Standards and the E-Learning Guild Report on M-Learning

4 09 2007

It’s now been a few months since my report on the recommended Australian Standards for M-Learning, and their companion guide for teachers and developers, were released by the E-Standards for Training Experts Group (EEG), and they’ve both been well received – according to the EEG, the documents have become the most downloaded files on the flexiblelearning.net.au website.

The aim of the M-Learning Standards was to develop a range of technical specifications that would support better interoperability of resources and systems between VET organisations. The latest report on M-Learning by the E-Learning Guild asserted that one of the largest barriers to the adoption of mobile learning expressed by e-learning pratitioners was a perceived “lack of standards”. The other major barrier to the adoption of m-learning that was expressed, that “content developed for other media does not transfer well to mobile devices” is also addressed by the Standards for M-Learning, and so hopefully, the Standards will help to address these perceived barrier to the adoption of mobile technologies in education into the future.

The majority of recommended standards value openness to facilitate development and sharing, with the remainder comprising of non-asserted proprietary formats which have become de-facto standards due to widespread use. (“Non-asserted” proprietary formats are “owned”, but are unimpeded for use in educational developments, as intellectual property rights are not asserted against those who use those formats).

As such, the Standards for M-Learning may help to lay a foundation for organisations contemplating the use of M-Learning, to advise formats for the best possible quality of resources and to promote  interoperability between both mobile and non-mobile platforms.

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Mobile Assessment Made Easy

25 08 2007

There’s some great news from the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, the national organisation which promotes flexible learning opportunities in the Australian Vocational Education and Training system.

Not only has the Framework successfully drafted a further 4 year strategy to continue to support teachers and trainers Australia-wide (congrats and hurrah!), but work has begun on improving tools for conducting assessments using mobile devices.

This work will build on a previous Framework project which produced the QTI m-Player. a free mobile assessment tool compatible with the international Question and Test Interoperability Standard (QTI). According to the Framework Press Release:

Peter Higgs, Manager of Learning Technology at TAFE Tasmania said: “The first version of QTI m-Player looked at quizzing and not uploading assessment outcomes and results onto an organisational system.

“The new functions will include the ability to send assessment information, including photo attachments via secure e-mail to upload directly into a Learning Management System.

“Assessors will no longer have to manually enter the data into their administration systems and process the results once they get back to the office,” said Mr Higgs.

The work is being supported and funded by the AFLF’s New Practices In Flexible Learning project. The M-Learning community looks forward to hearing more about this work in the year ahead!

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(Open) Standards for Mobile Learning

22 02 2007

I’ve already submitted my research recommendations for Australian Mobile Learning Standards (for which I was selected as Lead Researcher last year), so it’s unfortunate that this article on Mobile 2.0, wasn’t written earlier, as it summarises beautifully some of the considerations that were foremost in my mind when I was writing my recommendations and would have provided some excellent quotes:

Open Applications Leverage Open Standards

…it is important to note that mobile 2.0 applications need to leverage open standards. Applications that sit on top of closed and proprietary protocols and formats are antithetical to the kind of innovation that will be key to the growth of the mobile Web. Establishing open standards around html, CSS and XML has greatly contributed to the growth and success of the medium and to its continued innovation. We are already seeing standards pay off big-time on the mobile platform as well in both the Java/JCP space (where we are finally realizing write-once-run-anywhere) and in the mobile Web.

(via All about Mobile Life)

I’m happy to be able to say that the Australian Standards for Mobile Learning I’ve recommended favour open standards whenever possible. This should (hopefully) encourage and facilitate the development of open and interoperable m-learning applications in years to come.

My recommendations for M-Learning Standards (as well as non-technical “user guides”, co-authored by my colleagues Marg O’Connell and John Smith) are currently being reviewed by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework’s E-Standards Experts Group, the Project Reference Group, and the Vetadata Working Group. It’s a lot of people to please, but I am hopeful that this extensive review process will result in an end product subjected to considerable expert scrutiny, and thereby, of suitable quality.

When the Standards are finally approved, they will be made available via the E-Standards Experts Group website and the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. I’ll also be sure to announce publication on this site.

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Walled Gardens and Mobile Learning

17 01 2007

In educational technology circles, there’s been much debate in recent times over the relative merits and drawbacks of controlled, predictable, but limiting teaching and learning environments (e.g. Learning Management Systems), coined “walled gardens” – versus open, creative environments with rather less individual or proprietary control (e.g. social software), coined “open gardens”.

The issue of walled vs open gardens has also been hotly discussed by the mobile device industry, which even features some excellent blogs dedicated to open gardens. In the mobile phone industry the walls around developing and accessing content seemed to be lowering, but, it seems, there are other barriers to surmount in the pursuit of more open access to content and functionality. Doug T writes:

“The new walled garden is not the content you can view on your phone, but rather the applications that you can install on your phone.”

