10 Reasons Handheld Learning Rocks

8 03 2007

Here are 10 good reasons why handheld digital devices can provide the ultimate quality, flexibility, and convenience for delivering mobile learning:

1. Ownership. According to the latest available market statistics, there are almost 20 million mobile phone subscriptions in Australia – or one for every man, woman and child in the country, representing near-saturation of the consumer market.

  • Since 2000, Australia has had more mobile phone services than standard fixed telephones
  • 2006 figures indicate that about 60% of Australian 12-13 year olds own a mobile phone.
  • Approximately 10 million mobile phones were sold in Australia last year (indicating more than 1 in 2 Australian adults gets a new phone each year), compared with just 1.5 million laptops.
  • A$206.8m of portable digital media players were sold last year in
    Australia, with penetration estimated to be better than 1 in 4 adults owning one (though I’d be more interested in knowing the states for the 15-25 age group, where I suspect it’s significantly higher).

2. Ubiquity. Mobile phones are taken almost everywhere by their owners. To demonstrate this, I do an exercise in every m-learning workshop and presentation I run, where I don’t ask people to bring their mobile phones to the event, but ask on the spot: “who has their mobile phone with them right now?” Almost everyone will have brought their phone, so I’ll have to change the question: “okay, who hasn’t got their mobile phone?” I’ll get maybe two or three people put up their hands in an audience of a hundred. It’s a good demonstration of how people treat their mobile phones – like a wallet or their keys, they rarely go out without it.

Digital media players aren’t quite as ubiquitous as mobile phones, but young people in particular (who often treat music is an expression of their personality), do tend to take digital media players with them everywhere, or will use the digital media capabilities of their mobile phone. Digital media players are also used in many contexts where other devices are not or cannot; for example, they are commonly used at the gym, or while jogging, contexts where accessing media from larger devices is clearly inappropriate.

3. Mobility of Use. Hand held devices support continuous mobile access – you can use them as you’re walking around, and you don’t require a surface to rest them on to use them. For a learning activity that’s not physically static, but may involve some moving around (e.g. a survey of tree types, a trip to a gallery or museum, or a seashore walk), handheld devices provide the ultimate in mobility, in accessing, capturing, and sharing information on the move. Where lugging a larger device around a location would be exhausting, and actually using it might require a learner to find a place to sit out of the way, handheld devices enable immediate, convenient interaction.


4. Always On, Always “Logged On”. Handheld devices have no boot-up time, and no “off” periods unless the user specifically requires it. You don’t have to wait until your laptop boots up and the learning opportunity may have passed – for example, recording a commercial, or photographing a wild animal. A mobile phone is the ultimate peer-to-peer communications and knowledge sharing device, which is always on, and always available. You don’t have to start up a computer, connect to a wireless network (which may or may not be available), and log onto an Instant Messaging application. If you have your phone with you, you’re effectively “logged on”.

5. Discreet and Unobtrusive. Handheld devices can be used in public and social settings where larger devices would be intrusive and seem out of place. Using a small device like an audio tour on an iPod or mobile phone web browser to supplement a visit to the art gallery is one thing; typing on a laptop computer, or even using a tablet PC in the same environment is quite another. Accessing learning in a socially acceptable (or even “cool”) way is particularly important for young people, who may place considerable importance on their public image.

Because handheld systems can be used almost anywhere, they’re perfect platforms for “situated” learning activities, where life – real life – is used to provide stimuli and interactivity for learning. Examples include: studying art from a real artwork instead of a photograph online or a text book. Smelling the scent of crushed leaves from a particular plant and describing it. Feeling the difference in surface texture between cast iron and rolled steel. Handheld devices can support these learning experiences anywhere, anytime.

6. Battery Life. Handheld devices are designed to enable long periods of continuous mobile usage. Mobile phones can be used for days without recharging, digital media players are designed to be used all day without requiring a charge or change of batteries, and PDA battery life is several times that of laptops. Even if additional usage time is required, batteries or charge packs for handheld devices weigh very little and take up little space compared with replacement battery packs for laptops, which weight about a kilo.

