Given the highly contextualised nature of mobile technologies, it is difficult to point to
examples of ‘best’ or even ‘good’ practice. As Richard Hall explains:
I struggle with the use of the term “good”. However, practice that I feel is appropriate, or good enough, in its own context is based around curriculum reinvention, and the role of student as producer. Personal technologies enable students to produce/share their curriculum, their learning experiences, their own content etc.
As Jon Trinder quotes Jeff Beck as quipping, asking what is the ‘best’ solution is “a bit like asking which is the best breakfast”. There is “only the best for you given context, location, time, budget, etc., adds Trinder. There are, however, both approaches and specific guidelines that can inform mobile learning initiatives and wider digital strategies. The key is to start at the end and work backwards, picking a point in time to support and then iterating towards your goal.
Central to every mobile learning initiative should be people and places rather than technologies and times. As Geoff Stead notes, “a common mistake is to start your mobile learning by being excited about the gadget itself, when ultimately the success of any mobile learning episode is really about the learner.” Thinking about how and why students might want to use mobile technologies will enable discussions that lead to transformative practice.
An example that Andrew Middleton gives is the ability of mobile devices to capture the “rich conversations and ideas that students have on the periphery of our formal learning spaces.” He talks of facilitating reflective practice by encouraging students to use voice notes immediately after lectures and seminars. Whether an iPad, iPod touch or Android device is irrelevant, especially if the learner already knows how to use it effectively for learning.
Whilst opinion is split in the mobile learning sphere as to whether tablets such as the Apple iPad constitute a new category of device, the reality is that, increasingly, learners will own them. Whilst appropriate attention should be taken of ‘digital divide’ issues and potential exclusionary policies, the affordances of such devices should be explored. Incorporating and mentioning new kinds of devices as they appear on the horizon in a digital strategy allows for planning to take place. Not only does this prevent knee-jerk reactions (such as the banning of devices not fully understood) but encourages such strategies to involve conversation and ‘flow’.
Gary Woodill cites (2010, p.198-9) seven levels of mobile learning, originally identified by Robert Gadd, Chief Mobile Officer at OnPoint Digital:
- Level 1 Messages (one-way)
- Level 2 Interactive messaging (two-way)
- Level 3 Voice-based content and assessments (podcasts and the like)
- Level 4 Reference materials and static content (material accessible by mobile learner
for just-in-time learning)
- Level 5 Learning content and courseware (interactive and lesson-based materials e-
learning on a smaller screen)
- Level 6 Rich media (high-end audio/video playable on both smartphones and laptops/
- Level 7 Interactive and immersive media (device-based learning games, virtual reality,
augmented reality, learning games)
Whilst many institutions are at Level 4 or 5 under this model, there are very few that have a strategy incorporating elements of Levels 6 and 7. Iterating a coherent, transparent and fair appliance management policy can help different users be supported effectively. For example, Mike Short tells of O2’s use of the terms Huggers, Hoppers and Visitors. ‘Huggers’ are workers who remain in one place, ‘Hoppers’ are those constantly on-the- move, and ‘Visitors’ are those who do not belong to the organisation but require use of their infrastructure. Identifying core groups and tailoring access and security policies accordingly can pay dividends.
Several elements to consider when helping facilitate effective mobile learning experiences for students can be usefully be put under the heading ‘human factors’. These include: locations, settings, movement, posture, devices, workloads, distractions, activities, and personas. A 10-step strategy, adapted from Woodill (2011, p.190) might look like the following:
- Evaluate the current needs around mobile learning (student voice and business case)
- Identify user groups and needs
- Explore the affordances and limitations of relevant mobile devices
- Define security requirements and identify delivery constraints
- Develop a mobile learning pedagogy and strategy (as part of wider digital strategy)
- Design the interaction ‘flow’ and navigational elements (digital/physical)
- Test with closed-beta group
- Evaluate and iterate with feedback from closed-beta group
- Open beta, repeat feedback mechanism
- Launch mobile learning initiative
This process should be one of many loops within a digital strategy that is itself integrated into an institution’s forward developmental planning. A holistic approach such as this avoids talk of the ‘real’ and ‘digital’ worlds when we all and students in particular inhabit blended environments. This is more than simply ‘the physical environment’ and ‘the internet’, but a blended ‘real world’ of the two, accessible on the move. As Alan Livingstone puts it in ‘The Revolution No One Noticed’:
“The past decade has witnessed two revolutions in communication technology. The first the Internet revolution has changed everything in higher education. The second the
mobile phone revolution has changed nothing. Were vaguely aware that our students have mobile phones (and annoyed when they forget to turn them off in class), but it hasnt occurred to us that the fact they have these devices might have anything to do with our effort to provide them with educational experiences and services.” (Livingstone, 2009)
He goes on to tell a fictional story about six students and the difference mobile technologies makes to their learning experiences. Whilst most of the examples he cites are administrative in focus, “collectively, they’re far from trivial”. The UK has perhaps a more developed mobile learning research and practice base on which to draw thanks, in part, to the work of JISC and LSN funding innovative projects. See www.jisc.ac.uk and www.molenet.org.uk for further details.
Currently, there is a (perceived) tension existing between senior management wanting, as John Cook puts it “just working on all devices” and learners desiring the kind of rich media experience and social interaction they experience elsewhere. Learning support and technical support are often caught in the middle doing the best they can given strategies and policies that no longer dealing with everyday realities. Documents relating to online safety and protection, for example, often deal solely with institutionally-provided resources rather than the 3G connections students are equally, if not more, likely to be using.
Moreover, there is a lack of joined-up thinking in the sector between what we know about effectively pedagogies and blended learning environments. We know, for example, through many years of research that timely, formative feedback, project-based learning and student choice motivates learners. Mobile learning initiatives that respond to the context of an institution can help transform educational experiences for staff and students alike.