Workplace Assessment with Mobile Devices

31 05 2006

While this blog focusses on mobile learning, I thought I’d share some ideas on the related area of mobile assessment, which I wrote up for a seperate dicussion board.

Work place assessment often requires the gathering of evidence against a number of predetermined competencies. This lends itself to several mobile approaches, for example:

  1. The use of a mobile device such as a digital camera, or digital camera incorporated into a multifunction digital device such as a mobile phone or PDA, to capture images of evidence of competency: for example, stages in the completion of a work place process.Man using a PDA
    • In a learning situation, the photos could be stored on the digital device for later retrieval by the learner, other learners, a trainer, or an assessor.
    • The photos can be sent wirelessly from the digital device to other learners, a trainer, or assessor, or to some other storage or display facility such as a moblog.
  2. The use of a mobile audio recording device such as an mp3 audio player/recorder or a PDA or mobile phone equipped with a sound recording facility, to capture either evidence of competency, or the assessor’s notes on the learner’s demonstration of competency.
    • In the first instance, a learner may record themselves conducting a client interview in the workplace, for example, that may later be reviewed by an assessor
    • In the second instance, it may be safer or more practical for an assessor to dictate their notes on a learner’s competence verbally into an audio device, than writing any notes on paper; for example, in a driving test or situation where a learner requires continuous supervision.
  3. The use of a mobile device, such as a PDA, to record assessment results (by the assessor) in the form of an assessment tool. Usually, this would happen in text or checklist form; but a more advanced version could also incorporate links to photos, videos, or audio samples of the learner’s evidence. This approach to assessment lends itself to a database approach with a form on the front end to make it easy to enter and recall data and link to other files.
  4. The use of a mobile device (usually a PDA or laptop computer) to provide mobile assessment in the form of a test or exam. This might be an appropriate approach where underpinning knowledge or theory is being assessed.

One development environment I’ve found particularly suitable for developing data capture tools is GrandaSoft’s XSForms and XSDesigner. I’ve used these to quickly develop and deploy PDA-based databases with form front ends, suitable for use as Assessment Tools or mobile quizzes. They use a Pocket Access database backend and are designed on a desktop computer, which makes them much quicker and easier to develop. Best of all, both products are free. 🙂 Here’s a link to the blog article on the GrandaSoft software: http://mlearning.edublogs.org/2006/04/13/database-product-for-pocket-pcs/.





Educational Moblogging

29 05 2006

Moblogging is the practice of being able to update an online journal (or “web log” – or “blog” for short) using a mobile device. Since early 2006, a number of services have sprung up, presenting moblogging as a new, viable option for learning activities.

moblog_screenshot_smOne that is already in use by teachers here at CIT is moblog.co.uk, which allows users to create free accounts. After a simple sign-up process, a user needs to define the email address they wish to send to to update their blog, and provide the service with the information on the email addresses that will be used to send updates (for authentication purposes). Once this is done, the moblogger can easily email updates to their moblog, using a phone or PDA (or even a normal desktop computer). The user can even attach picture or movie files which then display in their moblog as graphical content.

How can educators use moblogs? One immediate and practical use that a teacher at my Institute suggested, is as an ongoing online journal, recording examples a learner may encounter of applications of their area of learning. In marketing, for example, the teacher could ask the students to record examples of advertising using various advertising strategies: using fear, humour, or expertise, for example. Students could attempt to hunt down advertisements with a different strategy each week, and students would be able to view each others’ moblogs and comment on the various examples presented by their peers.

An activity like this would enable students to become active learners in their own environments. Whether they were at home and noticed a promotion on a food item, or at a library and spotted a great newspaper ad, the learner would be able to record and communicate their influences using their moblog.

While strict moblogging requires the use of a relatively recent mobile handset (capable of recording pictures and sending emails), issues of equity are somewhat addressed by this particular service, as learners could use a desktop PC to participate fully in moblogging activities using standard email (combined with, say, a standard digital camera); alternatively, the teacher could ensure that all assessment requirements could be equally met by the use of a normal, non-mobile blogging service. Moblogging would then simply provide a convenient, mobile alternative for those students who chose it as their journalling approach.

My example mobile learning moblog can be accessed at http://moblog.co.uk/blog/mobilelearning. I’ll continue to add content to this moblog to make it an example of what’s possible with moblogging!





