Tackling the Challenge of Mobile in the Classroom:
Using Boundary-Free Storytelling to Inspire Students' Professional Growth
Kelly Bruhn* and Sandy Henry
- *Corresponding Author:
- Kelly Bruhn
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Students face immense challenges in developing the skills necessary to produce content for consumption in a mobile environment. Not only is it a quickly changing medium, requiring immense flexibility with the tools used to create content, but mobile devices are giving students the ability to tell a story in any way they see fit – be it text, photos, videos or all of the above. This case study examined via pre- and post-test responses students’ perceptions of boundaryfree storytelling—a limitless exploration of mobile devices, content delivery and message development. However, the act of pushing the students beyond their comfort zones uncovered some gaps in news consumption, technology exposure and confidence with traditional videography. Armed with their assessments, students left the course with a better understanding of mobile content delivery and, perhaps more importantly, a list of areas for growth they need to strengthen before entering the communications industry. The article offers recommendations for enhancing current curricula to help students embrace challenges and tackle the unknown—the only constant in the ever-changing communications industry.
mobile, multimedia, journalism education, advertising education, electronic media
Students face immense challenges in developing the skills necessary to produce content
for consumption in a mobile environment. Not only is it a quickly changing medium, requiring
immense flexibility with the tools used to create content, but mobile devices are giving students
the ability to tell a story in any way they see fit – be it text, photos, videos, or all of the above.
This study examined via pre- and post-test responses students’ perceptions of boundary-free
storytelling—a limitless exploration of mobile devices, content delivery and message
development. However, the act of pushing the students beyond their comfort zones uncovered
some gaps in news consumption, technology exposure and confidence with traditional
videography. Armed with their assessments, students left the course with a better understanding
of mobile content delivery and, perhaps more importantly, a list of areas for growth they need to
strengthen before entering the communications industry.
Since 2009, the number of graduates required to produce content for a mobile device has
doubled (Becker, et al., 2012, p. 38), yet only 11 percent have the ability to produce content for
mobile devices (p. 54). And, while a study of 2011 bachelor’s degree recipients found more than
seven out of 10 graduates reported they were able to write for the web, edit for the web, use and
create blogs, and use social media professionally, only small percentages of graduates reported
having other skills that are essential in the current media environment (Becker, Vlad & Kalpen,
2012, p. 1). However, understanding students’ technical abilities is only part of the equation. Educators must also examine how students gather news and interact with media to shape
curricula that expands the horizon of the media landscape.
Only four in 10 of the 2011 bachelor’s degree recipients reported reading a newspaper the
day before completing the survey. Less than half reported reading a magazine the day before,
and the percentage of students who reported watching television news also continued to decline
in 2011. The percentage of graduates in 2011 who listened to radio news remained unchanged
from a year ago, at four in 10, as did the 75 percent of the graduates who reported viewing news
online the day before. That figure is basically unchanged going back to 2007. Yet, the percentage
of graduates who reported getting news on a mobile device continued to increase in 2011.
Following online news and television is now the most common way of getting news (Becker, et
al., 2012, p. 8-9). While this data does not differentiate the online news category from the mobile
category, data from other sources implies strong growth in mobile consumption among younger
adults. Nearly three out of four teens say they access the Internet on cell phones, tablets and
other mobile devices at least occasionally, with one in four teens saying they are cell-mostly
Internet users (Madden, Lenhart, Duggan, Cortesi & Gasser, 2013, p. 2).
This behavior is not unique to the young. Like teens, 74 percent of American adults under
the age of 50 say they access the Internet on cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices, too
(Madden, et al., 2013, p. 4). And globally, mobile devices now account for 13 percent of Internet
traffic (Hall, 2013). In fact, worldwide mobile broadband subscriptions have grown from 268
million in 2007 to 2.1 billion in 2013—an average annual growth rate of 40 percent (“The World
in 2013,” 2013, p. 6). This includes an 89 percent penetration rate in "developing countries,"
which currently have the highest mobile growth rates (p. 1), perhaps because mobile broadband
is often cheaper than wired broadband in developing countries (p. 7).
As a result, the overall sales figures of smartphones and tablets do not come as a surprise.
