As mentioned in an earlier section, with the overwhelming ubiquity of smartphones and the emphasis on mobile ‘apps’ it is easy to forget that the first Apple iPhone was launched in the UK as recently as November 2007. At that time Twitter was not widely known or used, Facebook was not ubiquitous, and YouTube had only just launched a UK version of its video-sharing site.
The confluence of affordances that hardware, software and social acceptance can lead to a ‘perfect storm’ of acceptance, to be investigated in more depth in the ‘Cost/benefits’ section. 2007 effectively saw the end of the widespread use of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in large-scale educational projects. Their affordances wireless connectivity, image and video capture/storage, larger screens could be found increasingly on mobile phones that students and staff already owned.
Over the past three years, then, a tension has been felt by institutions as to what constitutes ‘good’ practice when it comes to the ownership of mobile devices. Those proposing using student-owned technology for learning have often been rebutted by talk of a ‘digital divide’ and possible security issues. Part of the problem is the assumption of a universal context for learning.
As almost institutions-within-institutions and free from some of both the political and academic wrangling of the wider institution, libraries have led the way when it comes to pragmatic, learner-focused use of mobile technologies. Many libraries have begun experimenting with Quick Response (QR) codes and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices to reduce friction for learners accessing learning resources. Kevin Campbell-Wright have provided some guidance with the assistance of JISC Regional Support Centre Yorkshire Humber on QR codes. This is accessible at: www.slideshare.net/shibberson/a-quick-response-to-promoting-library-services-how-you-can-use-qr-codes.
A previous wave of innovation within most libraries equipped learning spaces with wireless internet and network access, allowing users to blend digital and physical learning experiences. Some libraries, usually in conjunction with IT Services, have allowed for ‘virtual tours’ that have evolved as technology has allowed for richer and more immersive experiences. This shall be explored in more depth in forthcoming sections of this review.
Whilst hardware functionality and software versions the advantages of a device are matters of objective fact, the associated usability is subjective and highly contextual. Cochrane (2010:19) quotes a second-year student given the use of an institutionally-owned device as grumbling,
“The Nokia’s UI was so bad and non-intuitive that I didn’t use the phone as much as I wanted to I really like the whole idea just not this phone.”
The move from PDAs to smartphones not only increases the affordances available, but adds some lustre from the marketing machines that push such devices. More importantly, however, if learners carry around smartphones more capable than PDAs used in pre-2007 projects, then institutionally-owned devices would seem unnecessary.
Just as definitions of mobile learning have shifted in the last decade, so too have the relevant challenges. Although technology-related issues remain, it is issues relating to technology’s adoption and use in wider society that are at the current foreground:
The main barriers to developing these new modes of mobile learning are not technical but social. We have little understanding of context and learning outside the classroom, and even less about how this can be supported through new mobile technologies. (Sharples, 2010, p.4)
The use of student-owned (and staff-owned) technologies for learning and teaching is not simply a matter of cost and familiarity but of convenience, accessibility and choice. So long as institutions provide facilities and devices for those without access to particular technologies, staff can expect and indeed require students to use these technologies for their learning. When all learners within a community are using mobile devices for learning this leads to powerful pedagogical change. As David Sugden puts it,
Mobile devices, especially mobile phones are so powerful these days that it would be a crime not to use their facilities with all sorts of Internet enabled tools and techniques. These days we can capture sights, assessment evidence, opportunities and share them with our cohort, our assessor and/or our colleagues; within seconds.
Several JISC-funded projects, including EVAF4ALL (JISC, 2009), have initiated a ‘loanership’ scheme where either some or all students are loaned a device for the duration of their course. This can help bridge ‘digital divide’ and social justice issues.
One use of wireless technology that has been quietly popular in the last decade has been voting handsets. Ways of using these as they have become more well-known and used have improved. Recently, such systems have been expanded to provide a ‘backchannel’ to the learning event such as a lecture taking place. Poll Everywhere (http://polleverywhere.com) is a commercial offering with a free testing option that allows learners to respond to prompts via SMS, Twitter, or directly via a web-enabled device.
Hotseat (http://purdue.edu/hotseat), “a social networking-powered mobile web application” has been developed by Purdue University in the USA. This system also connects with Facebook and “creates a collaborative classroom, allowing students to provide near real-time feedback during class and enabling professors to adjust the course content and improve the learning experience.”
Integration with Facebook is an example of the increasing willingness (and perceived acceptability) of institutions to both contact students and facilitate connections via social networking sites. This is a carry-forward from the success, in terms of student retention and support, of SMS initiatives (Stone, 2004).
