

The app design evolved to also include a profile screen for the user and as a tool to connect with colleagues. This new profile page allows for the user to “edit” their public information that is presented to their colleagues, such as profile image, descriptive tags, and general description. The same screen is used when exploring colleagues from both the carousel on the feed-lite home screen and from the list view. Tapping a profile from this screen allows the user to see their colleague’s full profile (Figure 7).

App screen showing the profile of a fictitious user, displaying name, followers, clock hours, posts, up votes, and contributions, as well as links to social media accounts.
Figure 7. Profile View.

Social Share

The second major functionality of the NuTeacher app is to create a space for colleagues to share their expertise with each other through the use of social options. This function is available in two forms: the topic bulletin board and the resource share button. The bulletin board discussion function allows users to post topics and receive feedback and advice from their immediate peers, similar to popular discussion board functionality. This was designed with the intent for users to communicate on a variety of topics from process questions to content knowledge. Users can post topics to the board, which appear as cards in three places: the feed-lite home screen (Figure 8), the topic section of the app (Figure 9), and under contributions in the user’s profile (Figure 7 above).

Screen showing posts, with post title, name of user who posted, and other information about each post represented by icons, including likes and upvotes.
Figure 8. Feed-lite Home Screen without Colleague Carousel.
Screen with sample topic of question being asked by a user about 6th grade math books, including an indicator about number of upvotes for the topic and a button allowing a user to submit an answer. Also displayed are multiple answers from colleagues underneath. Each answer is dated and shows respondent’s name and number of upvotes.
Figure 9. Topics View.

Colleagues can respond back to the top-level topics by clicking on the “Answer” button, which brings up a text entry box. The submission is added to the on-going threaded discussion. The entire discussion can be viewed by clicking on the topic text on the display card (Figure 10).

 (first image) One screen of the app showing discussion threads with initial posts and replies to individual posts indented, showing name, title, and picture of each user who posts, along with upvote totals, comment totals, and a share button. (second image) Second screen showing the fields for submitting a discussion: What’s your question?, a category dropdown, a user group to pose the question to, and an option to attach a file. The keyboard and a “post question” button are shown.
Figure 10. Sample Threaded Discussion.

Topics are able to display rich media content, including hyperlinks out of the app and YouTube videos, to provide a wide variety of ways to add supporting resources to a topic. Tags can be added to the topic to allow for topics to be returned in search results and to be organized into categories. At the bottom of every topic and response card, an “upvote” button allows users to recognize the post by tapping a triangle icon. Participants in prototype focus groups perceived the ability to elevate topics by upvotes as a key feature. This function is not limited to one vote; rather, a conscious design choice was made to allow unlimited upvotes on any topic or response. Further exploration of how the upvote function is used will determine if constraints will need to be established.

The second opportunity to support knowledge sharing among colleagues involves the “resource share” functionality. To add an article or resource into NuTeacher, the user opens the resource share window by clicking on the “+” in the middle of the navigation bar (e.g., Figure 2). The user is then presented with two menu options: import an article or resource from a social media account that they have enabled the app to access (Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook) or share an article, website or other hypermedia by clicking on the “I want to share a resource” option (Figure 11).

A screen showing suggested posts with titles, the social media platform from which they were shared, and options to ask a question or share a resource.
Figure 11. Resource Share Menu.

If users choose to add a resource to NuTeacher to share with colleagues, they will be asked to define a title, link to the outside website, blog post, YouTube video, etc., and add metadata tags for search categorization through a submission form. The app will then import content and header image from the linked resource and deploy an article card in the feed-lite home screen for all users in the organization. Users who add resources will be able to earn points based on how many of their colleagues interact with their resource and receive feedback on how many minutes of cumulative time their colleagues have spent interacting with that resource. This is meant to provide a positive feedback loop for the user to encourage the continued sharing of resources (Figure 12).

A second screen with a tile reading “Great work - You’ve helped 10 of your colleagues earn 30 credit hours this week.”
Figure 12. Rewards for Sharing.

Articles and social media content that users add to NuTeacher both have the functionality for users to engage in an embedded discussion and upvote the topic card.