The year 2012 saw a 78.4 percent growth year-over-year when compared to 2011. The projected
growth rate of smart devices from 2012 to 2017 is 174.5 percent. During the same period,
smartphone sales are expected to grow 109.9 percent and portable PCs will grow 19.3 percent
(Lomas, 2013). With such growth, it seems likely that educators can expect students to have
strong working knowledge of the mobile medium. But, Lomas’s survey leaves room for question,
as “mobile device” is the only characterization used for a category that can include smartphones,
tablets and even laptops in certain situations. A more specific analysis of tablets shows
Annual tablet sales will hit nearly 500 million units by 2015 according to a report by BI
Intelligence, predicting tablet sales to grow at better than a 50 percent compound annual rate.
That will exceed the number of PCs currently sold per year (approximately 360 million). This
figure also includes e-readers (Gobry, 2012).
Teens and young adults are receiving increased exposure to tablets in their schools. Apple
sold 1 million iPads to high schools and colleges this year, doubling year-over-year sales to
schools. News Corporation and AT&T developed a partnership to provide tablet-based learning
products to K-12 schools. Orlando Science School students maintaining a pre-determined GPA
will be issued an iPad for use at home and school (Lytle, 2012). And the Johnston Community
School District in Johnston, Iowa, has embarked on a 1:1 initiative in which all high school
students and staff are issued iPads for curriculum activities (“1:1 Digital Learning,” 2012).
Tablet ownership among college students and college-bound seniors has tripled, with
nearly half of them saying they will buy another in the next six months. They believe tablets are valuable educational tools and nearly 60 percent prefer e-reading for class or for fun, the first
time digital publications beat printed texts (“Pearson Foundation,” 2012). But, a detail in the
Pearson Foundation survey creates cause for concern: the college students who said they would
buy a tablet in the next six months are current tablet owners, not those entering the market for
the first time. Further analysis of tablet ownership reinforces the concern.
As of September 2010, 4 percent of all U.S. adults owned tablets, with that number
growing to 25 percent in August 2012 (Rainie, 2012). A breakdown of the age of ownership in
January 2012 shows exactly who owned tablets at that time: 24 percent of those ages 18-29, 27
percent of those ages 30-49, 15 percent of those ages 50-64, and 7 percent of those ages 65+.
Particularly noteworthy was the growth during the 2011 holiday season: ownership among those
ages 18-64 nearly doubled (Rainie, Zickuhr, Purcell, Madden & Brenner, 2012, p. 30). But an
analysis of ownership as of August 2012 shows growth is slow in the younger population: 25
percent of those 18-29, 31 percent of those 30-49, 27 percent of those 50-64, and 13 percent of
those 65+. All are significant increases except those ages 18-29 (Rainie, 2012).
Zickhur and Madden (2012) found similar growth in tablet purchases among older adults.
As of February 2012, four times as many seniors owned e-book readers as in 2010, and tablet
ownership increased from 1 percent in 2010 to 8 percent. And, traditionally, this is the generation
that has been seen as being the least technologically savvy. E-book readers cannot be overlooked,
as many have mobile connectivity and can be used to read magazines and other electronic
Cost seems to be somewhat of a factor. Forty-six percent of those who own tablets live in
households making $75,000 or more (Rainie, 2012). And the education level of family members and income levels of the household are strong indicators for teen tablet ownership (Madden, et
al., 2013, p. 5). In fact, 25 percent of those 16+ years of age who don’t own a tablet report cost as
being a factor. But, there also seems to be a lack of interest; 35 percent report they don’t need or
want a tablet, and 20 percent report they are happy with their current device (Rainie, et al., 2012,
p. 38). This disinterest was also evident during the 2012 holiday season. Seventeen percent of
kids wanted a laptop for the 2012 holiday, while 15 percent wanted the latest iPhone. Only 9
percent wanted a 10” tablet. More than two in 10 teens ages 16-18 wanted a laptop (“Laptops
Beat iPhones,” 2012).
The worldwide growth of mobile technology across multiple demographics demands that
students acquire the skills necessary to produce content for tablets and mobile devices for years
to come. This study suggests that an undergraduate curriculum can be enhanced when faculty
help students embrace challenges and create a culture of adventure when tackling the
unknown—particularly when exposing students to new technology and media. As this study
shows, student exposure to both a new medium and innovative approaches to content delivery
expands students’ perceptions of what is possible, bringing true boundary-free storytelling to life
in a mobile world. Such approaches prepare the next generation of communications professionals
to collaborate and innovate in an ever-changing communication industry.
