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With the rapid increase in the use of smart phones (and other mobile devices), students in Irish and international higher education institutions are increasingly accessing virtual learning environments (VLEs) using their phones via an app or their browser. This brings both welcome flexibility for the students’ digital learning experiences and wider opportunities to support both asynchronous and synchronous learning in innovative ways. However challenges exist, initially regarding the functionality, user interface, reliability and speed of mobile use of the VLE (specifically via a VLE app as well as a phone browser) but also how best to empower students and lecturers to harness the potential benefits. This article explores the 2017 results of the #VLEIreland student survey in one higher education institution, expanded to include questions about student experiences of using a VLE app. Almost all students have smart phones, with the VLE app used by 7 in 10 students surveyed and, despite the many limitations of the VLE app, two-thirds found it useful. Student comments highlighted the benefits of notifications on the student’s phone and the convenience of easy, flexible access to the VLE. Barriers to the use of the VLE app included poor design and working of the app, and limitations of the student’s own phone. A major implication of increasing mobile access is that the VLE design needs to be more responsive for users, that the VLE itself be fully functional and user-friendly on smart phones and the challenges to design, develop and deliver a rich functional VLE app are met. There is potential for flexible mobile access to the VLE outside of class to be complemented by increased in-class use to enrich innovative approaches to engage learners. Increased mobile VLE usage has consequences for how lecturers use the VLE; they need to be conscious of this mobile use when designing, creating and using their VLE course as well as utilising appropriate digital pedagogies.
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