Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Cathy Cavanaugh: An Engaged and Engaging Mobile Learning Ecosystem for K-12 Online and Blended Learning

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Cathy Cavanaugh

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Today’s guest blogger is an amazing mentor of mine, Dr. Cathy Cavanaugh. We are so happy and honored to have her guest blog for iNACOL. Enjoy her post!

Kudos to iNACOL and Kathryn Kennedy for placing K-12 online and blended learning research front and center, making iNACOL the premier portal for researchers and fans! It’s a delight to participate.

One of UNESCO’s newest education efforts is guiding mobile learning as a strategy for reaching the Education for All goal, given the ubiquity of mobile phones, especially in the developing world, and the growth in low-cost tablet computers (Vosloo, 2012). The guidelines echo the need for partnerships, quality open education resources, and educator professional development (West, 2012). As exciting as it is to see the United Nations and many participating countries promoting K-12 e-learning, sustained access to quality educational resources and experiences requires a permanent systemic commitment on the part of collaborating governments and agencies. The US has taken steps in the right direction with recent initiatives such as the National Broadband Plan for Education.  Education, as a lifelong enterprise, involves families, governments at all levels, K-adult education organizations, education materials publishers, support systems and infrastructures. Coordinating all of these entities requires vision and leadership that can unite learners, providers and supporters around the goal of education as a path to social advancement.

As K-12 schools consider and adopt mobile learning approaches to increase student access to learning experiences, “flip the classroom” to expand learning time and increase engagement, personalize learning of Common Core standards, and broaden avenues for teacher communities of practice, school leaders are seeking models and evidence that mobile learning programs work. Tablets and other mobile devices have had mixed results in K-12 programs, but little examination has illuminated specific success factors. For example, the Los Angeles school recently launched a district-wide iPad program that encountered obstacles, believed to be due to key oversights: haste, lack of professional development, 24/7 student use of devices, and unclear alignment of goals with the device (Kamenetz, 2013). In this post I share the story of a rapid, large-scale mobile learning implantation and relate specific implications for K-12 online and blended programs, addressing the LA obstacles and others.

In April 2012, national higher education leaders in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) charged the federal higher education institutions, including the college where I served as academic leader, to launch effective mobile learning programs in and outside of the classrooms that September. The initiative was guided by active and engaged pedagogy and began with the 15,000 students leaving high school who needed preparatory instruction prior to meeting college entrance requirements. Thus, the students were learning at a secondary school level in full-time, campus-based blended learning programs in 20 campuses around the country.

To kick-start the program, instructors on each campus volunteered to be iChampions and participate in intensive professional development focused on integrating mobile learning tools into their classrooms. These instructors championed the development of colleagues on their campuses and became primary drivers in the success of the iPadagogy project. Research conducted at my campus during the first six months of the national mobile learning program provided insights into key program features and outcomes. The campus was an urban women’s college with an enrollment just over 2000 full time students where all instructors participated in professional development activities.

We identified five forms of engagement at the core of the initial year of the program. The mobile learning ecosystem (MLE) operationalized on the campus was comprised of:

1. Engaging Technology: iPads as cognitive tool-boxes for learning
2. Engaged Pedagogy: Student-centered teaching practice
3. Engaged Faculty: Perceptions and uses of the tools and ecosystem
4. Engaged Community of Learners:  Media creation with the tools
5. Engaged Learning Ecosystem: Mobile learning in blended courses

Engaging Technology

The new mobile learning ecosystem facilitates authentic and meaningful engaged learning all the time, everywhere. It is uniquely suited to support the essential learning actions of monologue, dialogue, and trialogue: reflection, conversation, interaction with tools and media (Cavanaugh and Hargis 2013). This ecosystem has formed around the personal networked iPad, which supports learning as a cognitive toolbox (Jonassen 2008). The blended learning ecosystem that is built purposely around students with mobile technology has increased the roles and importance of the instructor who iteratively designs the learning experience from a very wide and continually shifting array of possibilities. Thus, in the college’s iPadified new learning ecosystem, the learner and instructor are central, supported by the technology, to learning with evolving content and materials. Success in this ecosystem results from effective use of the technology as a customized cognitive toolbox. The six components of cognitive tools align with affordances of the iPad program as it is currently operationalized in the college. In its initial planning and implementation stages, the iPad program achieved the six components to varying extents.

