The reality of using smartphone applications for learning in higher education of Saudi Arabia

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The smartphone has emerged as one of the most important educational tools in today's digital era due to its ability to facilitate access to learning materials without the traditional time and locational limitations. Smartphones and their associated applications also have the potential advantages of enhancing communication between learners and educators as well as simplifying the research process. However, there have been concerns over the extent to which college and university students use smartphone apps for educational rather than non-educational purposes. Moreover, there are concerns over the real usefulness of smartphone devices in the learning process. Therefore, this study focused on the perceptions of students and their faculty staff concerning the reality of smartphone apps usage and their value regarding the learning process and collegiality in the context of higher education in Saudi Arabia. The study also sought to determine the major challenges that students and faculty members face in the use of smartphone apps for educational purposes within a particular e-learning environment that using the Blackboard system and associated resources. In order to study the usage of smartphone apps in Saudi Arabia’s higher education sector, this study adopted a mixed methods research approach within a case study university; the Saudi Electronic University. Quantitative research was conducted involving a survey of 324 students from the Saudi Electronic University (SEU) using self-administered questionnaires that assessed the patterns of smartphone apps usage. In addition, a qualitative study was conducted using semi-structured interviews with 13 faculty members. Survey data was subjected to statistical analysis while interview data was analyzed using thematic content analysis. The findings of this study reveal that smartphone apps are extensively used for learning purposes as part of a wider e-learning environment in the Saudi Electronic University in Saudi Arabia. It emerged that 70% of all learning is delivered through digital platforms while 30% of learning takes place through face-to-face interactions. Most faculty members in the case study agreed on the usefulness of integrating smartphones in the learning process. In this context, faculty members believed that the use of smartphone apps in education is a necessity today. Furthermore, smartphone apps were viewed as being useful in enhancing skills of learners and faculty members as well as promoting communication between educational stakeholders. From the students’ perspectives, the findings of this iii study revealed a positive engagement with smartphone apps for educational purposes. Most students used smartphone apps to check their emails (73.5%), the students were browsing the internet for learning purposes (59.3%), communicate with other learners and instructors (53.1%, access learning materials (37.3%), and engage in general learning activities (35.5%). The study showed a wide acceptance of mobile learning and positive perceptions on the usefulness of smartphone apps in learning. However, there was variation in students’ views and understanding among students about the role of smartphone apps for certain learning purposes. Factors that were seen to influence the students’ attitudes towards smartphone apps usage for learning included class standing, age, and brand of smartphones, mobile operator (P<0.05). The qualitative findings highlighted that the use of smartphone apps as part of a broader mobile learning environment contributed to online communities of practice involving staff and students. Finally, the findings of this study revealed that students and faculty members experience several major challenges in the use of smartphone apps in learning. These include slow internet connections, incompatibility with certain devices, small screen sizes of the smartphones, low