7. Features and Convergence. Many mobile devices provide a more immediate and useful range of learning tools than larger computing platforms. For example, the majority of mobile phones sold in Australia contain a camera, capable of recording images and video for activities such as moblogging, creating visual journals, recording assessments, or capturing processes for later review. Most mobiles and many media players can also record audio – allowing for capture of lectures or notes, or creative roleplays. Handheld devices put these knowledge capture and creation tools at a learner’s fingertips. Most laptops and tablet PCs don’t have a camera. Some handheld device functionality can be added to larger platforms, such as external webcams or Instant Messaging software, but these features are rarely easily accessible or well integrated.

Other potential learning tools, such as GPS, are readily available in handheld form, but far more clumsy and cumbersome in larger devices, where they may not even be integrated at all.

8. Cost. Most learners already own handheld learning devices (see Item #1). Utilising these already-owned devices costs nothing. But even for those learners who do not already own a handheld device, you can purchase a camera phone, digital media device, or PDA for under A$200. The cheapest, most basic laptops I’ve seen in Australia cost slightly over A$700 after cash-back.

Mobile devices can save their users hundreds of dollars a year in potential consumables. The cost of printing a roll of film is about $30 for 24 exposures. The cost of taking 24 digital photos with a mobile phone is nothing.

9. Industry Alignment. Many industries, such as medicine, hospitality, and even trades, have begun to utilise handheld devices as industry-standard best practice. In medical settings, PDAs provide better hygiene than laptops due to having fewer surfaces and crevices that can retain bacteria, while in other industries, the extreme mobility of handheld devices provides tools, decision support or services in more mobile, restrictive or hostile environments than would be possible with a laptop.

In these industries, any kind of training or education should align closely with the practices of those already working in the industries. Handheld devices have proven themselves to be useful or esential tools for case management, decision support, or critical information access, and training should incorporate this if it is to ensure its relevance.

10. Power. Current handheld devices are capable of the processing power, information storage, and data connection speeds exceeding that of a 10-year-old desktop PC – but unbound from power sockets or CAT-5 cables. They are capable of all of the same kinds of learning tasks: peer-to-peer sharing, ad-hoc networking, wireless internet access, discussion boards, chat, voice calling, video messaging, and resource creation and editing. They will run large databases and even web servers. They can support free and open source software, all the way from their Operating System, through to their applications, and even support and integrate with Web 2.0 tools.

In summary, handheld devices can be, and are, taken places that larger systems cannot, and do not, go. They can be used in situations where other systems cannot be easily or acceptably used. They can be used in these conditions for longer periods of time than larger, more power-hungry systems can sustain. And they can perform most, or all, of the learning support tasks which larger systems can accomplish.

There are certainly reasons for not using handheld devices in many learning contexts; but as this list shows, there are many good reasons to not overlook them as a platform for providing high-quality, convenient, engaging learning experiences.

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Making M-Learning Mobile, Open, and Ubiquitous

7 03 2007

Stephen Downes responds to my last post discussing the difference between mobile learning and mobile technology:

None of these conditions have anything to do with being mobile (indeed, the definition explicitly excludes mobility as a consideration). And it just happens to favour closed, proprietary platforms that access restricted networks over open or open source platforms that communicate via open protocols on a peer-to-peer or networked basis (in other words – it favours, for no good reason, telephone-like devices over computer-like devices).

This is an interesting interpretation of my “definition,” which reads as follows:

Mobile learning is about the mobility of learning, and not merely the mobility of technology, which is a different thing altogether…

How we achieve that mobility of learning must consider the context of the learning, and not just the use of mobile technology, if it is to achieve its full potential.

This conjecture (which is derived from that of Sharples et al., itself derived from the outcomes of the MobiLearn 2004 Conference), supports the idea that merely making a resource available on mobile technology may not actually constitute mobile learning – any more than putting information in a book or on a web page is learning. Attention to *how* the resource will be used – including social context of that use – supports learner *engagement* with the resource, and facilitates learning processes.

