A problem for any institution wanting to develop a policy or strategy in relation to mobile learning is its seemingly ever-changing nature. As Gary Woodill puts it in the introduction to The Mobile Learning Edge (2010, p.xiv):
Unfortunately, mobile learning (and mobile computing in general) is in a state of constant flux with new developments appearing on a weekly basis. If you plan to undertake a comprehensive strategic initiative to use mobile learning in your business, you need to develop a future-oriented strategy. This means anticipating trends and technology lifecycles, and have a sense of what might be coming in mobile learning in the next five years.
Given that, as Mick Mullane puts it, we will never be able to fully equip students with all the IT they require” and that, as Ron Mitchell adds, “were far from the widespread m-maturity that some suggest weve now reached with e-maturity”, what are institutions to do? Mike Ellis suggests institutions ‘cherry-pick’ those technologies that may be relevant and chart their progress from ‘bleeding edge’ to mainstream adoption:
Timing the introduction of elements of a mobile learning initiative is important, claims Mike:
There is both frustration and safety in not being “bleeding edge” when it comes to technology. The frustration is obvious: our institutions are slow to move, politically motivated and often difficult to change. On the other side, this creates a level of safety: we can watch new technologies, see how they develop and react accordingly, picking up the ones which have crawled out of the “Disillusionment Trough” and up the “Slope of Enlightenment” rather than the ones which remain in the trough and become deadpooled.”
This idea is predicated upon the Gartner Hype Cycle, itself influenced by the ‘diffusion of innovation’ adoption curve:
This curve has been used widely used as a model to discuss the mainstream adoption (or otherwise) of an innovation, but is also criticised for engendering some of the ‘reification’ discussed in an earlier section of this review. As Mike Ellis continues,
“A two year (say) gap between an innovative product entering the market and going through these growing pains is enough to prove or semi-prove the technology and marketplace, by which time cultural or educational institutions are sitting up and ready to take notice of that product or approach.
This is evident in the evolution of mobile learning, although ‘mini adoption curves’ exist with some innovations (such as PDAs) never reaching the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ stage.
However, perhaps we subconsciously retrofit developments to a model rather than vice-versa? Some, such as Mike Sharples, would question the above conceptualisation, seeing a “direct chain” from the vision Alan Kay set out in his 1968 Dynabook project:
“Arguably,” says Sharples, “we are still working to realise the original 40 year old Dynabook concept.” Those who see mobile learning as ever-changing “maybe aren’t sufficiently aware of its long history”.
Taking the long view, it can often be a compound of technologies that pave the way for innovative learning solutions within a given context. Jon Trinder claims that some technology “creeps up on us. Some of the new technologies and or services may not in themselves change the world… [T]heir potential may not be apparent until they are are combined with others”. He gives the example of GPS which “is not that exciting” but “in conjunction with maps or augmented reality has greater potential”.
Institutions need to be aware and agile enough to take advantage of affordances in both their single and combined forms.
A large barrier to the uptake of mobile learning in FE and HE is the cost implications of such projects. As John Cook puts it, there are no collective purchasing arrangements for mobile technologies as there are through Eduserv’s CHEST agreements for software and data:
The problem is that the Mobile Operators (mobos) tie you down to the services that they provide. So you need mobile phone, apps and mobo operator interoperability. If we can solve this problem and strike a CHEST like deal for mobile learning with all these players then we will really see a revolution like those in retail brought about by the likes of Amazon and eBay.
Mobile providers are flexible in their provision to large organisations but, to a great extent such problems are created and subsequently mitigated by circumstances beyond the control of institutions. Free BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry (B2B) messaging, for example, explains the explosion of such devices in the student market; and when both text messages and data are effectively ‘free’ as part of a student’s contract, barriers to mobile learning initiatives are removed. Further work is needed to augment the work of Edinburgh Napier University (2010) who found that half of its students owned a smartphone with over two thirds having a ‘pay monthly’ contract. Such contextual information is vital to inform mobile learning strategies at any institution.
The development of the mobile sphere is not the same as the development of the World Wide Web (WWW); in fact, one is the mirror image of the other. Whilst the WWW is decentralised and built upon standards, mobile is under the central control of telecoms operators (‘telcos’) with standards varying across device, operating system and telco. The affordances of mobile devices and the WWW are predicated upon the Internet, the worldwide system of interconnected computer networks. They are both at the third layer level in a ‘stack’ as Joi Ito explains visually:
Given this way of thinking with, quite rightly, ‘knowledge and ideas’ being at the top of the stack, arguments about whether the future is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ take second place to pedagogy and collaboration. An Open Source approach, such as that seen in the ‘Mobile Oxford’ project (http://m.ox.ac.uk/desktop), may be appropriate in one context whereas an off-the-shelf solution such as CampusM (www.ombiel.com/campusm.html) may be more appropriate in others. The freedom of developing something from the ground-up needs to be offset with the resources and in-house expertise required. As Dr Christine Sexton, who oversaw the first Higher Education adoption of CampusM at the University of Sheffield, explains:
“Its a pragmatic approach Im into rapid development and deployment at the moment, and if someone can do it quicker than we can we should let them do it.” (http://cicsdir.blogspot.com/2009/10/campusm-launch.html)
Under the auspices of the JISC-funded Business and Community Engagement programme, MyMobileBristol is taking a wider view by integrating the Mobile Campus Assistant software at the University of Bristol with data provided by Bristol City Council. The aim is to “facilitate communities of developers, data providers, policy makers and user groups to promote the development and deployment of innovative technologies” (http://mymobilebristol.ilrt.bris.ac.uk). Working with external partners may make mobile initiatives more useful, economically viable, and sustainable.