The college made rapid progress in the initial four of the components of the cognitive tools benefits path:

  • Defined beliefs about teaching and learning in the organization,
  • Embedded beliefs throughout the organization,
  • Active engagement in the embedded design, and
  • Feedback used to inform practice.

Further development needed in the final two components:

  • Shared dynamic framework for practice, and
  • Ubiquitous use of technology as cognitive tools reflecting the beliefs.

The key levers in the initial program adoption and implementation were the people and the relationships built within and among the colleges. It is likely that diffusion of the iPad program from entry level courses throughout academic departments and levels in the college will further this development, as will adoption of iPads among all faculty members. In addition, feedback from the early days of the iPad program will guide the ubiquitous use of mobile technology as the cognitive tools students need for professional success. Development of specific feedback and data systems that look closely at what instructors and students do will propel the effectiveness of the iPad program.

Engaged Pedagogy

Access to the new ecosystem and cognitive tools resulted in changes in teaching practice to expand active, engaged learning (Cavanaugh, Hargis, Munns, and Kamali 2013). As faculty planned the transformation of their courses and teaching prior to the start of classes, they worked collaboratively in a national community of practice. The initial development of iPad pedagogy was shared among faculty at a national professional development event. To understand the entry stage of faculty participating in this event as a step into the new MLE, the following question was asked:

“To what extent do the faculty members’ shared practices display technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) (Mishra and Koehler 2006) prior to implementation in classrooms?”

The answers to this question were used to inform subsequent professional development activities during the academic year and to form a baseline for understanding the path of faculty development in adopting, designing, and applying mobile education practices in a large-scale mobile learning initiative. TPCK was considered to be foundational to effective teaching in a mobile learning environment. The dataset was abstracts for pedagogical practices that 56 faculty members teaching entering undergraduate students across the UAE presented at a June, 2012, sharing event called iCelebrate Teaching and Learning. Outcomes of the study of faculty TPCK levels indicate that the initial level of integration of the mobile education innovations into the curriculum was limited, and may require more time and practice to move from an emphasis on tools to an emphasis on content. The Technological Knowledge reflected in the abstracts was similarly emerging in that it emphasized “turnkey” apps and media, rather than more complex collaborative and production tools. Pedagogical Knowledge as represented by attributes of meaningful learning was strong in active learning, but included fewer of the more complex and interactive attributes, indicating that faculty members had begun their adoption of this innovation with familiar and simple strategies. Regarding their Technological Pedagogical Knowledge, faculty members had progressed beyond entry level and also had room to grow toward infusion and transformation.

As faculty began teaching, an examination was conducted of the “difficult to measure” concept of instructional practices when integrating new mobile ‘teachnology’ devices (Hargis, Cavanaugh, Kamali, and Soto 2013b). A mobile data collection instrument was specifically developed to observe teaching in the MLE to determine the effectiveness of mobile learning devices in higher education. The triangulation of data about teaching practices included interviews of faculty members about their levels of mobile learning knowledge, classroom observations, and a self-report survey of faculty understanding and implementation of the national four pillars of mobile learning. The pillars of the UAE mobile learning ecosystem are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The four pillars of the UAE higher education mobile learning ecosystem


1. Aspirations

2. Content

3. Competencies

4. Practices

Supporting model

Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition (SAMR) model (Puentedura 2009)

21st Century Skills

Social, Mobility, Visualization, Storytelling, and Gaming framework (Puentedura 2009)

Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK) model (Mishra and Koehler 2006)

Level of implementation



Learning Environment


Aspect of iPad integration






The triangulation study focused on six faculty members who represented the range of courses, levels of experience, and demographic backgrounds of faculty in the college. Data showed that the iPad program in its first semester appeared to leverage student-centered teaching and engage learners in meaningful use of mobile technology to enhance learning. Interview and survey revealed a wide array of tools and roles integrated in classrooms, indicating that effective faculty should be comfortable with, if not embracing of, substantial activity, flexibility, student autonomy, and fluidity in the physical learning environment. In keeping with these findings, the survey showed a preference for social and visual teaching and learning approaches. More intensive methods like storytelling and gaming were not seen. This preference may be just a starting point of a shift as faculty and students continue to explore the tools they now have in their hands. Results indicate that the mobile education ecosystem was supporting social, collaborative learning, which is essential in the college-entry classrooms where the study occurred.