The statement “mobile learning is about the mobility of learning, and not merely the mobility of technology” certainly doesn’t explicitly exclude mobility as a consideration, but rather focusses on the mobility of the learning experience, rather than the portability of the hardware. The alternative definition – focussing on the mobility of the technology, rather than the learning – preferences the highly specced laptop full of resources that is usually switched off in the learner’s bag, over using the connected, communicative and creative device that is always on, in the learner’s hand.

Furthermore, this definition of m-learning certainly doesn’t favour any particular platform, hardware, or proprietary standard; it favours transparency of technology and ubiquity and ease of access to learning – factors, to my mind, that actually support open standards and encourage learner engagement. Placing mobile learning above mobile technology embraces the concept of using the most appropriate medium to achieve the objectives of learning, and making the technology as transparent and free of impediments to that learning as possible. Furthermore, Stephen’s claims of closed-ness and proprietariness in handheld devices don’t really align with current handheld technology. Stephen claims:

“it just happens to favour closed, proprietary platforms that access restricted networks over open or open source platforms that communicate via open protocols on a peer-to-peer or networked basis (in other words – it favours, for no good reason, telephone-like devices over computer-like devices).”

Reading this statement, one might ask what it is that a laptop can do that is more open and less proprietary than what can be achieved using a mobile device? PDAs, mobile phones and even media players can run open-source operating systems such as Linux. They can (and almost without exception, do) run open-source applications written in open-source languages such as Java. They can network and communicate, peer-to-peer, using free, open protocols including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Photographs taken with handheld devices are saved in the ubiquitous JPG format; the most commonly supported audio format by all handheld devices is the non-DRM encumbered MP3 format; and there is a wealth of free and open source software available for all handheld devices.

Indeed, with the growing power, capabilities, and openness of desktop computers now in handheld devices, is it any wonder that companies like Google perceive handheld mobile devices as key drivers of the next stage of our society’s technological growth? And with such a boom of opportunities in the hands of our learners, won’t they expect the same handheld, mobile opportunities for quality, personalisation, access and convenience in their learning?

As educators, we are no longer the “Sage on the Stage,” to dictate to our learners what and how they will learn. Whether we are the “Guide on the Side” or the “Hack at the Back,” it is not in our mandate nor our ability to lead the way in which our learners choose to interact with their world. Rather, we must astutely observe their path and be there along the way to provide guidance and support where opportunity allows.

That opportunity for learning is often at the shops, where a student is buying milk; in the woods, as they jog through the trees; or at their workplace, which may not have computers, but will certainly have plenty of opportunities for learning.

In every such case, learning can be provided via the devices they already have with them – always on, in their pockets. It would be a shame to overlook, or underestimate, such opportunities.

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Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning?

6 03 2007

Eminent education researcher and commentator Stephen Downes has brought up a very relevant issue that’s sometimes missed or glossed over in all this talk of mobile learning. Picking up on my previous post, where I wrote “laptops fall outside of my personal definition of “mobile learning,” due to their size,” Stephen responded:

<snip>How, I wonder, is a mobile phone or a PDA more mobile than these computers?

I have always defined ‘mobile computing’ to include whatever you could carry about reasonably conveniently. The OLPCs certainly qualify.

Although I say that laptops aren’t within my definition of mobile learning, it’s not because they can’t be used for mobile learning (they certainly can), but because of differences in how laptops are treated and accessed by learners compared with devices such as PDAs, mobile phones, and media players. My view of m-learning is more about the ubiquity, context and mobility of access (to learning), rather than the portability of technology or computing, per se.

To understand why I’ve drawn my “boundaries” where I have, let’s first consider how mobile devices such as cellphones and iPods blend into the lifestyle and culture of their users. Most people I know don’t carry a laptop everywhere, but they won’t leave home without their cellphone. Furthermore, most young people also carry a media player with them everywhere (or use the one incorporated into their cellphone). And why not? They’re highly functional and very light and compact, which is why they’re now ubiquitous “lifestyle” devices, with the potential to seamlessly support and blend work and play – ideal for incorporating informal or opportunistic learning strategies.