The researchers used pre- and post-test surveys to gather student responses in one course
taught in a School of Journalism and Mass Communication at a private, mid-sized, midwestern
university. The sample was drawn from an advanced advertising strategy class composed of
students in their final year of study. All were over 21 years of age. They were Creative Advertising majors and minors, with emphases in copywriting and/or visual design. Students in
the course were tasked with writing and producing content for an iPad publication to be launched
in the iTunes store. The students used Adobe InDesign enhanced with an open-source app design
tool, Mag+. All students, whether copy or design focused, had previous classroom experience
with InDesign, but none had ever used Mag+.
Sixteen advanced advertising strategy students were tasked with preparing an interactive,
fully functioning piece that promoted the public relations major on campus. Intentionally, the
faculty gave limited guidance in terms of a deliverable in the course. The students were expected
to gather information and make sound decisions based upon the “client” needs. Students met
with faculty responsible for the project, gathered anecdotal stories to add personality to the work
and assembled general information about potential audiences for the piece. Students in the course
were expected to gather additional information from the “client” as needed, and they used
additional census and regional governmental data, demographic information and other resources
to determine the appropriate tone and content for the piece. Students were given one month to
complete the project.
Prior to announcing the project, students completed a survey during a regularly scheduled
class session (Appendix I). The students were given the option to refuse participation without
any consequence, but all opted to complete the survey. The survey assessed ownership and usage
of mobile devices (particularly tablets), experience in mobile product creation and skill with
various multimedia creation software applications. Students were asked to assess their personal
mindset with regard to their professional work, with key questions focused on students’ selfreported
comfort with adventure, risk and challenges in their profession. Upon completion of the project, the students were asked to complete the same survey once more. Again, all opted to
Based upon their research and the “client needs,” 16 students in the advanced advertising
strategy course prepared an “interactive brochure” for the public relations major. The piece
essentially functioned as an application for a tablet, and the students presented the work on an
iPad. The piece included video, audio and other design elements, including infographics
designed for the major. The “brochure” featured real-time social media updates from faculty and
students, and the content included multiple multimedia links. The students gathered feedback
from current and prospective public relations students to confirm the piece fit the needs of the
Examining the pre- and post-test survey responses, it is evident that the project had
effects on the students. Initially, only six of the students had used iPads for business or
educational purposes. At the end of the project, all 16 had been exposed to the technology for
these purposes. One student actually purchased a tablet and another student purchased an ereader
as a result of the course. In addition, in the pre-test, nine students reported how they spent
their total time on tablets. Of the nine respondents, eight used the tablet to search the Internet and
play games for more than 80 percent of their total usage. In contrast, when asked to report their
tablet usage in the post-test survey, 10 participants provided responses that were more evenly
dispersed among many options, including taking photographs, creating or modifying Microsoft
Office or Google documents, and watching video.
Students were asked to report their ability to use a number of programs introduced and
used throughout the School of Journalism and Mass Communication curriculum. Average scores
for pre- and post-test responses are shared in Table 1 below. A seven-point Likert scale was used
for assessment, where “1” meant “Not at all Capable,” and “7” meant “Extremely Capable.”
In addition, the survey used a five-point Likert scale, where “5” meant “Agree” and “1” meant
“Disagree,” to assess students’ confidence in their videography and video editing skills. While
students reported an average score of 3.9 and 3.6, respectively (up from 3.3 for both in the pretest),
it is important to view the change in individual student responses after the project (Table 2).
After completing the project, students adjusted their scores to more accurately reflect their skills
in video production. In some cases, students reported an increased confidence in their abilities,
while a few students realized they had much opportunity for professional growth in this area.
Finally, the survey asked students to think about their professional work, and then report
their perceived levels of adventure, risk, challenge and fear of the unknown. In three categories,
average student responses increased from the pre-test to the post-test responses (Table 3). The
only category to remain constant was the item, “I enjoy a challenge,” where students reported an
average score of 4.3 in both the pre-test and post-test.
