Sandra Robinson’s post at the Online Networks event running today (http://firstname.lastname@example.orgHdaRBXaSN.76@.1adc07ed/0) made a very valid point… that PDAs, while they’re gorgeous little devices, may not provide much return on investment. Which reminded me of a niggling fear I have about organisations buying dozens of PDAs for “mobile learning” without first thinking through their reasons for doing so… I mean… how are you going to use those PDAs to support learning? And is it an approach best done with a PDA, or would it be simpler and faster to just use, say, a pen and piece of paper?
There’s a massive “gizmo factor” associated with PDAs. They’re a status symbol, and a grown-up toy, and everyone wants one. The problem is, most people don’t think about what they’ll actually use their PDA for once they have it. I sometimes worry that when teachers ask for a hundred PDAs for “mobile learning”, that they might not actually have contemplated the teaching/learning activities and outcomes they want to achieve, before putting together their shopping list. However, I also realise it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: teachers may not understand the strengths (and limitations) of mobile technology until they’ve had a chance to try a few ideas.
For my own part, I’ve owned a PDA for over a year now: a Dell X50v with a gorgeous QVGA screen, a 624MHz processor, and both 802.11 and Bluetooth wireless. It’s enabled me to have a go at various teaching and learning ideas for PDAs, and think quite deeply about what I think the strengths and weaknesses of the platform are.
I myself use the PDA as a learning tool. For example, I’m a keen dancer of Ceroc (http://www.ceroc.com.au) a funky social partner dance style. Using a free PDA database creation tool (see elsewhere in my blog for more info: http://mlearning.edublogs.org/2006/04/13/database-product-for-pocket-pcs/), I’ve created a database into which I can write quick notes on various moves as I learn them, as well as custom queries for quickly retrieving information. It’s more compact that any paper-based format (I used to have to tote around a large A4 ring binder), and much faster to both store and retrieve a move I want to work on.
In addition, I use my mobile phone to take VGA-quality videos of various complex dance moves, which I store in my PDA. Because dancing is difficult to describe as text, these video references are far superior for difficult moves.
Finally, the PDA stores music tracks in MP3 format, which I can play anywhere I want to practice with my partner. The PDA itself only has quite a small built-in speaker, but I also own a portable powered speaker which plugs into the PDA and makes it a very effective music playback device.
In terms of mobile learning, all three of these things use the PDA platform for its strengths. I’m not usually going to want to practice dance near a desktop computer – much more likely in a studio or at a nightclub (where I definitely don’t want to be lugging a laptop!). Using a PDA as my learning platform provides me with the convenience, portability, and tools I need to improve my skills in my area of interest.
This same principle of using mobile learning approaches for their strengths should ultimately be applied to any learning situation to determine if a mobile approach is, in fact, the best approach.