Weaknesses of Mobile Learning

30 06 2006

I’m an enthusiastic proponent of mobile learning for its strengths; I see the potential for mobile learning to provide new opportunities for teaching and learning that will be more convenient, pervasive and immersive than ever before.

However, I’m occasionally challenged by other educators who point out problems with mobile learning, in the mistaken belief that I’m attempting to supplant all other forms of learning delivery with mobile learning approaches. I’m certainly not attempting to do that; so here it is, in writing, in my own blog 🙂 : mobile learning has unique strengths that will make it an ideal learning delivery approach in many instances; but it also has inherent weaknesses that will make it unsuitable in many others.

My biggest issue with some “mobile learning” approaches I’ve seen is when mobile devices are used to replace other tools that are much better suited to the activity being attempted.  For example, asking students to use their grainy, low-quality mobile phone cameras to do a task, when a digital camera would be equally convenient and immensely superior in quality; or getting students to painstakingly record data into a PDA in a classroom using a stylus, when it would be equally convenient to use a notepad, or a desktop computer in the same room.  “Mobile for mobile’s sake” approaches like this are common among educators who are enthusiastic, but relatively new to mobile learning.

This practice also manifests itself in the creation or repurposing of content into a mobile “size,” without considering whether that content may also need to be redesigned.  Examples of this practice are: squeezing diagrams into a size that makes them display on a PDA screen, but renders them practically illegible; or providing browser- or Flash- based resources that are basically un-navigable on the mobile device they’re delivered on, or can only be navigated in a linear fashion (page by page), reducing the effectiveness of the resource as a mobile, convenient, and rapidly accessible resource.

To counter this last problem of attempting to cram an existing resource into a mobile format, many educators realise the need to redesign the resource.  However, this also requires caution: in the process of “summarising” content for mobile deployment, care must be taken to preserve the purpose and the quality of the learning.  My favourite example of flagrant disregard for this practice is Microsoft’s condensation of the Illiad into 32 lines of SMS.  The Sydney Morning Herald article covering the release begins:

This literary masterpiece is looking a little battle-scarred. “Sing,
goddess, of the accursed anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, which
brought uncounted anguish on the Achaeans,” Homer may have written in The Iliad.
However Microsoft, the computer giant, prefers something less lyrical.
Wot hapnd when Agamemnon n Achilles had a barny?” it asks in a new
version of
The Iliad produced to appeal to the text message generation.

While the SMS version may have told the story of the Trojan War in a mobile form, I’m not sure a summary like this would be the best way for a learner to develop an appreciation for classic literature.

Using mediums like SMS may also increase the divide between “mobile natives” (who are fluent in the use of mobile devices, and related communication protocols), and “mobile immigrants” (who will be far less comfortable with the language used in the example just provided).  A mobile approach may not be an appropriate one for certain demographics, or indeed, where there are significant equity issues, such as access to the required devices for using mobile resources (the “mobile divide”.  This issue is explored in more detail in a previous post on the human issues relating to mobile learning.

Finally, I like to make a distinction between what I call “transitory” and “destinatory” mobile learning.  There are many resources we can make available in a mobile form which are great for having on an iPod or sticking into a car CD player to learn from while you’re travelling between places (transitory); and other learning resources which may even be inherently dangerous to access (while driving a vehicle, for example) but are excellent resources at a destination – a searchable database of chemical safety data sheets, for example.  Thinking about the way that learners will interact with a learning resource is a useful way of avoiding the creation of a perfectly good mobile learning resource that is never going to be used, simply because it doesn’t fit in with the lifestyle context of its intended learners.

There are other caveats regarding the creation of mobile learning resources, but these are the ones that seem to pop up most frequently in my discussions with other educators who are looking at mobile learning approaches.

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Strengths of Mobile Learning

29 06 2006

Many of my posts about Mobile Learning to date have focussed on how Mobile Learning needs to be underpinned by sound pedagogical practice; that it shares many commonalities with computer based learning, and that we can learn a lot about mobile learning by thinking about best practice using other delivery methods, and applying them to the mobile learning paradigm.

While my previous posts tend to have emphasised the commonalities that mobile learning shares with other learning delivery approaches, it’s important to also recognise that it’s not the same; that mobile learning has unique strengths that distinguish it from other delivery modes, and weaknesses that should make educators think carefully about using mobile learning for certain content or contexts.

Mobile devices have the potential to provide services, tools, and opportunities to learners in a convenient, portable, and highly functional form (including graphics, video, text, sound and interactivity).  When learning activities or materials are available to a learner on their mobile phone, for example, chances are it will be available to them almost 24 hours a day. Mobile devices offer functions such as audio, video and photo capture and recall, remote access to information, and interpersonal communication.