Constructivism and Mobile Learning

24 05 2006

I’ve recently become very interested in the special strengths of mobile learning that promote Constructivist approaches to learning.

The basic premise of Constructivist learning theory is that learners must actively “build” knowledge and skills, and that understanding comes from these cognitive constructs, rather than from any external sources of data.

Where I see one particular strength of mobile devices in learning is as tools for recording and supporting life-long, “life-style” learning, where a learner’s experiences in and out of the classroom or workplace provide both the stimuli and the evidence for learning. The learner becomes an active “discoverer” of information and the process of their discovery can be recorded and supported by mobile devices that can be conveniently carried with them.

For example, a learner could use a digital camera to record a new process being demonstrated in the workplace; or could use a mobile phone to do the same thing and upload the images with comments to a moblog. A graphic design student could do a similar thing with design influences they see as they’re shopping in a supermarket. These visuals become the basis of a process or learning journal that can be reviewed by other students or a teacher.

Alternatively, a mobile device could be used to access information to facilitate learning. A horticulture student who comes across an interesting plant could try to identify it from a PDA database of local plants, or use wireless networking or WAP to access the Internet for access to a other sources of information. They could possibly even take a photo of the plant with their mobile phone or digital camera and bring it to class or email it to their teacher for more information.

By bringing support for learning into the learner’s personal environment, they could become more empowered to bring their own perspectives into the learning experience, and build new learning from what they already know. This kind of approach could be more engaging, more relevant, and more authentic than other learning strategies, and because many mobile technologies also facilitate communication, there’s an additional layer of collaboration and information exchange that could further enhance learning outcomes.





Standards for Mobile Learning

23 05 2006

I’m currently ACT Representative on the E-Standards for Training Experts Group, which reviews and recommends technical standards for delivering e-learning across Australia (with a view to best practice, interoperability and compatibility between states and territories).

At our most recent meeting, on Monday, we started a discussion on standards for mobile learning, and proposed a working group to look at the issues in more detail. In developing or recommending standards for mobile learning, I feel it will be important to consider the kinds of learning activities or outcomes that mobile learning facilitates, and focus on recommending and developing enabling standards that make these activities and outcomes as accessible, equitable and user-friendly as possible.

Another thing we’ll need to consider is that “mobile learning” is not restricted merely to PDAs or mobile phones – many other mobile devices can be used for learning purposes, including portable media players, USB drives, e-Book readers, digital cameras, and GPS handsets. Given the multiplicity of mobile devices, we may have to define the scope of “mobile learning” for the purposes of defining standards, and/or what platforms or formats such standards should support.

As the EEG assembles its recommendations for Australian mobile learning standards, I’ll publish progress reports on this blog, and will be happy to take any feedback back to the EEG for discussion.





Technical Parallels with Computer-Based Learning

19 05 2006

I’ve noticed similarities between current trends in mobile learning, and those that were shaping computer-based learning less than 10 years ago. It’s making me think that perhaps there are strong parallels between the two that could help us develop better mobile learning approaches, while avoiding some of the traps we faced in the early days of flexible learning, by learning from our lessons of the past.

I’ve previously addressed a couple of parallels I’ve made with human factors in current computer-based learning, but the following technical parallels between current attempts at mobile learning, and early attempts at computer-based learning, raises some key issues, and the may help predict the development of mobile learning over the next ten years.

Low Storage (Memory)

According to this site, which tracks the cost of computer hard drive storage since the 1950s, in late 1997 you could buy a 2GB hard disk drive for around A$300. Currently, a 2GB SD Card (for a PDA or mp3 player) also costs around A$300. In 1997, most PCs would have had around 2GB of available storage capacity, and that’s probably close to the amount of total storage that current PDA owners would have at their disposal.

In the days when computers didn’t have massive hard drives, developers needed to think carefully about

  • Optimising products to eliminate unnecessary code or redundant content.
  • Using the most space-efficient format and colour palettes for creating images or media (e.g. GIF for graphics, JPEG for photos, and reducing palette sizes as much as possible in GIFs)
  • Optimising images and media so that they displayed well but were as small in size as possible.
  • Maximising the content or value delivered per MB through careful design and editing.
  • “Chunking” content into smaller objects or resources so that users can choose to store just the bits they need.