While each category recorded a positive change in student responses, the student responses again
moved from the middle of the 5-point Likert scale to either end of the scale. A full report of pretest
and post-test student responses can be found in Tables 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Sixteen advanced advertising strategy students at a small, private Midwestern university
were tasked with preparing an interactive, fully functioning iPad publication that promoted the public relations major on campus. Intentionally, the faculty gave limited guidance in terms of a
deliverable in the course. The assignment expanded students’ awareness of communication
methods and placed students as explorers—exploring new technology, navigating unknown
applications and methods of content delivery. The students worked with an on-campus client to
provide a sense of the professional world while maintaining an educational experience that could
be easily managed among faculty colleagues. In one month, the students delivered an impressive
“interactive brochure” that could be viewed on an iPad or similar tablet.
This study showed that projects like the boundary-free storytelling assignment can
continue to enhance students’ mastery of design programs introduced in earlier courses. Students
are able to expand the use of these tools beyond elementary design skills and explore some of the
more advanced options available in the programs. In addition, encouraging students to expand
their skills in areas not previously used, like videography and video editing, help students build
important skills while also identifying areas of potential growth. Identifying these needs prior to
graduation may help students craft their future courses to strengthen their professional portfolios
and skill sets, making them more attractive candidates as they enter the job market. Finally, the
study showed that students embraced the adventurous, risk-taking culture created in this class
and in the advertising curriculum. The students in this study reported that they enjoyed a
challenge, making them perfectly suited for the fast-paced advertising and communications
industry. By including challenging assignments like the boundary-free storytelling project,
students can continue to nurture their adventurous spirit and take risks with projects in the
“safety” of the classroom. Offering this playground for creative thought for students in all
communication majors will ensure the professionals that graduate from the programs are equipped to critically evaluate new technologies, provide innovative solutions for organizations
and collaborate to strengthen communication content.
Recommendations for Infusing Boundary-Free Storytelling in Communications Curricula
In an ever-changing communications industry, undergraduate curriculum must adapt.
Educators must challenge students to explore new technologies and constantly push students to
think beyond the commonplace. While this article examined the effects of one specific project
within an advertising curriculum, educators from various communication disciplines can easily
implement one (or more) of the following recommendations to infuse creativity and innovation
in their programs.
• Survey the landscape. Encourage students to use basic Internet searches to
identify best practices in their industry of choice. What’s out there? How can
content messaging and/or delivery be improved to enhance user experience?
What’s missing? Should we expand to different markets? How might we reach
various demographics in a more effective way?
• Work with your neighbors. Invite innovators in your community to speak to
your class. Remind students that there is often progress in failure.
• Put the students to the test. Develop an assignment that offers little guidance.
Instead, create a project that provides an overall objective that is part of a larger
business goal. Encourage students to use their research and critical thinking skills
to arrive at a creative solution that makes good business sense.
• Appreciate fear and risk. Students are often afraid of failure. They see value in
risk, but often pull back if their ideas will hurt their grade. Infuse case studies
within the curriculum that focus on key innovators in history. Assign opposing viewpoints in courses, and ask students to “defend” their assigned view—
regardless of their personal opinions. Forcing students to think about challenges in
different ways can create exciting work and a program-wide culture of embracing
Mobile devices are giving students the ability to tell a story in many ways. Educators
must continue to expose students to new technologies, encourage their assessment of those tools
and guide them in their development of content. Enhancing curriculum to help students embrace
challenges and tackle the unknown—the only constant in the ever-changing communications
industry—is a necessary component in the education of 21st Century students. Boundary-free
storytelling provides a platform for exciting, limitless exploration of mobile devices, content
delivery and message development. Incorporating boundary-free ideas into curricula can enhance
the faculty and student experience. Faculty skills will remain current and fresh, while both
faculty and students navigate challenges together, creating a win-win situation for the program
and the industry. As one student in this study said, “Even though, at times, I was very frustrated
