Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / University of Leeds Medical School
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University of Leeds Medical School

The University of Leeds is a large, single-site university with a large medical school. They are perhaps best known within e-Learning for their deployment of Apple iPhones to medical students but have a history of mobile learning initiatives. This snapshot contains input from Andy Pellow (Information Management & Technology Manager) and Gareth Frith (Technology Enhanced Learning Manager)



Mobile learning at the University of Leeds began around 2007 with the HEFCE-funded ALPS (Assessment and Learning in Practice Settings) of which the University of Leeds Medical School was part. Initially the decision was made to go with a Windows mobile approach and focused on e-Portfolios and VLE access. At the end of this process the existing approach was rejected for a variety of reasons including hardware difficulties and logistical issues. As Andy Pellow comments:

“We got started with mobile learning through the Assessment in Practice Learning Settings (ALPS) Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning. ALPS aimed  to improve assessment and learning for health and social care students. Mobile devices were the obvious tools to deliver and collect assessments of students in clinical placements. However, at that time there were only a few windows mobile smart-phone devices and even fewer applications supported by them. We really were starting from scratch!”

Gareth Frith, now Technology Enhanced Learning Manager at the University of Leeds, was appointed subsequent to this project as the institution “needed someone who had the skills to manage and  guide the mobile learning programme through a rapidly changing environment.”. Gareth talked to commercial providers and was influenced by the successful MoLeNET programmes (2007-2010) as well as what organisations such as Tesco were doing in corporate mobile learning/training. 


There were three main advantages for the University of Leeds approaching mobile learning through an established and externally-funded project:


  1. There was an agreed focus for the project which a mobile learning project could augment
  2. Capital funding through the CETL (Centre for Excellent in Teaching and Learning) gave a financial incentive to invest in hardware.
  3. The ALPS project involved Vice Chancellor-level signup meaning that staff engagement was almost guaranteed.

After experimenting with some early smartphones the University of Leeds mobile learning team starting looking in September 2009 how they could embed outcomes of the ALPS project into the Medicine course. They identified a particular problem, namely: How can we support fourth and fifth-year medical students on placements?

The difficulty had been twofold: communication between student and tutor whilst out on placement, and a way of capturing experiences in situ. After coming up with a plan involving the use of Apple iPhones, the mobile learning team organised a workshop with clinical teachers (early 2010). As a result of a burgeoning wider acceptance of mobile technology in clinical settings and the desirability of the technology on offer, the plan was accepted by staff. Although some resistance was experienced from the NHS they were, says Gareth Frith, “pushing at an open door” when they suggested mobile assessments in addition to existing student work. 

Following this workshop and approval by the NHS students Apple iPhones containing e-Books and assessment apps were distributed to medical students. Although the approach was inspired by previous work by the University of Brighton (student textbooks) and Cardiff University (assessment) the unique offer for medical students at the University of Leeds was the combination of the two. 

“Our overall aim is to ensure that graduating students are fully equipped to perform confidently and competently at the start of their professional careers. Practice placements contribute significantly to this outcome. By using mobile devices integrated with tools such as e-portfolios, we are able to provide students with the means to collect and reflect on feedback on their performance as it happens. By providing access to up-to-date knowledge bases through the devices, students can augment their learning wherever and whenever they are learning.” (Andy Pellow)

As of 2011, students have started using the Apple iPhones in informal group work. Issues relating to connectivity have been ironed out, with the University negotiating a deal with O2 for data whilst students are responsible (on a Pay-As-You-Go basis) for voice calls and text messages. In addition, the Medical School has sparked some cross-fertilisation with the Electronic Engineering department working on some app development. 

Although in 2010 the University of Leeds’ mobile learning team judged the Apple iPhone to have ‘apps base’ they are keen to stress that they are technology-agnostic. The focus, they specify, is on cultural change and mobile learning has been a ‘Trojan horse’ in that respect.


Specify the problem to be solved

Mobile learning is a buzz-phrase and can get people excited. However, one of the keys to successful mobile learning implementations is to specify the problem that will be solved through the adoption of mobile learning. The Leeds mobile learning team successfully identified, planned for, and implemented a solution to the problem of How can we support fourth and fifth-year medical students on placements?


Gain feedback on your plans from stakeholders

In order to feel ownership of an initiative key stakeholders such as teaching staff and learning support need to have a hand in planning. The workshop that the mobile learning team set up to share their vision with staff in early 2010 led to early acceptance of the idea and wider support to go to the NHS for their approval.

Without such feedback and early buy-in from stakeholders the amount of internal issues a mobile learning initiative has to face is likely to be high. In addition, going to a group with a potential solution to a problem (see previous point) rather than a ‘nice to have’ prevents endless debate about the necessity for introducing mobile devices.


Mobile learning can be a ‘Trojan horse’

The ability for mobile learning initiatives to drive wider changes within institutions has been well-documented including, for example, reports by the MoLeNET programmes. Once staff move slightly outside their comfort zones and are successful their willingness to try other ‘new’ things increases. In the Leeds example, the familiarity (either through ownership or media coverage) of the Apple iPhone made it less of an unknown, which meant they were more likely to accept for use in a context that had previously shunned mobile technologies. As Andy Pellow notes, “Our experience with mobile learning is changing the way we support and provide learning resources for students. It has captured the imagination of staff and students alike who are approaching us with new ideas to develop new mobile apps and services.”

Once mobile learning is established within one pocket of an institution, a combination of research interests, friendships and student pressure can often lead to pressure to adopt it more widely . At the University of Leeds cross-fertilisation occurred with Electronic Engineering, but it could equally have happened with other departments which send their students on placement.



The University of Leeds have gained national media coverage through their use of Apple iPhones with medical students on placement. This, however, has been built upon a longer history of mobile learning made possible through a combination of external funding, senior management buy-in and focused projects. The mobile learning team identified key benefits of mobile learning and engaged early with stakeholders to ensure their support.

Building upon an existing project, the mobile learning team managed to solve a problem for clinical teachers building on the experiences of two other institutions and negotiating with external telecommunications providers. Mobile learning is now firmly embedded in the University of Leeds Medical School: the team can focus on iterating existing provision and engaging staff in other faculties.