Some or all of these techniques can be applied to developing resources for memory-poor mobile devices such as (most) mobile phones, which may still only have a fixed (unexpandable) memory of a few MB. Optimising the format and size of resources, and “concentrating the quality” are good principles for mobile resource development.

Low Processing Power

Intel released 300MHz-700MHz desktop CPUs in 1998, and released XScale processors with clock speeds in that range for PDAs and mobile devices last year (2005). Low processing power in the 90’s encouraged developers to think about the following:

  • Designing resources to provide content as quickly and with as few operations as possible.
  • Optimising any code to reduce processing time and power requirements.
  • Reducing the use of processor-hungry formats (such as video) to a minimum (i.e. only when really needed to achieve a particular outcome that could not be achieved with another format).

These techniques now apply to developing mobile resources, with the partial exception of the last item. Many mobile devices such as iPods or media devices are optimised for audio and/or video playback, and handle these particular tasks highly capably. If such devices are the target platform for resource development, media content may not be an issue; however, if other platforms may be used to view resources, reducing the amount of processor-intensive content may still be a consideration.

Small Screens

In 1995, average desktop monitors were 14″, with a screen size of 640×480 pixels (XGA). In 2005, PDAs such as the Dell X50 were released featuring resolutions of 480×640 (although most mobile devices continue to be produced with a screen resolution of 320×480 or less).

  • Working with limited screen real estate on early desktop PCs forced resource developers to think carefully about the layout of their pages, and ways to eliminate horizontal scrolling.
  • Developers needed to think about choice of fonts to maximise readability, and choose or create graphics that were easy to view. Just as “usability” was a catchword of the 90s in computer interface design, so it should be a cause in mobile resource development.

Low Bandwidth/Limited Networking

In 1996, most personal computers were not networked, and those that were had slow (10Mbps) connections. Access to the Internet was via 28.8kbps dial-up modem, and expensive by today’s standards.

Currently, while some mobile devices (such as mobile phones and PDAs) are certainly capable of data connectivity, the cost of such connectivity is the limiting factor for the widespread use of this technology. Technologies such as 3rd Generation cellular networks, wireless broadband, Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless have the potential to improve the connectivity of mobile devices and competition should help reduce the cost and improve the performance of these services in future. Until that time, we can learn from our previous experiences with computer-based learning, applying some of these principles to mobile learning:

  • Optimise content to make it as small as possible while delivering the required information.
  • Splitting and structuring content so that learners only need to download what they want to view
  • Developing and applying appropriate standards to provide guidance on maximum file sizes for resource development

Simple Scripting

In 1996, Flash introduced primitive scripting to enable a small amount of interactivity to be incorporated into animations. Last year, Flash Lite was released – a simplified form of Actionscript for deploying interactive Flash content on mobile devices. There are also “lite” versions of Java Virtual Machine and other interactive environments that developers can utilise for creating content for mobile devices. These are not as fully featured as their desktop equivalents, but certainly provide useful tools for resource developers.

Competing Standards

During the 1990s, various hardware platforms, operating systems, web browsers and file formats vied for consumer preference and market share. These were accompanied by a plethora of “standards,” though many of the major players ignored standards in favour of pushing for their own proprietary formats.

The current surge in consumption of personal, mobile devices is being accompanied by similar trends in terms of competing standards and formats, for example, the plethora of audio and video codecs that are used for storing digital media. We can certainly learn from the experience of early computer-based training in the following respects:

  • Become educated and aware of the various major platforms and formats for delivery of mobile learning, and the relative strengths, weaknesses, and market penetrations of each.
  • Be aware of standards, and be prepared to develop your own formal guidelines that simplify and streamline the development of cross-platform compatible materials. Apply standards and guidelines, but be prepared to break them if there is a good reason (that improves access for your particular user group, for instance). Be a user (learner)-centric developer.
  • Design and develop resources to be deployed on as wide a range of devices as possible, and test
    learning resources for cross—platform compatibility and accessibility.
  • Be aware that resources can be developed in such a way as to be equally deliverable on non-mobile and mobile platforms. For example, web pages, PDF files, and sound files can all be designed to render equally well on desktop and mobile platforms.