For example, as Sam pointed out in his comments on my iPhone article, the new Apple iPhone will limit the applications (“widgets”) that users can install on it, possibly incurring the wrath of users who seek the freedom to customise their mobile phones however they wish:

“This is a quote from Jobs in the NYTimes:

‘We define everything that is on the phone,” he said. “You don’t want
your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded
three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t
work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.’ “

This definitely dampens my enthusiasm for the iPhone as a potential educational tool; if the latest innovations such as QR Code readers or 3rd party mobile applications can’t be integrated with this new portable digital environment, it makes it considerably less useful for facilitating new, innovative learning experiences. The problem with walled gardens on mobile phones, like this, is that it makes it very difficult to establish new boundaries for a device – to “shape” it to meet our needs. The iPhone currently only has two widgets, for weather and stock prices, both pretty useless for the needs of the average educator or learner (unless, perhaps, you’re studying meteorology or economics!). An open architecture would enable the device to be customised to meet more diverse and relevant needs.

Apple’s products are always innovative, ground breaking, and trend-setting. but I certainly hope that this “walled gardens” approach is one of Apple’s trends that won’t be followed by other handset manufacturers.

(via C. Enrique Ortiz Mobility Weblog)

UPDATE: Darla Mack refers to a great article on “10 ways the Nokia N800 [handheld internet device] is better than Apple’s iPhone“.  Leigh Blackall loved the Nokia N770; I reckon he’ll be rapt when he checks out the Nokia 800, which has a few extra goodies, including a built-in Skype video camera. Sweeet. :)

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Learning with Handheld Technologies Handbook

5 01 2007

Futurelab, a non-profit U.K. based organisation, who previously published one of the best literature reviews of mobile learning, have now published a handbook of recommendations for mobile learning approaches – including implementation ideas and case studies.

Tony Vincent of the Learning in Hand blog cited the key reccomendations of the report, based on two years of research from the University of Bristol:

  • There should be an authentic purpose with clear learning goals.
  • It is harder and takes more time to manage a small set of devices than it is to manage models of use where each learner “owns” the device.
  • Professional development is very important. A collaborative community of practice that involves the whole school will help embed handheld technologies in the curriculum.
  • Wireless internet connectivity is preferred because it makes the devices much more useful.
  • Schools need to figure out long term storage of students’ data as they will produce so much work it won’t all fit on the devices.
  • Spare devices should be on-hand for quick replacement of broken units.
  • Teaching styles must accommodate personal ownership of learning.
  • Successful projects used handhelds for accessing content and for producing projects.
  • Adoption of handhelds goes smoothly when integrated with with existing technologies like interactive whiteboards, software, and data projectors.

Handheld Handbook

The findings and recommendations of the report are well researched and though out, and align with the latest thinking in mobile learning.

This is essential reading for educators considering implementing mobile learning approaches in schools, as well as those already involved with mobile learning Europe has done more research into mobile learning than the rest of the world combined, through projects such as MobiLearn, worth about 15 million Euro (AU$40 million) over the last few years, and Futurelab has done a great deal to help share expertise throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

An HTML version of the guide can be viewed here; a PDF can be downloaded here; or you can even request a free hard copy of the 35 page report.

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Two Models for Hardware Platforms for M-Learning

12 12 2006

There are two dominant approaches that seem to be adopted by educators with regards to the issue of what hardware platform should be used for delivering m-learning.

One strand of thinking is to supply any required hardware as loaned or supplied, standard-issue equipment – such as a class set of PDAs, all of uniform specification. This helps to provide a reliable experience for learners, simplifies development and support, and to reduces such potential inhibitors to learner engagement as compatibility problems caused by disparate hardware platforms.

To remove such potential barriers to the use and sharing of learning materials is an attractive proposition for educators; but it comes at a cost. There is obviously the financial cost of acquiring a uniform set of mobile devices, but perhaps more problematically, there is a potential cost in the amount of usage the provided devices will get – generally limited to short periods when the devices are temporarily issued, or to short periods when the devices are carried by learners, which will be carried less preferentially than those mobile devices chosen by, and personalised by, the learners themselves. Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that the uniformity of equipment used within a small scope, such as a classroom, will extend further – to the scope of a whole institution, or multiple institutions – to enable sharing of mobile learning resources throughout an organisation or between organisations or jurisdictions.

Thus, resources created for use for a single hardware specification may, in the long term, inhibit the use and sharing of those resources more widely. The opposing philosophy is to develop learning opportunities that are intended to be used on equipment already used by learners – the mobile phones already in their pockets, or the portable media players they already have in their backpacks. While this requires development of mobile learning opportunities to consider a full range of potential learning delivery platforms, the benefits of such an approach include zero cost of hardware by both organisation and learner; the utilisation of devices for learning which learners are already used to operating and carrying with them, often ubiquitously; the removal of a need to possibly carry separate, duplicated, mobile devices to achieve hardware standardisation; and the ability of resources so developed to be inherently more shareable within an organisation as well as between them.

