by Hap Aziz
Rapid changes in consumer-driven technologies often result in adjustments within the classroom—both virtual and physical—as educators attempt to find ways to incorporate new tools and techniques into the teaching and learning environment. Simply keeping abreast of developments can be challenging enough, so it is a good practice to leverage the explorations of others in feeding our own self-awareness of the industry. The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) is one such “entity of exploration” focused on innovations in education that further advance learning.
The ELI has been examining the topic of mobile learning (or m-Learning) for several years, and a set of questions has been articulated that establishes a good framework for discussion across both strategic and tactical domains (Source: http://www.educause.edu/ELI/LearningTechnologies/MLearningandMobility/12397);
- What is the rationale for implementing mobile technologies?
- How does ubiquitous access to a wireless network change the dynamics of learning both in and out of the classroom?
- What are best practices for using mobile learning?
- What end-user support is important for mobile learning? How can it best be provided?
Taken as a whole, these questions encompass a topic of technological as well as procedural scope, certainly from an institutional standpoint. Mobile devices and connectivity are indeed ubiquitous in the consumer market space, and therefore the demand exists (and is growing) from consumers to utilize their personal investment in their educational space. (It is important to understand that this personal investment is monetary, but more importantly it is often a significant investment in lifestyle as well.)
Unfortunately, neither the technological nor procedural infrastructure yet exists to absorb and support such a movement at the institutional level. And because of the significant lifestyle investment in mobile technology, to ignore the trend or to act slowly in leveraging the trend represents an opportunity lost for the institutions that do so.
The first two questions are of particular importance within the context of this discussion. Let is consider these two questions one at a time.
1. What is the rationale for implementing mobile technologies?
Certainly, the implementation of any type of technology into the teaching and learning environment should be driven by the desire to improve student outcomes, or as Dr. Terry O’Banion has stated: technology should be used to improve and expand student learning. Mobile technologies are especially attractive to the education community for several reasons:
- Their ability to provide near instant access to information to students and faculty
- Their facilitation of both synchronous and asynchronous communication between students and faculty
- The manner in which they have expanded the boundaries of learning outside of the traditional classroom
However, the strongest rationale for implementing mobile technologies into the teaching and learning environment is not so much based on any transformation taking place within the academic realm as it is based on the strengths of the consumerist lifestyle. That is to say, consumers including students and faculty increasingly are finding compelling reasons to integrate mobile technologies into their everyday life activities, whether within the home or in the workplace outside of the classroom. We saw the first wave of mobile technologies, the laptop computer, enter the classroom as a tool of convenience and efficiency, aiding students in their academic endeavors, and we are now witnessing the beginning of a very similar trend with smartphones and tablet devices, well after these devices have established themselves as permanent fixtures in both the business and personal entertainment arenas.
2. How does ubiquitous access to a wireless network change the dynamics of learning both in and out of the classroom?
One of the most significant alterations to the educational landscape came with the introduction of wired network access for large segments of the learning population. Consequently, the definition of “classroom” took on broader meaning as serious and practical alternatives to institution-based learning were developed. Instruction through the conduit of the Internet introduced both learners and institutions to the new paradigm of online education.
However, learners and faculty still were limited to particular “learning locations” at the endpoints of communication networks. Add to classrooms other locations such as homes and offices; this greatly expanded the educational environment without eliminating hardwired location dependency. The introduction and now near ubiquitous accessibility of reliable and broad-bandwidth wireless networks alters the landscape again, significantly.
From the learner’s standpoint, the educational process has become functionally portable. Combining wireless networks with small, battery-powered, Internet-enabled smart devices allows learners to consume educational product in the form of course content almost entirely on their own terms. This transforms the teaching and learning transactional activity from a planned interaction requiring at least some minimum time to be set aside (get to the computer, boot it up, log into the LMS, complete assignments, etc.) to an impulse activity that can be engaged in micro-transactional intervals (check course mail in the grocery store check-out line, post to discussion forum while waiting on the car oil change, reading the assigned e-book while grabbing coffee at Starbucks, etc.).
Even within the traditional classroom environment, the learning dynamics have undergone tremendous change. The ability to access entire libraries’ worth of information has compressed research time (and has elevated the need for strong research skills). The computing power and network connectivity of handheld devices has necessitated substantial changes in high-stakes testing procedures—often in the form of offering more conceptual test formats. The ease with which data can be shared has contributed to an increase in sophisticated collaborative projects that utilize an amazing variety of cloud-based tools and applications.
What is on the horizon for m-Learning?
First, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between m-Learning and e-Learning, and that the differences will increase in proportion to the increase in mobile device usage and capabilities. John Feser writes of the four differences between the two: timing, information access, context, and assessment (for details see here: http://floatlearning.com/2010/04/mlearning-is-not-elearning-on-a-mobile-device/). The point he makes, though, is fundamental to anticipating the future of m-Learning. Feser asserts that “the capabilities and features of today’s mobile devices are now allowing us to create entirely new ways of learning than previously possible.”
As individual learners invest in their own mobile lifestyle solutions, they will find an increased number of connection points to educational content provided by institutions competing for their patronage. Education will become less of a bracketed activity and more of a “snack-like consumption” activity performed within the context of everyday life. In this way, the concept of the lifelong learner will have the potential to become fully realized