Primers, Playlists, and Pathways

The final section of NuTeacher is a set of professional learning resources that have been curated by Michigan Virtual and its partners on a variety of topics. These resources are broken into three structures: primers, playlists, and pathways. Primers and playlists are available to access through the learning tab represented by a graduation cap in the navigation bar. Pathways are a collection of learning resources that have been mapped out over a set timeline to be automatically assigned to users (Figure 13). Each of these structures is defined in the sections that follow.

A screen showing lessons, including primers section, playlists section, and pathways section. Sample primers, playlists, and pathways are shown, with titles, images, the content provider, and an enroll button on each. Sample lessons include Math Teaching Techniques and Building Your Extracurricular Resume.
Figure 13. Primer, Playlist and Pathways Selection.

Primers

Primers are designed to be short 5-7 minute lessons with only one or two key takeaways. Each primer presents instructional content in minimal form, only one screen of text with images or videos at a time, across a series of several easily navigated screens. Primers have the ability to display hypermedia, videos, animated gifs, and HTML. Self-assessments are available throughout the primer with multiple choice questions, providing the user positive reinforcement and the ability to retake the assessment if needed. Users can earn minutes toward continuing education units based on the length of each primer. Primers are meant to be light weight, just-in-time lessons that can be consumed quickly anywhere, anytime, and anyplace. Primers are part of the searchable index of NuTeacher, so they can be quickly located by searching a topic and/or explored through the primer list in the learning section (Figure 14).

(first image)One screen showing content from a primer, with text from a lesson on working with autistic students. An image of an eye is used to illustrate the content in the lesson. There is also a progress bar at the top of the screen and an X symbol to exit the primer. (second image) A screen with a quiz question with answer options and a “Check my Answers” button at the bottom.
Figure 14. Primer and Assessment Screen Examples.

Primers are easily searchable by tags and description and, in future releases, will ask guiding questions to help users identify content. The current release of NuTeacher features topics on:

  • Social Emotional Learning
  • Anti-bullying
  • Instructional Coaching
  • Family & Community Engagement
  • Special Education
  • Personalized Learning
  • Mentoring Students

Administrators and site coordinators, two roles that have content authoring and reporting permissions, can create primers using a simple web-based authoring tool. Primers are built upon a micro-learning framework that was outlined by the application design team and informed by research findings (Aitchanov, Satabaldiyev, & Latuta, 2013). The framework focuses on the following instructional design concepts:

  • Get to the point as quickly as you can. No tangents. No seductive details.
  • The right media can replace a thousand words. People love short videos.
  • Bite-sized chunks. Group information into 5-minute chunks. The goal of this is to make content memorable and not produce cognitive overload.
  • Take an incremental approach. Lessons can build off each other. Focus on a big idea and how it connects with other ideas. Don’t try to fit everything into one primer.
  • Learning is ongoing. People are always doing just-in-time learning. Expect people to dive into content at different points. This nonlinear approach should be encouraged; it builds flexible knowledge structures.
  • Use real world examples. Case studies are good things to include. Ask people to reflect upon them and provide examples of expert analysis.
  • Connect it to what they already know. Provide a brief summary of prerequisite knowledge before presenting new information.
  • Perspectives. Look at things from different perspectives.
  • Context matters. Place things in context to help ground the learners, enabling them to see how things are connected.
  • Revisit. Encourage learners to revisit primers. Revisiting is not repeating.
  • Compare and contrast. Help learners see how things are similar and different.
  • Don’t oversimplify. Make things manageable but not too simple. Learners can revisit primers if they need to.
  • Emotional hooks. Draw them in with quotes or a short video.
  • Provide multiple examples of how others applied ideas in the classroom.
  • Start and end. Tell them what they will be learning at the start, and review key takeaways at the end.
  • Weave certain actions into the primers and framework. Promote knowledge transfer and open up thinking, such as:
    • Using metaphors
    • Thinking more openly
    • Comparing and contrasting
    • Revisiting content
    • Emphasizing context
    • Examining different perspectives on topics
    • Demonstrating applicability and real-world relevance

Playlists

Playlists are a collection of primers and articles presented as curated learning opportunities in specific subject areas. As users complete playlists, they will receive continuing education units. A playlist is viewed on the learning tab. As a user completes each component of the playlist, the component will be crossed out. Playlists can be organized into levels, defined by the content provider, with an adaptive release functionality where the prior level needs to be completed as a prerequisite before additional levels are unlocked for viewing (Figure 15). An award system to recognize completion of playlists can be used to deliver badges to the users’ profile in future versions of the app. Currently administrators have the ability to curate playlists for their staff.