…I think at least I walk away with the thought that life is full of troubleshooting and things we
can’t always understand or control…” Tackling the unknown, one project at a time…
- 1:1 digital learning environment initiative @ JHS.(2012, July). Retrieved from http://www.johnston.k12.ia.us/about-us/district-information/district-initiatives/jhs1to1/
- Becker, L.B., Vlad, T., &Kalpen, K. (2012, August 9). 2011 Annual survey of journalism & mass communication graduates. Retrieved from http://www.grady.uga.edu/annualsurveys/Graduate_Survey/Graduate_2011/GradReport2011BWv8912.pdf
- Gobry, P. (2012, February 14) Tablet sales will blow past PC sales to nearly 500 million units a year by 2015. Retrieved from Business Insider. http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-02-14/tech/31057828_1_tablet-sales-post-pc-era-lower-prices
- Hall, B. (2013, May 13). The numbers are clear: Mobile is taking over the world. Retrieved from http://readwrite.com/2013/05/13/mobile-is-taking-over-the-world
- Laptops beat iPhones and tablets to top the list of most requested gifts by kids this holiday season. (2012, November 12). Retrieved from http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/2012_Ebates%20Youth%20Survey.PDF
- Lomas, N. (2013, March 27). IDC: Tablet sales grew 78.4% YoY in 2012 – Expected to pass desktop sales in 2013, portable PCs in 2014. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2013/03/27/idc-tablet-growth-2012-2017/
- Lytle, R. (2012, August 3). Tablets trump laptops in high school classrooms. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/highschools/articles/2012/08/03/tablets-trump-laptops-in-high-school-classrooms
- Madden M, Lenhart A. Duggan M., Cortesi S., & Gasser U (2013, March 12). Teens and technology 2013. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Tech.aspx
- Pearson Foundation survey on students and tablets. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.pearsonfoundation.org/great-learning/Survey-Students-and-Tablets.html
- Rainie, L. (2012, Oct 4). 25% of American adults own tablet computers. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Tablet-Ownership-August-2012/Findings.aspx
- Rainie, L., Zickuhr, K., Purcell, K., Madden, M., & Brenner, J. (2012, April 5) The rise of ereading. Retrieved from http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/04/04/part-3-americansand-their-e-readers-and-tablets/
- The world in 2013: ICT facts and figures. (2013, February). Retrieved from http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2013.pdf
- Zickhur, K., & Madden, M. (2012, June 6). Older adults and Internet use. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Older-adults-and-internet-use/Main-Report/Gadget-ownership.aspx
Dana Coester, Assistant Professor, PI Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University.
Coester’s work focuses on community media and technology disruption. Her research examines
the future of storytelling with special interests in mobile behavior and experiments in new
narrative forms in digital, mobile and augmented reality. Her award-winning experiments in
interactive media span art installation, web and film. Coester earned her master’s degree in
Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1993.
Joel Beeson, Associate Professor, PI Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University.
Beeson’s work focuses on community media, digital divide and representations of race and class
in documentary narratives. His research explores the cultural history of documentary production
as social practice, and has pioneered uses of ethnographic and oral history methodologies to
guide community-generated content. Beeson earned his master’s degree in Journalism from the
University of Missouri-Columbia in 1993, and his doctorate in American Studies from The
Union Institute & University in 2012.
Kelly Bruhn, Ph.D., APR, Assistant Professor, Drake University, teaches undergraduate courses
in public relations campaigns and research and graduate seminars in the Master of
Communication Leadership (MCL) program at Drake University. Prior to joining the Drake
faculty, she created award-winning campaigns for Verizon Wireless and various nonprofit
organizations in public relations agencies in Chicago and Indianapolis. Bruhn earned her
doctorate from Michigan State University. She is accredited by the Public Relations Society of America. email@example.com, http://sjmc.drake.edu/about/faculty-and-staff/dr-kelly-beverling-
Sandy Henry, Associate Professor, Drake University, amassed more than 20 years of experience
in advertising and marketing, in both agencies and in-house environments. Her clients have
included a major grocery store chain, a nonprofit arts organization, and one of the world’s largest
agricultural seed companies. Henry has won many awards for her work, including Addys, Tellys,
NAMAs and CASE Awards.
Henry received her B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from Drake, and a Master of
Science in Mass Communication from Miami University. Henry is an Apple Certified Trainer
(Final Cut Pro) and is active with the Broadcast Education Association, the Des Moines chapter
of the American Advertising Federation, and the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication. firstname.lastname@example.org, http://sjmc.drake.edu/about/faculty-andstaff/
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