As referenced in the ‘Pedagogical context’ section, Puentedura’s SAMR model suggests that institutions should expend their energies on technologies that afford more that mere ‘Substitution’. For example, simply making a ‘mobile-friendly’ version of a VLE would be to ignore the transformational additional affordances of mobile devices. Integration of location-based information services in particular is a highly cost-effective method of making good use of mobile learning. Another is breaking down large amounts of content into smaller, more digestible ‘chunks’ that can be accessed and reflected upon on-the-go. Some VLE and LMS providers, such as Blackboard (http://blackboard.com/Mobile), are beginning to offer mobile solutions that can be tailored to individual institutions.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that FE institutions are more likely to embark upon small-scale innovation in the mobile learning sphere than HE institutions. Reasons given for this range from increased behaviour management considerations to having more of a vocational focus. Whatever the reason, encouraging innovation within the boundaries of an overall digital strategy is important for any institution. Warrington and Chesterfield colleges were cited by interviewees as examples of active and considered use of Facebook to engage students, although increasingly individual departments and projects seem to be setting up shorter-lived and specific groups to share and record ideas.
Those in charge of digital strategy need to make a pragmatic decision as to the boundaries within which innovation takes place. This is innovation upon standardisation, the strategy making sure everybody is ‘on the same page’:
If your organization is ready for mobile adoption or has mobile deployed in pockets of the organization, the first discussion to embark upon is the notion of governance and control. You should not be concerned with defining what employees will do with the devices; you will never be able to keep pace with anticipating new uses as whole new technologies and applications emerge in the mobile world each month. Instead, focus on what you arent ready for employees to do with mobile devices. As you can see, this is the converse of articulating business requirements, but it is the only way to strike a balance between allowing rapid innovation and wildfire adoption, and having key controls in place. (Woodill, 2011, p.220)
Ron Mitchell agrees: infrastructure, strategy and setting the context are vital. In my experience,” he says, “the more successful mobile learning projects have typically invested as much, if not more, in infrastructure as they have in mobile devices”. Many projects, even if not realising so at the beginning have concluded “that a robust infrastructure matched to the planned/required level of usage is essential for the effectiveness and sustainability of mobile learning beyond the scope of any initial project”. In other words, the sustainability is predicated upon any innovation being built upon a commonly-understood foundation and within the scope of a wider digital strategy.
Puentedura’s SAMR model is a useful guide to discussions surrounding digital strategy and the level of ‘innovation’ in any given project. Innovation is a term that should be applied to how the affordances of a device are used in practice, not to the device itself. Case studies illustrating mobile learning initiatives at each level of the SAMR model are outlined below. These were taken from the LSIS Excellent Gateway (www.excellencegateway.org.uk) and LSN’s MoLeSHARE site (www.moleshare.org.uk):
At this level, the technology simply gives a technological gloss to an established procedure or practice. It may speed up the process, but there is no functional improvement. There are many examples of this, including straightforward use of voting devices in the classroom (Castle College, Nottingham), completing assessment tasks (Chelmsford Training Services) and accessing training materials (Charnwood Training).
Often in these situations the technology is used as a motivating factor and/or something that breaks up lessons and provides a different focus.
- Castle College, Nottingham www.moleshare.org.uk/case_studies.asp?ID=79resi=Case+Study
- Chelmsford Training Services www.excellencegateway.org.uk/Programmes/page.aspx?o=241635
- Charnwood Training www.excellencegateway.org.uk/Programmes/page.aspx?o=164016
To ‘augment’ learning some kind of functional improvement has to be evident. Not only does the technology streamline procedures, but additional functionality is available to staff and students. Examples of augmentation including mobile technologies include solving accessibility issues (Barnet College), going ‘paperless’ (JHP Training), and QR codes (Moulton College).
These situations regularly include occasions where an individual or group has been aware of the technology available and used it in a focused way.
Those mobile learning initiatives involving ‘modification’ are those where there has been significant task redesign due to the affordances available. Examples of this include using mobile devices on field trips (Strathmore College), involving students with learning disabilities in safe sporting activities (Trafford College) and using Flip video cameras for new forms of assessment (Dearne Valley College).
Situations in which modification takes place tend to include new ‘channels’ or methods of delivery and communication. Using video recording and/or playback devices often fits into this category.
- Strathmore College www.excellencegateway.org.uk/Programmes/page.aspx?o=158445
- Trafford College www.moleshare.org.uk/case_studies.asp?ID=43resi=Wii+Fit+for+LLDD
- Dearne Valley College www.moleshare.org.uk/case_studies.asp?ID=69resi=Health+and+Social+Care+Students+Using+Flip+Cameras
It is currently difficult to find examples of mobile learning initiatives that involve ‘redefinition’ that is, promoting new, previously inconceivable, tasks. Such initiatives need to take advantage of the particular affordances of mobile devices and the situations in which they are used. Redesigning learning spaces to facilitate mobile learning (York College) and redesigning curricula around mobile devices (South Nottingham College) may be two examples that qualify as ‘redefinition’.
In future, removal of barriers regarding assessment and the separation of it from learning and teaching are likely to lead to new developments in this area.
- York College www.excellencegateway.org.uk/Programmes/page.aspx?o=169986
- South Nottingham College www.excellencegateway.org.uk/Programmes/page.aspx?o=165762
Use of mobile devices in learning is not in its infancy but nor is mobile learning a mature area. As the affordances of mobile devices grow, awareness of how they can be used in learning increases, and demand surges from staff and students, so mobile learning shall mature.