A screen titled Primer Name, with the title of the primer and a brief description, along with the name of the organization that curates the primer. Text shows the number of steps complete within the primer, and each of the sections of the primer are displayed as tiles showing the title, the status, and the time to complete.
Figure 15. Playlist Screen Example.

Pathways

Pathways are collections of primers, articles, and playlists that are grouped into a scope and sequence that can be scheduled to automatically release to users. A two year example pathway is provided for administrators to take advantage of and modify for their own use; it categorizes primers and playlists into two week segments on individual topics. Administrators can create and deploy customized pathways either with existing content or by adding their own.

Administrator Functions

NuTeacher has a robust web-based management system that allows administrators to create their own primers, playlists, and pathways. In addition to the typical user management functions you would find in common learning environments, users with elevated permissions can create primers (using a simple tool), curate playlists, and assign pathways. Administrators can also moderate both discussion topics and shared resources and articles from the management dashboard (Figure 16).

A screen showing the administrator’s view of recent activity within the app, with multiple rows where interactions are timestamped and user names are shown to display which users have interacted with specific content, along with the user’s affiliation.
Figure 16. Administrator Activity Dashboard Sample.

Web-based reporting tools allow NuTeacher administrators to view user interaction with primers, playlists, and resources. Not only are administrators able to see time stamped data about when a user has accessed one of the NuTeacher learning resources, but they also have access to a dashboard with cumulative access data across all users. This allows administrators to quickly assess general use of the app by their faculty as well as identify the most popular learning resources being accessed (Figure 17).

Multiple charts are displayed from the administrator dashboard, including line graphs showing daily active users, total current hours, average time in the app per user, and total downloads. Other visuals, including horizontal bar graphs, show the numbers of primers, playlists, and assignments that are started, completed, and present within the app.

Figure 17. Administrator Dashboard Example.

Future Designs and Implementation

As of the writing of this report, NuTeacher is currently undergoing beta testing. A pilot program with districts in Michigan will start in fall 2018. Data collected through surveys during the pilot will focus on usability, while in-app tracking will collect data on primer and playlist usage. A full rollout is expected by January 2019. As the user base grows, features and functions will be modified and added based on user feedback. The intent exists to allow not just the cross-collaboration of users in the same school or district, but also to allow users to follow individuals from outside of their building through a public/private permission schema, similar to other social media applications. This will allow isolated teachers, who may not have a content area colleague, to network and create larger professional learning networks outside of their immediate colleagues. This capacity will also be especially helpful for novice teachers, the original target population of the app. Additionally, with the high rate of teacher mobility in Michigan, Michigan Virtual understands the need to support the fluid nature of the education workforce, allowing for users to come and go through “garden-walled” school and district accounts easily and providing the end user the ability to retain connections throughout their career. Michigan Virtual will also continue to develop primers in areas of high need for educators, such as social emotional learning and literacy. By fall 2019, the intent is to have 90 hours of continuing education credit available in the app through primers and playlists, with expanded content focusing on teacher induction, social emotional learning, and school culture and climate. This would allow most districts to fulfill their professional development requirements while allowing teachers an optimization of choice in subject areas.

Mobile devices provide a promising platform to help educators access their colleagues and content quickly and efficiently. Michigan Virtual will continue to adapt to meet user needs by creating professional learning content delivered through a variety of devices and will develop an understanding of the affordances each platform provides to the delivery of instructional content. NuTeacher will serve as a useful platform to continue the research on how instructional design of professional learning content is best delivered on mobile devices. Challenges to explore are what types of content are most effectively delivered on mobile platforms, the effect of the sizing of content being delivered, the accessibility of mobile content, and the varieties of assessments that could be available. Continued innovation in search optimization, artificial intelligence, and various other technological advances have found comfortable homes on smart devices and will inspire new opportunities for developing instructional models to tackle these challenges. A future where users seamlessly switch between laptop, smartphone, smart speaker, and augmented reality as they interact with various professional content is not too distant.

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