Tips from the Pros: Making Your Course Mobile-Friendly

It seems that everywhere online faculty turn, they are being told about the importance of making their courses “mobile friendly.” This is because nearly all students are on mobile devices, which gives faculty a couple of reasons to design for such devices.

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It seems that everywhere online faculty turn, they are being told about the importance of making their courses “mobile friendly.” This is because nearly all students are on mobile devices, which gives faculty a couple of reasons to design for such devices.

For one, your course content is more likely to be accessed if it is available on a mobile device. Mobile-friendly content can be viewed on the go. Laptops take a while to start up, but tablets start in seconds, and are easy to carry, making them ideal for viewing content on a bus or during lunch. Plus, the ubiquitous earbuds allow students to listen to a podcast lecture from their cell phone while walking between classes. 

Two, the touch screen feature of mobile devices allows for interactions that are not easy on desktops. For instance, students can make handwritten notes on course content using a stylus. This connects the notes to the original content, making for easier studying. You can also design assignments that require students to add multimedia content with a mobile device. An architecture class might require students to take photos of buildings around campus that represent architectural elements studied in class. The students can be given a form in which to enter the photo. This can easily be done on a tablet or cell phone. 

Unfortunately, faculty are not given much guidance on how to ensure that their courses are mobile-friendly. So we have asked Steven Crawford, project manager in instructional design at Arizona State University, for tips on making your course mobile-friendly.

Check Your LMS 

Every LMS worth its gradebook claims to be mobile-friendly, but there are varying degrees of mobile-friendliness. Steven notes that basic course content such as the home page and discussion forums will generally render well on most anything, but more complex content items such as photos and videos might require an app from the company in order for them to play on mobile devices. Assessments in particular can be a sticking point, especially if they include photos or videos, as their unique programing often requires device-specific apps to play correctly. 

It is a good idea to ask your students to test all course content at the beginning of class on their mobile devices in order to determine if they must download an app. They may also find that specific functions simply will not work on their device, and so will need to make sure to be at a desktop when they plan to use them. For instance, some companies are not designing apps to work on older versions of the iPad. You might want to make an ungraded sample assessment—something lighthearted such as five questions about your school—for the students to take on their mobile devices to see if it works or requires special downloads. 

Avoid Flash 

By now you have probably heard the mantra “avoid Flash.” Flash is a video format invented by Adobe years ago that served its purpose at the time, but is now outdated and a battery hog. Steve Jobs was so Flash-averse that he forbade Apple products from being built to work with Flash. 

While there are workarounds to the Flash problem, they come with their own issues. Some websites will have two versions of content—Flash and non-Flash—and will feed the version that works on the user's device to the user. This might sound like a fix, but the versions, or other website content, may differ, so not all students get the same information.

Steven recommends sticking with content that is in the more universal HTML5 format. But how is a faculty member to know if the content he or she is assigning uses Flash? If you can see the video file, then you can look at the extension at the end of a file name. SWF and FLV are common Flash formats, while MP4 is the most common HTML5 format. Another option is to right click the video on the website and see if you get any message related to Flash or the Adobe Flash Player. Of course, you can also just try to open it on an Apple product and see if returns a failure message. 

If you do encounter Flash, see if there is a version of the material at another location. The major video hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo have the Flash problem pretty much licked, so using material from these sites is safe. If you are making your own video, when it comes time to produce it, you should get an option to save it in either an HTML5 or MP4 format. Choose one of these formats rather than Flash (SWF or FLV) options.

Use Downloadable Content 

Steven points out that it can be arduous to read long blocks of text on tiny mobile screens. Plus, the device might format the text in odd ways to fit the window. Thus, provide a PDF alternative to website text whenever possible. A PDF can be downloaded and will generally render well on any device. It can even carry embedded multimedia elements such as videos and animations that will play with a PDF Reader. 

Downloaded content also has the advantage of being accessible with no Internet connection or with limited Internet connectivity. While 3G and 4G connections are available most anywhere, these can be quite slow when dealing with large content. A student trying to watch a video on a bus might find it hanging. But campuses are now blanketed with much faster wireless access points. Your students can download course content to their mobile devices while on campus and then view it on their ride home. 

The easiest way to make PDFs is with Adobe Acrobat, which will integrate with all of your Microsoft applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—thus allowing you to save these files in PDF format. Note that the free Adobe Reader cannot create PDFs. If you can't get your department to pony up for the cost of Acrobat and want to purchase it yourself, make sure to do it through your institution, as it likely has access to hefty educational discounts.

Another alternative is to use Google Drive to convert content to PDF. First upload documents, spreadsheets, or PowerPoints to Google Drive, and then choose the PDF option off the menu when downloading it. There are also various Chrome browser extensions for making PDFs out of a Web page, including Print Friendly & PDF. 

Also, make sure that any videos, podcasts, or other media content you create and upload can be downloaded, rather than just played on the website. Note that videos on major hosting sites such as YouTube are not generally downloadable (for copyright protection purposes), so you might need to remind students to watch these with a decent wireless connection.

These few simple steps will help ensure that your courses are as mobile-friendly as possible.