To properly address issues of cross-platform compatibility and ease-of-use that may be caused by disparities in capabilities and specifications between the digital devices used by learners, it’s vital to consider how resources may be developed to best support cross-platform use and sharing. This is where the documentation of standards, adopted across a number of organisations, may be a useful reference for developers of mobile learning content.

A range of suggested standards for M-Learning in Australia will be published here for public comment shortly. Having other educators and mobilists review the suggestions should help to refine those standards and ensure their utility.

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Semapedia adopts QR Code

8 12 2006

Semapedia is a project to link the physical world to the digital one, through the use of 2D Barcodes. 2D barcodes are placed on physical objects, and decoding a 2D Barcode with a camera phone provides a user with the Wikipedia article on that object.

There are a number of 2D barcode “formats,” each with various strengths and weaknesses, (the major three being Semacode/Datamatrix, QR Code, and ShotCode). Semacode used to be based on the Semacode method for creating and decoding 2D barcodes; but it seems that the open Datamatrix standard, upon which Semacode is based, has not been developing and innovating as fast, and has not been adopted as quickly internationally, as the Quick Response (QR) Code format, which is widely used in Japan. As a result, Semapedia is shifting towards the use of QR Codes (although Semacodes/Datamatrix will always be supported):

We have changed our 2D code base to QR codes instead of Datamatrix codes so far. Of course, all Semapedia tags generated and distributed up to now STILL WORK and will always work. We consider experimenting with QR codes an interesting new approach because they offer several extended features than Datamatrix codes. Also, the adoption of QR codes with cellphone manufacturers and scanning software providers has increased dramatically in the past 6 months. Our goal is to connect  the real and the virtual in a meaningful and beautiful way. Going with QR codes from here inherits the promise to have more people being able to use Semapedia Tags much faster than if they were based on the Datamatrix standard.

With its obvious educational value, this move by Semapedia brings QR Code closer to becoming a de-facto standard for 2D Barcodes in education.

(via All About Mobile Life)

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Create a Free Mobilised Web Site

21 11 2006

Labs logoOliver at MobileCrunch reports on a very cool move by Google towards supporting mobile learning content. According to the Google Blog, Google Page Creator (a very simple, WYSIWYG web page maker for everyone with a Google account) now automatically creates mobile web pages.

That’s right: create a standard web page in Google Page Creator (whose output looks simple and beautiful on normal PCs, by the way, and is highly customisable), and a mobile web equivalent is automatically generated – without you having to even think about it. In line with W3C’s Best Practices for Mobile Web, the content is optimised for the particular digital device accessing the site.

In the same post, Google announced that Google Pages users can now have up to five different websites attached to their user account. That is a fantastically generous offer from Google, and should open up loads of possibilities for educators to develop mobile web pages. I’m not sure if Google accounts still need an invitation to get one, but if anyone needs a Google account and requires an invitation, email me and I’ll send you one. At this stage, I have 98 invitations I can give out. :)

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Microsoft adopts QR Code as standard for Windows Live Barcode

27 10 2006

It seems that Microsoft have discovered the 2D Barcode. Expect to see a proliferation of mobile 2D Barcode products and services in the next two years, now that Microsoft have just released Windows Live Barcode (still in Beta).

The 2D Barcode standard they have chosen is the QR Code – distinguised by the three concentric squares visible in each code. Although it’s proprietary (owned by Denso-Wave corp.), it is the most widely adopted barcode format used in Japan, where over 30 million mobile phones already feature the software required to decode the barcodes. The next most popular format is currently Semacode (aka Datamatrix), which is an open, non-proprietary standard. Most popular readers (such as the Kaywa Reader) support decoding both of these major barcode formats.

Unlike other “proximity” technologies like RFID, “Smart Chips”, GPS, or magnetic strips, the 2D Barcodes can be read by an ordinary camera phone, loaded with the correct software; and can be created without any special hardware, software, or consumables. The barcodes can be printed on paper, read from computer monitors or TV screens, or even created on and read from another mobile phone. Just to prove the capabilities of this technology, I have even created a working barcoded T-Shirt.

A QR Code can store over 4,000 alphanumeric characters within a barcode. The capacity, flexibility, and inexpensiveness of 2D barcodes makes their application to education extremely diverse.

In the future, expect to see educators accopanying printed notes with automatically generated 2D barcodes on each page, linking to electronic versions available via students’ smartphones.