Engaged Faculty

As the new ecosystem evolved, faculty perspectives evolved. An analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of the initial stage of iPad deployment and a case study representing a large-scale integration of mobile learning devices in a higher education ecosystem provided insight into faculty perspectives in the first semester of the program (Hargis, Cavanaugh, Kamali, and Soto 2013a). The data for the SWOT were collected using three strategies: case study interviews with four faculty, dispositional survey of 225 iPad faculty members from all colleges (69% of the total population on UAE iPad faculty), and iChampion reflections on Week One iPad deployment at each campus. Specific SWOTs identified by faculty and iChampions included the strengths of student and faculty engagement in reflective teaching and learning, effective technical support, and an extensive repository of digital resources; weaknesses of changing student perceptions of the nature of school, cloud storage for course products, and systems for disseminating purchased apps and eBooks; opportunities for collaborative faculty development, increased pedagogical support, and expanding performance assessment in courses; and threats of lagging assessment paradigms, digital content, and iPads as true cognitive tools. The national survey showed that most faculty members identified themselves in the middle in the stages of technology adoption and integration. They indicated that they were beginning to understand the teaching with technology and can think of specific tasks in which it might be applied. Further, responses indicated that faculty members on the whole had the skills to comfortably use more than one application in the creation of a single product, and could use a variety of mobile technology in preparation, instruction, and evaluation.

Predominant pedagogical practices adopted in the first six months of the UAE MLE implementation program were examined based on faculty shift from substituting their teaching methods with mobile technology to augmentation of teaching methods with new affordances of mobile technology (Cavanaugh, Hargis, Soto, and Kamali 2013). A Chi Squared analysis of descriptions of teaching practices at the base-line sharing event among teachers (called iCelebrate) and the second event (iCelebrate 2) was used to compare the abstracts for the events. The abstracts were coded using indicators from the TPACK model (Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge) including the SAMR levels (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition). The results indicated there was no significant difference (p=0.287) between the technology focus of the abstracts over the six month period, although there was a significant (p = .049) difference in the pedagogical focus of the abstracts. As well, there was a significant difference (p = 0.0009) for the content focus of the abstracts. In the SAMR indicators, there was no significant difference (p=0.35) in the presence of Substitution versus other levels (Augmentation, Modification or Redefinition), although there was a practical increase from Substitution to another level. For the TPACK level of technology adoption, there was a significant difference (p=0.014) from adoption of the technology to a higher level of integration.

The data indicate that faculty-driven practice-embedded development and intentional integration of the two models change corresponded with were helpful in changes in teaching practice in a short period of time. The TPACK model (Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge) including the SAMR levels (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition) of technology integration were used to delineate change in the use of iPads in and outside of the classroom to create dynamic learning environments. Change was observed in specific TPACK indicators among the volunteer faculty who shared their mobile teaching practices in June and December 2012, showing that adoption and implementation of new tools, resources, and practices can happen quickly and at large scale.

Engaged Community of Learners

Students in many higher education settings have taken on a more active, productive role in learning through projects, challenges, and portfolios. Likewise, faculty members have widely engaged in creating new mobile content. In one college campus, a demonstration project used innovations in course design to push the boundaries of a college skills course to explore the nature of experiential learning in the mobile environment (Marin, Hargis, and Cavanaugh 2013). Specifically, an English Language course was developed to integrate Challenge Based Learning (CBL) and iPad mobile learning technology. The intent of the course was to maximize students’ language learning, learning product development affordance, 21st Century skills (Mishra, Koehler, and Henriksen 2011), and most importantly student engagement with real world meaningful challenges that will make a difference in their learning community. In a CBL course, students integrate their knowledge of technology commonly used in daily life with the social, emotional, intellectual, and time management skills required by the demands of the 21st century for work, life, and school (Apple Inc. 2010; Johnson and Adams 2011). The course designers, aiming for delivery using iPads and cloud-based content, developed the following materials, which are in review with students:

  • An e-book created on the iPad Creative Book Builder application;
  • A challenge storyboard podcast; and
  • A challenge storyboard iMovie and a Rapid Fire talk.

