Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What is Mobile Learning?

Dr Angela Murphy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Digital Futures Institute, is visiting the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra this week to conduct Staff mobile learning focus groups. ANU, University of Southern Queensland USQ) and the University of South Australia (UniSA) are jointly developing a Mobile Learning Evaluation Framework. As part of this, I was interviewed by Angela about the impact of mobile technologies on my teaching and my student's learning.

I am skeptical as to if "Mobile Learning", that is learning using mobile devices (mobile phones, smart phone and tablet computers) is different enough from other forms of e-learning to be worth studying separately.

From 2001 to 2009 I was teaching the design of web based mobile phone applications to students at ANU. One difficulty was revising the examples each year. Companies would launch new mobile web technology, only for this to fail within a year. This was partly due to the immaturity of the technology but also by the businesses building completely new websites for the mobile devices. These businesses argued that mobile was a new market, with new customers wanting new services. However, the business could not sustain the level of investment to create these new services. The companies which succeeded integrated mobile into their existing business. In education, I suggest the same applies: m-learning should just be an aspect of e-learning, which in itself is just another form of learning: its all just learning.

One place this integrated approach was adopted was for the Sahana free open source emergency management software. After being developed quickly for relief operations after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, at my suggestion the software was modified to operate better on mobile devices used for subsequent emergencies.

See: E-government for emergencies: dealing with a bird flu pandemicusing the wireless web and podcasting, for CeBIT Australia,  2006.

Accessible Design Aids Mobile Learning

Mobile devices have small screens, limited keyboards, limited processing capacity and  lower bandwidth network links. Those limitations can be dealt with using the same Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as used for disabilities. Australian law requires accessibility, whatever form the education is delivered in and as a byproduct access is provided for mobile learning.

I design my educational materials with low bandwidth user in mind and find the students appreciate this. See "Demonstration of Using Moodle for Postgraduate Professional Education with eBooks and Smart phones",  for OzCHI Conference 2011, 1 December 2011.

Good Design Aids Mobile Learning

Those using mobile devices may be learning in a location which is public, noisy and full of distractions (such as on the bus, or while minding the kids). These distractions require the learning materials to be well laid out, so the student can easily see what they need to do. But this requirement is no different to previous forms of distance education using paper, which required carefully laid out materials.

Mobile devices lend themselves to short, brief snippets. However, educators should resist the temptation to chop up the educational materials into Twitter size chunks. Different devices have different screen sizes and students will likely be using several. It is very annoying to be looking at a large screen and getting only a few lines of information which read like Haiku poetry. The course materials should be designed to reformat to suit the capabilities of the device used and the preferences of the user.

Some courses adapted from a traditional classroom environment do require too much input from the student not often enough. Recently I was giving advice on a course which had a low rate of student completion. I noticed the course was described as having "progressive assessment" but it had 70% for examinations (including a 60% final examination). There were a couple of assignments and some lab exercises, but these seem to be concentrated in the second half of the course. I suggested reducing the size of the final exam and nonreducing some real progressive harassment starting early in the course. Some of this could be via m-learning, with the student entering a few sentences of text. However, students need to understand that just being required to come up with a short answer does not lessen the work required. Einstein's equation E = mc2 takes only a few characters to write, but volumes to understand. For more on this see "A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks", for the 7th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2012.

m-Learning is e-Learning is Distance Learning is Learning

The more I learn about learning, its theories and history, the less e-learning and its reiteratives, such as m-learning, seem different. The proponents of MOOCs envision a new era of low cost anywhere education with low barriers to entry. These same aims were set down for distance education using TV several decades ago, radio about 70 years ago, and correspondence courses one hundred years ago.

In my view there is not that much different between teaching in a lecture theater or on-line. The same principles work. The key is having courses well designed and educators who are trained in how to teach. The difficult issues with on-line education are ones of academic independence and the business model of educational institutions.

All that said there is scope for better on-line learning tools.  It is frustrating that a different set of software has to be used for non-real time (so called asynchronous) and real-time (synchronous) e-learning. After exploring what was needed I set a project for computer science students at ANU to add real time features to Moodle. See:

Delphi, ANU and m-Learning

One of the research techniques being used for the m-Learning project is a Delphi panel. The Delphi method uses a panel of experts. The name derives from the Oracle of Delphi. Angela interviewed me at the Purple Pickle Cafe, at the ANU sports centre. This put me in mind of my return from a trip to Greece, when I visited Delphi.

Purple Pickle Cafe at ANU
Writing with wax tablet, ca 500 BC
While I did not have any revelations from the oracle there, I did visit the ancient gymnasium at Delphi, which had a covered walkway (Stoa) next to it and an old Oak tree. This was where the ancient philosophers used to teach.  On my return to ANU I noticed the sports centre (a modern gymnasium) had a covered walkway outside, trees and a cafe where modern academics sit and teach. Students at the cafe using a tablet computer and stylus adopt a pose not so different from those depicted on ancient Greek pottery writing on a wax tablet.

See: Learning Commons Technology: the dos and donts in developing learning commons, for 2nd Annual Learning Commons Development and Design Forum, 2011

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