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Thinking small: 3 tips for mobile learning

4 July 2014

by Catherine Emmett

Whilst doing some research for a workshop last week, I was struck by a statistic from the Welcome to Cardiff survey carried out with undergraduate students. Students in the survey were asked to indicate what kind of mobile phone they brought with them to University. Did you know…?

91% of the 2013 undergraduate intake at Cardiff brought a smartphone to University with them [based on 1,576 student responses].

That’s a significant proportion of students who brought a smartphone to University. There’s certainly a case that could be made that students have some expectation of using these devices for learning. This is beginning to be corroborated by emerging research that students do want to use these devices at university for learning. Dahlstrom’s ECAR study on undergraduates and IT, which is based on responses from 100,000 students worldwide, seems to affirm this.

“Students want to access academic progress information and course material via their mobile devices”. (Dahlstrom, 2012, p.16)

We know that the use of different types of media in learning and teaching is common and recognised as valuable for the student experience. We know there are many ways in which multimedia content can be used to facilitate different aspects of teaching, from content-driven information and learning to active, problem-based and authentic learning. But when designing learning resources, how much do we think about the devices students use to access them?

Image representing the idea of 'thinking small'Image courtesy of falequin via Creative Commons license

This idea can be summed up as think small, think mobile first!  This doesn’t mean ignoring other devices, as students still access course materials from all kinds of devices. It also doesn’t mean think only mobile, not all learning activities are suitable for it. But think mobile does mean having the expectation that designing for mobile comes first, that it is the default whenever appropriate. Working from that premise, there are practicalities to consider. So here are three tips to help with this.

Top tip 1: file size

Thinking small means paying attention to file size. This won’t be a problem with purely text-based documents, but if you’re including images, make sure you compress the images. If you’re using audio or video, upload it to a streaming service like Learn Plus, AudioBoo, VocarooVimeo or YouTube. This will ensure more efficient delivery because streaming can handle different bandwidths more resiliently. Small file size makes it easier and quicker for students to access and fit learning in whether they’re on the train, in the park, or somewhere else.

Top tip 2: bite-size

Thinking small also means carefully considering how much you put into each resource. Splitting content in a meaningful way into smaller units is a good idea as this will work better from both a file size perspective and for limiting required screen time on potentially a very small screen. One of the useful things about online learning delivery is that you don’t have the same timetabling restraints as in the physical environment. So just because you might deliver an hour long lecture in a timetabled face to face session, doesn’t mean you need to or even should do this online.

Even disregarding the mobile factor, there are other potential benefits to smaller units of learning. Bower (1970), building on Miller (1956) and with Mayer and Moreno (2003) weighing in about “segmenting”, suggests that meaningful chunking of learning content can address some issues around cognitive overload.

Top tip 3: file format

Thinking small and mobile first also means considering whether the file format you’re using will work on a mobile device. The safest options for various multimedia types would be as follows.

  • Text documents: pdf or rtf.
  • Images: png or jpg.
  • Audio: stream / mp3.
  • Video: stream / mp4.

As previously mentioned with audio and video, the best option is to upload to a streaming service and link to or embed. A service likeLearn Plus can automatically deliver the audio/video in the most appropriate file format for the device the student is using. That takes the bother off your hands.

And just so we’re on the subject, it might also be useful to know what file format to avoid for mobile – basically, that’s pretty much anything that uses Flash. Sorry, folks, but when it comes to mobiles, Flash really is dead. (We could of course get into a discussion about how some tools that deliver Flash have an app students can download to display that particular content, but they’re not that common, so Flash is definitely not a safe option for mobile learners).

Thinking about mobile learning?

If you’re doing anything in the University which involves ‘think small, mobile first’ we want to hear about it. Please get in touch if you want to share your experiences. Or if you’re thinking about how you might do ‘think small, mobile first’ and want some help, let us know, we’re always happy to help.


Bower, G. H. 1970. Organisational factors in memory. Cognitive Psychology, 1, 18-46

Dahlstrom, E. 2012. ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. Available from: [Accessed 3 July 2014].

Mayer, B.H. and Moreno, R. 2003. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Pyschologist, 38(1), 43-52.

Miller, G.A. 1956. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.