These are all definite advantages of adopting a mobile approach to learning.  However, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of mobile learning, which concerns how mobile learning enables a highly contextualised learning experience.  I’ll start with an illustrative example.

How did you study art at school?  I remember that when I was in primary school, the Internet had not yet been invented – computers were beige boxes with black screens and little green letters.  So our art teachers would use textbooks, where there would be a few small colour plates of some of the greatest artworks; classroom videos, where we’d get expert commentary and a more “3D” view of things like sculptures; and slide shows, where a painting could be made really big so we could get a better idea of what the real thing looked like.  In high school, computers began to have more capability, and I imagine the Internet now comprises a significant element of contemporary art education – there are some fantastic online galleries I’m aware of, that have been established for a number of years.

Once a year, however, there would be an Art Excursion.  This is where we’d get a chance to go to an art gallery, and actually be immersed in art; we’d see real masterpieces, at the scale they were intended and created by their makers.  As you can imagine, art viewed like this has a much more significant emotional and sensory impact; all of a sudden, not only were we experiencing the composition of artworks, but also their scale, the texture of the paint, the layering of brushstrokes, the gleam of bronze or steel from different angles.

The contrast I’m illustrating here is the difference between “bound” learning – learning from books or even a desktop computer – and “mobile” learning: learning from being immersed and engaged through all senses with the subject material.  Some critics of mobile learning point out, and correctly so, that mobile devices generally have a small and restrictive interface.  But to me, one of the greatest assets of mobile learning is that it allows you to bring the learning experience into the “real” world – making the whole world an “excursion,” or real-life learning experience that is, in fact, bigger than a book, computer screen or classroom.

To learn about an arboreal ecosystem, while walking in a forest; to have relevant learning materials at your fingertips in a real workplace; or to learn about art in a gallery… this is one of my visions for utilising mobile learning for its strengths.

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IT To Go: Free IT Podcasts

28 06 2006

Tech-savvy folks interested in bioinformatics, cyber security, gaming software, visualization technology and other such topics have a new resource for learning on-the-go: podcasts from UNC Charlotte’s College of Information Technology. The podcasts are available from the college’s Web site or through Apple iTunes Music Store; they will likely become available soon through Yahoo!®.

To listen to or download UNC Charlotte College of Information Technology podcasts, go to http://www.coit.uncc.edu/coit_new/podcast/. The programs are also available through iTunes Music Store individually and through a free subscription that will send you current and subsequent podcasts via e-mail.

– extracted from Lincoln Tribune

StudyCell – Mobile Phone Flashcards

28 06 2006

StudyCell, a company specialising in mobile-phone-based flashcards and formative assessment quizzes, today announced it has surpassed the 10,000 downloads mark.

Their site, at http://www.studycell.com/, allows students to download a number of free “flashcard” games to their mobile phone, which will test them on subjects including several languages, mathematics, and even movie trivia. The quizzes even include “high score” tables so students can track their improvement.

What may particularly interest other educators is that you can even create your own flashcards games, online, for free. Teachers interested in providing fun formative assessments in a mobile format can use the site to develop their own content, which can be downloaded by students, and even shared between them.  If appropriate, teachers could also tell learners about the site to enable learners to create their own content.

Mobile Learning and WebCT

27 06 2006

Mobile Learning and WebCT

We’re currently engaging Mark Hallam from WebCT’s Professional Services to assist us with the transition to WebCT Vista/6. Of interest to this blog: the latest incarnation of the e-learning platform includes an Application Programming Interface, or “API” – a way of extending or customising the functionality of WebCT.

Among the possible extensions for WebCT: a calendar extension which sends reminders directly to students’ mobile phones (already developed in a proof-of-concept system); and RSS out of WebCT, potentially with mobile delivery.

The world in the palm of your hand…

23 06 2006

Need to know, on the go? Then head to Wapedia – the mobile version of Wikipedia, available from PDAs and mobile phones. Wapedia caches a low-bandwidth, fully searchable version of all Wikipedia articles for delivery to mobile devices, with content appropriately chunked and scaled down to fit on smaller screens.

Mobile phone users should head to: http://en.wapedia.org. PDA users with slightly larger screens can try http://pda.en.wapedia.org instead.

The world in the palm of your hand…

23 06 2006

Need to know, on the go? Then head to Wapedia – the mobile version of Wikipedia, available from PDAs and mobile phones. Wapedia caches a low-bandwidth, fully searchable version of all Wikipedia articles for delivery to mobile devices, with content appropriately chunked and scaled down to fit on smaller screens.

Mobile phone users should head to: http://en.wapedia.org. PDA users with slightly larger screens can try http://pda.en.wapedia.org instead.