Mobile learning initiatives are inherently cross-institution (or ‘across-the-grain’) in their scope and impact (Woodill, 2011, p.130). Even those that begin as small-scale projects or initiatives inevitably grow, if successful, and spawn imitations. As it is not subject-specific, mobile learning is best thought of as a multi-sensorial improver of communications (Nyíri, quoted in Bradley, 2010, p.158).
As a result, designing authentic, engaging and useful mobile learning situations and contexts can be challenging, requiring the assimilation and integration of deep knowledge from educators, researchers, practitioners, designers and software developers (Winters Mor, 2008). Whilst each individual might have expert knowledge in one domain, it is extremely unlikely that any one person will have expertise in all of them.
There are, then, three main barriers to the adoption of mobile learning:
- Lack of expertise in mobile instructional design.
- Lack of awareness of the full scope of costs, benefits, and risks.
- Conflicting accountabilities, interests, and procedures among content stakeholders (learning creators and business budget holders) and IT implementers. (Woodill, 2011, p.215)
Whilst the first two of these can be solved by bringing in consultants, creating new posts, or commissioning internal research, the third is very much a strategy issue. Conflicting interests and accountabilities can lead, for example, to IT Services resisting mobile learning initiatives as their first priority is the integrity of the institutional network. Clear procedures and expectations must be communicated from senior leaders in order for a standardised, agreed basis to be constructed upon which innovation can thrive.
Mobile learning initiatives are all about change management, and change management is about dealing with people: Without praise, support and appreciation IT technical staff will become resistant to change. They will steer towards the safest outcome for themselves not necessarily the best outcome for teachers or students,” says Mick Mullane. This message of staff empowerment is echoed by David Sugden who talks of putting “the teacher back in the driving seat” when it comes to staff training:
I think that you have to subtly remind colleagues that they are teachers and that they are the experts. Over the last few years they have been bombarded with all sorts of new technologies and online facilities. It takes a while for many to assimilate these and to plan for their use. If we attach the training we provide on these new tools and techniques to sound educational theory it can be much more beneficial.”
All too often policies, procedures and top-down change management initiatives can erode educators’ skills by stereotyping. Whilst, as Aquino states, “teaching has a long established culture of individualism and secretiveness” (quoted in Peters, 2007:119) and members of staff may claim to not have the skills to deliver mobile learning solutions, appeals to their professional status and pedagogical knowledge should be made. Mobile learning is about learning, not about the mobile device.
Banning devices, as already mentioned, is not a sustainable policy. A rules-based approach when dealing with the plethora of new and existing devices available seems futile when revisited only occasionally. Instead, Ford and Leinonen call for a ‘values-based’ approach:
“Because mobile phone use is difficult to monitor in a classroom setting, the appropriate use of these instruments can be encouraged through values-based principles, instead of managing it on a rules-based system. Values must be clearly defined, understood, communicated, and practiced. Individual responsibility and accountability can be stipulated and its acceptance is to be encouraged amongst all stakeholders. Well established communication channels can also help ensure proper participant behaviour. (2010, p.212)
Engaging and motivating staff with mobile learning initiatives can pay dividends not only in terms of the main thrust of the project, but through associated critical awareness and collegiality. As the conclusion to JISC’s ‘Effective Practice in a Digital Age’ stated,
“It is often stated that the introduction of technology into learning and teaching has by-products that are as important as the benefits of the technology itself: practitioners exploring new possibilities become more critically aware of their practice in general, and more conscious of the importance of planning. (2009, p.49)
One of the most valuable commodities in the life of any institution is time. This is especially true of mobile learning when staff may have to not only come to grips with new devices and their affordances, but how this may affect their current style of teaching and/or supporting learners. Wishart (2010, p.17) writing about the ethical implications of mobile learning in secondary schools comments,
We have ever more fantastic learning opportunities to look forward to as handheld devices gain acceptance, reliable and affordable connectivity and even the ability to project images on nearby walls or screens. Yet we are in danger of losing such opportunities through collective fear of cyber-bullying and irresponsible use by pupils of a technology whose potential their teachers haven’t been given time to fully explore.
Related fears, fuelled by ignorance, rumour and speculation, exist throughout the education sector. Sunshine being the best disinfectant, a full and frank debate based on a framework similar to the one below may be the quickest method to getting members of staff onboard:
Source: Wishart (2010:18)
Underpinning the above, however, is the importance of recognising and sharing the limitations and barriers inherent in any mobile learning initiative. Gaved (2010, p.346) cites Oulasvirta (2008) as noting, “if participants know there is a limitation, they can evolve strategies to adapt to local circumstances and do not problematise it.”
Mobile learning initiatives, despite the technical, ethical and disruptive elements, should be viewed at least in the beginning as a change management process. As with all such processes, the appropriate research, policies and staff development time should be undertaken.