Convergence

Desktop computing brought together many tools into a single device. Calculator, typewriter, entertainment and encyclopaedia in-one, early desktop computers were successful because they provided access to enormous functionality, and potentially a wealth of information, in a single device. Previously, all of these
features, and all of this information, was only accessible by purchasing many
separate tools or references.

Mobile technology is now converging many of the same tools into even more compact forms. Electronic texts and references, organisers, dictionaries/glossaries, calculators, charts, word processors and spreadsheets, databases… can all provided in a single mobile device. The convenience of this convergence is what will drive the success of high-end mobile devices, with functionality gradually “trickling down” into lower-specified, lower priced mobile devices over time.

Conclusion

Looking at where we’ve come from in flexible learning, it’s clear that many of the challenges we’re about to face with mobile learning, we’ve actually seen before. Applying the lessons we learned in the development of computer-based training may help us avoid some of the pitfalls that would otherwise ensnare us as we venture into mobile learning. While the parallels are not exact, it’s useful as a model to simplify this new frontier and help us recognise and address many of the issues.





Welcome. Please Turn Your Mobile On.

15 05 2006

Mobile devices may be seen by some educators as an interference with learning, rather than a positive aid. Tales of mobile phones being used as tools for school bullying are rife; mobile phones ringing in classes are seen as a distraction; students with iPods in classrooms present an image of being disengaged from learning.

Some people might suggest that these connotations detract from the presentation of mobile devices as learning tools. However, I perceive that they demonstrate, in fact, the strength of mobile devices as potential tools for delivering learning.

All of the scenarios presented above demonstrate the pervasive nature of mobile technology. When it pervades a learning environment, it is seen as a detraction from learning. But isn’t is possible for this pervasiveness to be used to the advantage of educators? That it infers, conversely, that educational delivery can be achieved in other facets of learners’ lives, so as to pervade their lifestyles with flexible and convenient learning opportunities?

To achieve pervasive mobile learning would require tact to ensure that learners did not view mobile learning as “intruding” into their private domain. Rather, mobile learning needs to be framed in a way that provides it as a tool or opportunity to increase the flexibility of learning and make it more personal and enjoyable for learners. This would be the start of truly creating “Classrooms Without Walls”…

An example of how this might be achieved is a simple “show and tell” activity. Each week, students could be tasked with finding, recording, and showing to their peers, some piece of evidence that ties in with their learning that they encounter in their everyday lives. It’s a fun activity, and allows learners to relate to each other something of how the material they are learning has touched them personally (demonstrating relevance) while using a mobile learning approach for its strengths (convenience of having a mobile recording device integrated with lifestyle).





Cheap SMS

12 05 2006

At our Board of Studies Mobile Learning workshop in February, we ran an interactive “treasure hunt” activity to demonstrate some of the ways mobile phones could be used to facilitate learning experiences. As part of that activity, we communicated with all of the “teams” using SMS.

Rather than use a mobile phone (which would have taken ages to type messages into with the little keypad) we used a service called BulkSMS (http://www.bulksms.com). Once you’ve created a profile, it allows you to create and store recipients, recipient groups, and saved messages. And it’s quite cost-effective: using the standard (not economy or premium) service level, SMS messages cost about 8 cents each to send out, and messages arrived at Australian phones almost instantaneously, despite the service being based overseas.

From our experience, it’s cheap, reliable, and provides some features you just don’t have if youre using a mobile phone to do SMS, such as a log showing which messages were delivered to which phones, and/or if any failed.





Human Parallels with Computer-Based Learning

11 05 2006

I had a chance to discuss my previous posting on “The Other LCD” with some peers involved with Flexible Learning, both within my work team at the Canberra Institute of Technology, and with a network of professionals involved with Flexible Learning at the University of Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy, and Australian National University on Friday. Quite rightly, there is some concern at accessibility and equity issues surrounding Mobile Learning… not everyone can afford the latest mobile digital devices.

It’s been useful for me to address these issues as parallels with computer-based learning… basically, we’ve seen the same issues arise previously in e-learning that we’re now thinking about in terms of mobile learning. Let’s hope we’ve learned our lessons and won’t make some of our previous mistakes!

The Mobile Divide

A parallel with the “Digital Divide,” a term coined in 1996 by Dr. Simon Moore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide) to describe socio-economic barriers to computers and the Internet. In a similar fashion, we must consider: who has access to mobile technologies? Many people can’t afford/justify owning a PDA… just as 10 years ago, many people couldn’t afford/justify having their own PC. When we develop mobile learning, we must pause to consider whether resources created for mobile learning also be accessed through some other means, to reduce the disadvantage posed by the Mobile Divide.

