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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