As with any change management initiative, institutions should look at their in-house capabilities, current context (previous related initiatives), and potentially-instructive case studies and examples from similar organizations. There are many bandwagons upon which institutions could jump, but it is important to know where those bandwagons are going. As mentioned above, there are similarities and differences between the WWW and mobile devices: both operate at the same ‘layer’ but the lack of standards, especially surrounding using mobile devices for learning, makes institutional support a potentially difficult area.
An instructive case study from a related area is the BBC iPlayer (http://bbc.co.uk/iplayer). The BBC is a publicly-funded body and, as such, must provide a level playing field for its offerings whether available via online streaming or otherwise. Launched in 2005 to a small number of ‘beta’ users, iPlayer was limited to a particular operating system and had limited functionality. In 2007 iPlayer was released as an ‘open beta’ that is, it was feature-complete but still undergoing usability testing. The popularity of iPlayer led to a public petition forcing it to be made compatible with other operating systems, including those of mobile devices. Further upgrades have included the ability to download programmes to watch offline for a specified amount of time, social networking integration and, most recently, plans to make iPlayer available globally. The latter will be a significant revenue stream for the BBC, recouping some, if not all, of the cost of development.
The lessons from the BBC iPlayer are that initiatives evolve, that generating user demand can lead to rapid innovation, and that unintended consequences can create new revenue streams and possibilities. Scenario planning and ROI figures sometimes do not tell the whole story. As with other areas, institutions need individuals or departments with the responsibility for ‘horizon-scanning’. Given their remit for the safety, security and integrity of networks and devices, IT Services are not usually best-placed to do this.
Mobile devices are fundamentally disruptive. They put into the hands of individuals what was previously only possible via institutional delivery or through specialists. As has been discovered by institutions across the world, banning devices is not a sustainable strategy and may, in fact, cost more to police than embracing them. In The Mobile Learning Edge (2011:40-44), Gary Woodill lists the following technologies that are on the horizon:
- Bar codes
- Digital ink and paper
- Digital pens
- Gesture recognition
- Haptic devices
- Implanted devices
- Instruments and sensors
- Internet radio
- Location sensing devices
- Miniature or Pico projectors
- Motion recognition devices
- Multitouch screens
- Point of view devices
- RFID tags for learning
- Ruggedized mobile computers
- Speech recognition
- Wearable devices
Some of these have important implications for assessment, some for accessibility, some for what is pedagogically possible. With all of these technologies a ‘tipping point’ will either emerge or fail to materialise. Institutions should be aware of the affordances, barriers and implications of each. This will lead to institutions being ready to ‘ramp up’ planning and start initiatives at a time relevant to their particular context.
A technology very much on the near horizon is mobile projection. Already available as ‘pico’ projectors that mobile devices can be plugged into, these shall soon be built-into smartphones. This is an example of a technology, like high-speed internet access, that was previously only available at a fixed location becoming widely available and becoming another affordance of mobile learning.
Some high-level trends that institutions should currently be investing time and energy researching and discussing are location-based services, augmented reality and tablet devices. As Jon Trinder alluded to earlier, it is often the case that a ‘compound’ of technologies can result in affordances that make an institutional or societal difference.
On the technical side, the cross-platform abilities of HTML5 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTML5) and W3C widgets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Widget_engine) should be investigated as a potential way of delivering content and services to staff and students both current and prospective. In addition, the concept of ‘ambient buildings’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambient_intelligence) should be considered in any building redesign. As Patrick McAndrew argues, ‘augmented reality’ is, on a practical day-to-day level, anything that improves or significantly changes your perceptions and interactions with the local environment. Examples, as given by Andy Black, include Near-Field Communication (NFC) as seen with devices like London Underground’s Oyster card and Marked GPS. The latter allows for pin-point location-based services within buildings whilst the former, if included in smartcards or student-owned mobile devices, could allow for single sign-on (SSO) to various institutionally-provided services.
The overwhelming picture and recommendation from research and discussion in putting together this section is that institutions need to be agile. Provision and initiatives evolve and where, how and when a service will be used often cannot be foretold in great detail.