Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning?

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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8 thoughts on “Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning?

  1. This is an interesting question. My understanding is that it is the learner which is mobile and the device is a secondary issue? (Sharples et al)

  2. Indeed, Bob, that’s a good mantra for m-learning, and the model of m-learning which I tend to prefer.

    Let’s consider the ramifications of that statement though. If it’s really all about the learner and not the technology, then the ideal m-learning “technology” should be as “invisible” (transparent, easy-to-use, facilitative, and unintrusive) as possible, so that the technology itself poses the least possible resistance to the process of learning.

    If the learning technology or approach is clumsy, inconvenient, or socially unacceptable, then the technology itself imposes barriers to learning. This is why ubiquitous, “social” devices like cellphones and iPods can be attractive platforms for learning – they’re always available and discreet enough to be always on, allowing the focus to be on the learning, and not on the technology.

    What do you think of this interpretation of Prof. Mike Sharples’ assertion? 🙂

  3. Some interesting points there Len – I’m a little curious as to why being socially acceptable keeps cropping up.

    I could see that the convenience (or otherwise) of carrying a laptop around being an issue but given the way laptops pop up in cafes and such now and the early stepsbeing taken to connect entire cities with wireless broadband, it seems like something that people are just going to get used to.

    It’s perhaps a less spontaneous form of mobile learning but surely it’s going to keep on coming.

  4. Pingback: Mobile Learning » Making M-Learning Mobile, Open, and Ubiquitous

  5. Hey Col! Hope you’re enjoying your hols. 🙂

    I’ve certainly got absolutely no objections to people hooking up to a wireless internet connection in a cafe to engage with learning… perhaps that’s the way they learn best, with unlimited steaming lattes at beck and call. I just feel that mobile learning has much greater potential than turning a cafe into a serviced computer lab.

    I think there’s a place for enabling convenience in mobile learning, such as working from a cafe, or listening to a lecture while jogging; but if convenience was the be-all and end-all of (by way of comparison) online learning, we’d just have a bunch of uploaded Word documents for students to print at home or view at a cafe, instead of exploiting all of the interactivity, communications, and multimedia capabilities that the online environment supports to make online learning the best it can be.

    Likewise, for me at least, mobile learning is about exploiting aspects of learner mobility to make learning the best it can be, and less about simply making resources portable.

    For example, what if your always-on, GPS-enabled PDA could *tell you* when you were near a landmark or point of interest, relevant to your learning needs? You’re an architecture student, and you walk along the street with this thing in your pocket. It vibrates to alert you of a learning opportunity: “The building on your left was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the Catholic church straight ahead is based on a Gothic design”. You can click through the links for more information on the subtopics. You walk up to the church, and it continues “The Annex section you’re looking at was completed 50 years after the rest of the church, and shows simpler ornamentation”.

    There’s no reason that this exact scenario couldn’t be done with current mobile technology.

    Likewise, using handheld devices, learners can record their own learning and immediately share it with others. For example, you’re in the church, and you notice that the interior of the church is definitely not Gothic. You read a plaque on the wall, and it turns out that the interior was renovated in the 1930’s in an Art Deco style. You record this into your handheld device, along with a photo of the church interior, and it’s immediately uploaded to the online database, along with your GPS coordinates, so that future learners can benefit from this insight. It’d be way more difficult to achieve this kind of thing booting up your laptop, attaching your webcam, taking a photo of the church with it, and uploading it.

    Best practices and quality resources in online learning are full of interactive activities that engage the learner; many educators are going nuts over the ability to “walk around” in virtual 3D worlds in SecondLife. Yet mobile learning can provide the ultimate in interactivity, with learners engaging and interacting with the real world; and the ultimate in 3D worlds in this “FirstLife”, with textures, smells, and feedback that aren’t even a remote possibility in virtual ones. Shouldn’t we be using those opportunities?

  6. Pretty good and entertaining discussion. As an aside to the subject being discussed a nice example of the blogosphere stimulating debate.

  7. Pingback: e-learning Now » Blog Archive » Does Mobile Technology equate with Mobile Learning?

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