by Hap Aziz
In my previous post, I discussed the broader topic of the place that mobile technologies is beginning to occupy within the educational environment. To revisit, I set the framework within the following EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative questions regarding m-Learning:
- 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?
Where these questions become especially interesting is in the context of Learning Management Systems, and the role mobile technologies will play regarding both student and institutional engagement. While there is debate regarding they type of transformation Learning Management Systems may undergo, there appears to be a consensus that a transformation will take place, and it is likely to be quite significant. The topic of the future LMS was discussed by a panel of educators and vendors at the Campus Technology 2011 conference in Boston.
Brian Whitmer (who, along with fellow Brigham Young University graduate student Devlin Daily founded Instructure, developers of the Canvas LMS) had some interesting commentary. His thought is that the LMS would evolve into a “hub of resources” that institutions would continue to utilize in facilitating their course and program offerings. This concept of a “hub of resources” gives us some indication of what lies ahead for the LMS, but just as important, it also provides the basis for mobile technologies integration, with institutions playing the role of services vendor, and students (as well as faculty) playing the role of a-la-carte services consumers.
The transformation has already begun in the form of direct connectivity and support for mobile devices (smartphones and tablets rather than laptops). Blackboard, for example, offers Mobile Learn for the iOS and Android platforms as a way for smart-device users to capture the web experience of the LMS. The Desire2Learn 2GO family of products offers an interface to courses that is optimized for the mobile web. Epsilen Mobility allows work review and collaboration on iOS, Android, and Blackberry devices.
All of these product offerings, however, have not yet realized the promise of the mobile technologies ecosystem; that is, the empowerment of consumers to define and expand their own user experience through the selection and combination of the particular and distinct applications that meet their individual needs. Consider the paradigm of the laptop computer versus the paradigm of smart devices.
The introduction and widespread adoption of the laptop computer as a tool in the education space has been considered as the first phase of the mobility movement within the education community. However, this is not a completely accurate interpretation of the laptop’s role, which has been more along the lines of a portable desktop rather than a ubiquitous mobile solution. There are several reasons for this, with one significant reason being the software application model executed on laptops. Just as with desktop computers, software installed or websites run on laptops are end-to-end product suite solutions. There exists little room for operating environment customization within applications—how much latitude is there for custom combinations of services within the Blackboard LMS, for example? We do see some movement in that direction with the development of cloud-based applications that allows consumers to mix and match within their own operating environment.
The difference between the laptop model and the manner in which consumers interact with their smart devices is categorical rather than a simple difference of scale. On smart devices, the mobile application model has evolved into one of small and light apps that provides tightly focused functionality. Data input for these applications is handled in a variety of ways from direct user activity to the reliance upon sensors such as accelerometers, global positioning systems, and so on. Much of the data can be easily stored within the Cloud, and can also be passed and shared between applications—applications often developed by different or even competing vendors.
This model allows the consumer to select micro functionality and subsequently combine applications into a macro functional custom environment. Imagine one student assembling a customized LMS in Lego fashion: Blackboard grade book + Desire2Learn discussion forum + Angel assignment drop box. Another student in the same course might combine a Canvas discussion forum + Blackboard synchronous video chat + Epsilen ePortfolio. This is where the potential benefits of today’s crop of truly mobile devices lie, and this is the future that is just now being revealed. The question yet to be answered is, how long will it be until we get to that place?