Mobile Immigrants/Mobile Natives

A parallel with Digital Immigrants/Digital Natives, coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky. There are many people who didn’t grow up with mobile technologies and need to learn many of the skills younger generations take for granted. Some people, resistant to change, will refuse to bring mobile devices into their lives for the same reasons as they refused to bring computers into their homes (e.g. “I don’t want work following me everywhere”.)

On the other hand, young students in modern classrooms are very savvy with mobile technologies. Children aged 7 or 8 are able to SMS and use mobile phones with fluency. As with computer-based learning, there’s a strong possibility of older generations being left behind by younger ones who have grown up in a mobile world. Older learners, and indeed, teachers, need to reskill and adapt, or perish.





The other LCD…

3 05 2006

Many mobile devices make use of LCDs, or “Liquid Crystal Displays” as the visual interface with information. But not all…

This is why it’s important to consider the other LCD: “Lowest Common Denominator,” a term that describes the basic level of a group – in this case, the lowest level at which a group of learners can access your learning materials. When designing a mobile learning experience, rather than souping it up with the latest bells and whistles, remember that not all learners have equal access to technology.

Rather than designing a database that will run on a PDA, it may be more appropriate to develop the same tool in a different way, or provide the same information, so that learners can access it using the technology that is available to them. One example, from a workshop by Marcus Ragus, was the use of Powerpoint presentations as a way to develop interactive, screen-based learning materials. These run and display well on PDAs, but could also be accessed by someone without a PDA using their desktop computer.

Another example is the use of mobile phones as a mobile learning tool. In one of our mobile learning workshops, we did not ask users to bring a mobile phone, but 14 out of 16 of the teachers present carried one with them. This demonstrated the significant penetration of mobile phones, even at the mature-age level. We then conducted a quick survey of what features were available on which mobile phones in the class and divided the class into groups. This ensured that all attendants had access to a mobile phone, and various other tools such as camera phones for the purpose of the learning activity, raising the class LCD to that of each group, rather than that of any individual, and allowing us to do some more interesting activities. Otherwise, we might have only been able to use basic phone features like SMS and voice calling, which are now present on pretty much all mobile phones these days.

Using strategies like this, it’s possible to change the LCD of a class; but to do it properly, we first had to consider the LCD of the individuals (using our initial survey). Finding out a learning group’s LCD is good practice for any educator considering or supporting a mobile learning approach.





The other LCD…

3 05 2006

Many mobile devices make use of LCDs, or “Liquid Crystal Displays” as the visual interface with information. But not all…

This is why it’s important to consider the other LCD: “Lowest Common Denominator,” a term that describes the basic level of a group – in this case, the lowest level at which a group of learners can access your learning materials. When designing a mobile learning experience, rather than souping it up with the latest bells and whistles, remember that not all learners have equal access to technology.

Rather than designing a database that will run on a PDA, it may be more appropriate to develop the same tool in a different way, or provide the same information, so that learners can access it using the technology that is available to them. One example, from a workshop by Marcus Ragus, was the use of Powerpoint presentations as a way to develop interactive, screen-based learning materials. These run and display well on PDAs, but could also be accessed by someone without a PDA using their desktop computer.

Another example is the use of mobile phones as a mobile learning tool. In one of our mobile learning workshops, we did not ask users to bring a mobile phone, but 14 out of 16 of the teachers present carried one with them. This demonstrated the significant penetration of mobile phones, even at the mature-age level. We then conducted a quick survey of what features were available on which mobile phones in the class and divided the class into groups. This ensured that all attendants had access to a mobile phone, and various other tools such as camera phones for the purpose of the learning activity, raising the class LCD to that of each group, rather than that of any individual, and allowing us to do some more interesting activities. Otherwise, we might have only been able to use basic phone features like SMS and voice calling, which are now present on pretty much all mobile phones these days.

Using strategies like this, it’s possible to change the LCD of a class; but to do it properly, we first had to consider the LCD of the individuals (using our initial survey). Finding out a learning group’s LCD is good practice for any educator considering or supporting a mobile learning approach.