Not only do most users consider these devices to be essential lifestyle tools, but it’s (generally) considered socially acceptable to use these devices in public places. Whipping out a laptop in an art gallery is a rather more intrusive proposition than a mobile phone or PDA; and “audio guides” have already been used in art galleries and museums for decades. The social aspect of mobile learning has important ramifications for learning ubiquity: because even if learners *could* do a certain mobile learning activity, they may (and probably will) pass on a learning opportunity if it will make them look uncool or nerdy.

Further, consider how easy it is to listen to an audio recording on a iPod, take a picture with a camera phone, or access information on a PDA. No worries, right? You could do any of these things walking on a street or standing in a train. That’s ubiquitous learning. Now consider doing any of these things on the street with a laptop computer, and you’ll understand my distinction between a “mobile” device and a mobile access device. Mobile phones, PDAs, and media players allow for convenient, instant learning opportunities through a high level of mobile accessibility.

Even if the learner is currently in possession of a laptop, and willing to use it to engage in a learning activity, consider that the battery life of the average laptop is a couple of hours, with replacement batteries weighing almost a kilo in many cases; whereas handheld devices, with lower power requirements, can operate fully for half a day or more, and can utilise small, light, portable batteries weighing about as much as a couple of AAs, to extend usage further if required.

Finally, there’s the cost factor. Video-capable media players, which will also transport study resources, assignments and documents, can be bought for well under A$200. Almost everyone has a mobile phone, and if the results of a recent student survey at my institute can be believed, the majority of these mobile phones have advanced capabilities including a camera, internet access, picture messaging and email – and you can get a smartphone with all of these capabilities for free (on contract, or for about A$200 without a contract). Most of the time, however, no purchase will be neccesary, as the learner will already own a mobile phone and media player. A basic colour PDA can be bought for under A$200. Interestingly, the current manufacturing cost of the OLPC is about A$200, but, of course, the OLPC won’t be available to most of our learning institutions, making a PDA an attractive, low-cost alternative mobile computing platform.

That said, the OLPCs certainly break some of the paradigms of laptop computers as we currently know them – particularly with regards to power requirements and affordability/availability; and their smaller size certainly makes them more portable (and potentially ubiquitous) than other laptops.

I certainly recognise that the OLPC is different to other laptops in many respects, and I also recognise that other “mobile” devices such as laptops can be used for mobile learning; just as a notebook and pen, or a cassette walkman, are perfectly acceptable mobile learning tools in my book. :)

So it might seem that I’m focussed on quite a tight “definition” of m-learning, but it is not one that is blinded to the wider possibilities of mobile learning (I hope). Mobile learning is, after all, about the mobility of learning, and not merely the mobility of technology, which is a different thing altogether; but how we achieve that mobility of learning must consider the context of the learning, and not just the use of mobile technology, if it is to achieve its full potential.

Just my thoughts… please feel free to comment, critique, or add your own ideas. :)

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OLPC: Not just for developing countries

5 03 2007

While laptops fall outside of my personal definition of “mobile learning,” due to their size, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project does help to inform much of the strategy and pedagogy of mobile learning and is therefore noteworthy here.

The project was originally aimed at putting cheap but highly practical laptops in the hands of the world’s most underprivileged children in developing countries. While the laptops are cheap to manufacture at around US$150 each (a price expected to fall by almost half in the next three years), they provide a full computing platform that supports the latest in social, constructivist, and connected learning theories and activities, including ad-hoc wireless networking, webcam, microphone, SD memory card slot and built-in speakers.

A prototype children's laptop, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), is showcased at the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Showin Las Vegas.

With such great functionality at such a low manufacturing price, there have been thousands of people in developed countries interested in buying an OLPC for their own private use. However, the OLPC has maintained strict adherance to its core mission, and combines design features to prevent the devices from being used by anyone other than children, for any purpose other than education; to prevent them making their way to the black market, for example, the devices can be remotely disabled to render them useless.