Past educational technology research has shown that teaching practices change with the infusion of technology resources, professional development, and support (Dawson, Cavanaugh, and Ritzhaupt 2008). To expand the types of experiential learning that students need in college, UAE faculty members have engaged in course redesign to amplify experiential mobile learning. A college created a faculty development program centered on sharing experiential teaching approaches and course designs. The approaches that were shared and adopted during the year were reviewed using Newmann’s rubrics for authentic instruction as a baseline indicator of the levels of higher order thinking, connection to the world beyond the classroom, and depth of knowledge present in the newly adopted activities (Newmann 1996). Results of analysis indicate that the sharing event was effective in expanding faculty knowledge and adoption of experiential mobile approaches in their courses as evidenced by growth in specific approaches used by faculty in the semester following the sharing event. The ideas shared by faculty at the outset of the national mobile learning initiative were rated high in indicators of higher order thinking, moderate in indicators of depth of thinking, and low in indicators of connection to the world beyond the classroom. While there is room for growth in all three indicators of authentic instruction, this outcome implies that students are likely to encounter opportunities in their degree programs to practice substantial higher order thinking and some depth of thinking, but limited connections between their coursework and the world. Because the mission of the higher education increasingly is to develop career-ready graduates, this finding could be taken as reason to examine the direct linkages and relevance of class experiences to the contexts for application.


Engaging Learning Ecosystem

The mobile learning iCommunity includes students, faculty, staff, leaders, and partners working for the shared goals of the college. The overarching pedagogical approach is flexible, personalized, student-centered learning with students driving their learning as discoverers. The iPad can be their vehicle as they explore and propose responses to real-world course-contextualized challenges posed in their domain of learning.  Learning environments that support engaged learning must be smart, flexible, and allow fluid movement of learners in physical and virtual space.  Spaces should be designed to foster reflection, innovation, and collaboration. Interior and exterior spaces must support groups of all sizes and sharing of all types. Campus spaces will ideally be sustainable, healthy, and engaging. Sharing in classrooms is afforded through mobile furniture, display capability, and connection to the world beyond the classroom. Sharing in common spaces is afforded through inviting designs, impromptu digital, white/blackboards, and other surfaces that accommodate ideas and creations. Even iCafes can be iPad-friendly, enabling anytime anyplace continuity of learning.

Student Services, Academic Services, Information Commons, Technical Services, and other co-curricular programs and activities are fully integrated into the learning experience, the learning environment, and the learning community.  The iPad supports them all and connects them with all students. iPads can increase staff interaction with students by increasing efficiency of regular tasks and systems.

Early indicators of the success of this ecosystem are described above and also include results from the learning management system used in the program. Data were collected to assess the impact of student participation in the online components of their blended courses on their course grades. The influence of student participation in the online course environment was measured by the number of times students logged into the learning management system (LMS) and average session length. These measures were correlated with final course grades to increase understanding of the participation patterns of successful students. Students with an intermediate number of logins and average session length tended to exhibit the optimal level of course performance with students who logged in near the low or high amount of times tending to receive lower grades (Cavanaugh, Mayberry, and Hargis, manuscript submitted).


Schools are moving rapidly in several simultaneous directions: new standards, new tools in courses, new school models, new learning environments. Literature on change creation as an alternative to change management (Watkins and Kaufman 2007) indicates that adaptability, internal planning for a shared future, an external focus, and synergy are among the attributes of a learning organization that succeeds in changing proactively (Kaufman and Lick 2000). The positive outcomes and areas for growth from the early stages of the UAE’s creation of a new MLE gives concrete guidance for other learning organizations where change creation is a goal in response to forces that include a changing economic climate, increased globalization, and a digitally-oriented learner population.

Mobile technology is a cognitive toolbox for learning, in which we have shown early progress toward ubiquity with the tools.  Student-centered teaching practice forms the core of the UAE MLE’s success, due to fluid and practice-embedded faculty development efforts centered on active, engaged, learning by doing. Faculty perceptions and uses of the tools and ecosystem validated these efforts by showing that faculty have quickly transcended basic substitution of analog for digital materials and are on the way to transformation of the learning environment. The community of learners who are creating rich media using the iPad mobile learning tools will ensure this transformation as their learning objects are shared and adopted widely. Finally seeing the MLE as a lifelong learning ecosystem enables the effects to broaden throughout the college and community.