Expect to see 2D barcodes attached to “real life” teaching and learning realia, such as plants in a nursery (for example). A learner could find out more information about any tagged object, just by using their mobile phone to capture the Code, and either directly accessing the data stored in the code, or being directed to a URL (which could contain multiple links to related resources, including images, articles, and video).

(Click image for larger version – excepted from Low & O’Connell 2006, “Learner-Centric Design of Digital Mobile Learning“)

Expect to see learners sharing information with each other using QR Codes to encode, exchange, and store data – saving learners the trouble of manually and laboriously inputting text using mobile phone keypads.

Expect QR Codes to provide an instant context for information, so that a learner’s interactions and learning can be guided by their current situation or context, such as in this example of a tag that might one day be attached to the Sydney Harbour Bridge:

There are already a number of online tools for creating 2D Barcode enabled mobile websites, such as WinkSite… and a lot of online generators for creating your own 2D Barcodes for other sites of your choice.

I’m aware of just a few educators who are trying out 2D barcodes, but the true potential of this technology won’t be accomplished until we can get the attention of telecommunications providers – to have decoding software installed in Australian camera phones by default, as it is in Japan. I have previously tried to telephone and email Optus, Telstra, a number of other providers and industry groups including the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and the Australian Consumers’ Telecommunication Network, but it’s been a struggle to convey to them the applications of this particular technology.

Still… Now that Microsoft are in on the game, we may see advances made in the deployment of 2D barcode technology software, even without the participation of telecommunications organisations. I’m certainly looking forward to a more connected future of learning!

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Least (Lowest) Common Denominator is Bad?

5 10 2006

In my research into best practices for designing mobile learning, I’ve recently come across a number of sources that advocate, strongly, that a LCD (Least/Lowest Common Denominator) approach to designing mobile experiences is a bad thing.

An LCD approach to interface/activity design is one that caters for the widest range of platforms by creating a single, non-adaptive document designed to be viewable on the most basic and least functional of those platforms. The currently prevailing philosophy regarding resource generation for the mobile web is that documents should be designed to exploit the functionality of any platform on which they render, to maximise the user’s viewing experience. This view is strongly advocated by leading mobile web commentators, researchers and academics, and indeed, the W3C itself through its Mobile Web Best Practice standard and MobileOK project:

5.1.2 Exploit Device Capabilities
[CAPABILITIES] Exploit device capabilities to provide an enhanced user experience.

-W3C, Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0

Contrast this view with the concept of Usability, prevalent in web design philosophy of the mid-1990s – for example, see one of the leading proponents of the Usability Movement, Jakob Nielsen’s, website – which itself is an epitomisation of the principles of Usability. 1990′s proponents of Usability advocated that websites should be made to render simply , correctly, and consistently on the widest possible range of platforms and browsers, through simple and minimalist design that enhances the efficiency of user-computer interaction. For example:

Write your pages for multiple types of Web browsers–to provide trouble-free access to the widest possible audience. The World Wide Web is a multi-platform, non-browser specific medium. It should not matter whether people browse your Web pages using Netscape, Explorer, Opera, Lynx, WebTV, NetPhonic’s Web-On-Call, Mobile Telephones, or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs, or palmtops, the little computers with screens the size of a credit card). Each browser ought to render your informational Web pages without problems. If a Web page is designed properly, blind individuals, or anyone using text-to-voice or Braille displays, can easily listen to and review your work.

- Goodpractices.com

Current mobile web practice standards encourage content providers to be sensitive to the needs of the “default” delivery context, but provide for an enhanced experience on more capable devices:

Develop sites that target the Default Delivery Context. In addition, where appropriate, use device capabilities to provide a better user experience on more capable devices.

-W3C, Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0

The clash between current mobile web design practices and “old school” usability principles is evident in a report by the Nielsen Norman consulting group, which did a study of mobile web usability and found striking resemblences with the state of the mid-1990s computer-based web (which corresponds with my own theories about strong parallels between Computer-based and current Mobile technologies).

Which brings me to the subject of Graceful Degradation.

Graceful degradation is a principle that has been around even longer than the Internet, and was always my preferred design philosophy over strict Jakob Nielsen-type minimalist usability. In this design philosophy, there is an inherent awareness of how content will change in the absence of device or software/browser capability; and content is designed so that it will render on a less capable device, but will deliver an enhanced experience on a more capable one. Graceful degradation seems to be at the heart of W3C’s Mobile Web Best Practices, but I am concerned that most teachers won’t have the technical skills and knowledge to design and implement gracefully degrading content, or worse, will misinterpret W3C’s guidelines and completely ignore concepts of designing for baseline (reduced capability/legacy) technologies.

My feeling is that web content design guidelines used to be centred around avoiding problems; current mobile content design guidelines are centred around maximising user experiences.  Both perspectives have pros and cons – what do you think?

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