While Australia ranks among the world’s developed countries, there is no doubt, however, that some of our regionally located indigenous populations live in conditions of poverty equal to those in third-world countries overseas. Happily, out first-world status as a country will not deny our neediest children access to these machines, and according to The Age, Rangan Srikhanta, a treasurer with the United Nations Association of Australia, is liasing with local governments, universities and the OLPC group to organise local trials:

He asserts that there are many children in “developed” countries, such as Australia, that are exposed to conditions typical of those expected in developing countries.

“We are working to get this laptop to the Northern Territory, where we feel that it could be very beneficial,” he said.

“There are numerous other areas in Queensland, WA, SA, NSW, Vic and Tas that hold equal potential.”

This is an excellent outcome.  Let’s hope that mobile computing continues to support opportunities for education for the world’s most needy children, everywhere.

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Hands-on with the Xtreme MicroMemo

5 03 2007

From Sue Waters (“Good Sue”) and her friend “Evil” Sue Hickton, a fun and interesting video review of the Xtreme MicroMemo – a plug-in attachment for iPods that allows users to record audio in high quality or low quality modes. The included microphone can be substituted for a better microphone, and the plugin also incorporates an external speaker for instant playback and sharing of audio files. Recorded files are automagically saved to iTunes upon docking the iPod, and can then be edited.

itunes pic

Apparently, the iPod’s battery runs down pretty fast with this external device plugged in, but this is apparently the trade-off of the MicroMemo vs the Belkin TuneTalk (which apparently doesn’t record with comparable quality, but conserves battery power). The Two Sues also debate the convenience and portability of an iPod with plug-in vs. a PDA with a built-in mike.

Great stuff, ladies!

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S-XGen PDA supports social, mobile learning

5 03 2007

RemTech have announced an innovative new product aimed squarely at supporting mobile learning activities – with particular attention to support for socially constructivist/connectivist pedagogical approaches.

The S-XGen (which is unfortunately mis-labelled a UMPC on its product page when it’s really a PDA) includes a big 20GB hard drive, an integrated fold-out QWERTY keyboard, and wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (802.11b), and GSM/GPRS telephony. Education essentials such as audio recording and an integrated camera are there (albeit at a lowly 1.3 megapixels), and a big 8-hour battery (though this estimate probably doesn’t include continuous wireless use).

All of this functionality makes the S-XGen a bit on the bulky side.  It also strikes me as a little strange that the device includes a 10/100 CAT-5 Ethernet port, but apparently only supports the slower 802.11b wireless specification rather than the faster 802.11g specification – particularly when it’s touted as including 4-way video teleconferencing capability.

Even so, if this video conferencing capability is up to scratch, it’s one aspect of this device that seems to strive for good support for social and connected educational activities, which are widely upheld by educators as vital to the learning process and the “construction” of knowledge.

The other new feature that supports this social, connected learning is the device’s apparent support for encrypted, peer-to-peer connectivity (specified on this page which contains more information and commentary).  Having the ability to easily share resources and ideas between handheld devices using a wireless peer-to-peer approach would be a big winner for a mobile learning device, as this could facilitate better communication, social interaction and knowledge sharing.

It’s got pros and cons, to be sure; but if you’re considering a set of mobile learning devices, this one is certainly worth a look into.

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Your PDA: a Remote Control for Media, Presentations

2 03 2007

A talented software developer has created a free, neat mobile application that effectively turns your Windows Mobile PDA into a wireless Bluetooth remote control for many Windows applications.

Using Jerome Laban’s Bluetooth Remote Control for Windows Mobile, you can control Powerpoint presentations, as well as popular Media players such as Windows Media Player, Media Player Classic, PowerDVD and WinAmp, with more coming (such as Vista Media Centre).

The application also receives information about the file you’re controlling, such as the title of the previous, current, and next PowerPoint slides, or the artist, title and progress of an audio track.

Because this works using Bluetooth, you don’t need “line of sight” as you would with most other remote controls. This one will work through tables, chairs, lecterns and walls if you require. I’d envisage many lecturers, teachers, workshop leaders and even student presenters might find this little application quite handy.

(via Solsie.com

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