Specific implications for MLE adoption and implementation:

  • Articulate and reiterate the vision for the MLE and align resources, activities, and evaluation around it, with clear expectations
  • Embrace student-centered pedagogy and create a community in which physical and virtual classrooms are spaces for professional sharing
  • Create many opportunities and forums for school-level and broader sharing
  • Arrange physical spaces as fluid and flexible mobile learning spaces for quiet independent work, small group work, and large group work, including sharing of display technology
  • Design instructional materials with modularity so small “beads” of content and learning experiences can be used by learners with any device in short timespans, and so the beads can string together in well-designed sequences for longer timespans
  • Adopt a technical workflow for sharing material among students and instructors, using LMS, cloud, etc.
  • Expect a variety of activities and groupings during class-time, and prepare students and instructors to shift position and attention often during a session
  • Seek ways to include all staff, parents and other stakeholders in the program
  • Believe that the benefits in engagement and ownership of teaching and learning will be worth the bumps that come with technical updates and other unforeseen issues, and cultivate a culture of resilience and cooperation
  • Use data to understand the effects of the program, including learning, technology use, teaching practices, perceptions, and other sources


Apple Inc., 2010. Challenge Based Learning: A Classroom Guide. Cupertino, CA: Author.

Cavanaugh, C., and Hargis, J., 2013. iPads as cognitive toolboxes in higher education. In S. Dowling, Ed., Redefining Learning , Book 2 in the HCT Educational Technology Series, pp. 1-13. Abu Dhabi: HCT Press.

Cavanaugh, C., Hargis, J., Munns, S., and Kamali, T., 2013. iCelebrate teaching and learning: Sharing the iPad experience. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology 1(2), 1-12.

Cavanaugh, C., Hargis, J., Soto, M., and Kamali, T., 2013. Substitution to augmentation: Faculty adoption of iPad mobile learning in higher education, Interactive Technology and Smart Education 10(2).

Cavanaugh, C., Mayberry, J., and Hargis, J. (submitted) Participation in the Virtual Environment of Blended College Courses: An Activity Study of Student Performance.

Dawson, K., Cavanaugh, C., and Ritzhaupt, A., 2008. Florida’s Leveraging Laptops initiative and its impact on teaching practices. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(2), 143-159.

Hargis, J., Cavanaugh, C., Kamali, T., and Soto, M., 2013a. A Federal higher education iPad mobile learning initiative: Triangulation of data to determine early effectiveness. Innovative Higher Education, 39(1), 1-13.

Hargis, J., Cavanaugh, C., Kamali, T., and Soto, M., 2013b. Measuring the difficult to measure: iPad mobile learning. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 5(2) 60-77.

Johnson, L., and Adams, S., 2011. Challenge Based Learning: The Report from the Implementation Project. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Jonassen, D. H., 2008. Meaningful learning with technology. Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Kamenetz, A. (2013). The inside story on LA schools’ iPad rollout: “a colossal disaster”. New York: The Hechinger Report.

Kaufman, R. and Lick, D., 2000. Technology-driven planning: Principles to practice. In J. Boettcher, M. Doyle, and R. Jensen (Eds.), Mega-level strategic planning: Beyond conventional wisdom. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

Marin, C., Hargis, J., and Cavanaugh, C., 2013. Developing a challenge-based learning Foundations English course using a design thinking approach. Turkish Journal of Distance Education (TJODE), 14(2), 22-34.

Mishra, P., and Koehler, M., 2006. Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. The Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

Mishra, P., Koehler, M. J., and Henriksen, D., 2011. The Seven Trans-Disciplinary Habits of Mind: Extending the TPACK Framework Towards 21st Century learning. Educational Technology, 11(2), 22–28.

Newmann, F.M., 1996. Authentic Achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Puentedura, R., 2009. As We May Teach: Educational Technology, From Theory into Practice.

Vosloo, S. (2012). Mobile learning and policies: Key issues to consider. Paris: UNESCO.

West, M. (2012). Turning on mobile learning: Global themes. Paris: UNESCO.

Watkins, R. and Kaufman, R., 2007. Strategic planning. In M. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of Distance Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.