Content is Key

4 07 2006

I’ve been recently inspired by the work of Alan Kay, inventor of the Smalltalk programming language, and a pioneer of object-oriented programming, the graphical user interface, networking, and mobile computing. Check out this quote – astoundingly, made in 1976 – which clearly shows a man with vision ahead of his time:

“Imagine having your own self-contained knowledge manipulator in a portable package the size and shape of an ordinary notebook. Suppose it had enough power to outrace your senses of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of page-equivalents of reference material, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawings, animations, musical scores, waveforms, dynamic simulations, and anything else you would like to remember and change…”

— Alan Kay (1976)

Alan’s work has continued to this day, with a particular interest in making powerful computing available to children, learners, and the world’s least privileged societies, with one recent product of his innovation being the “$100 laptop“.

In a talk he presented in February this year, Alan stressed repeatedly the importance of developing suitable mobile content: “the music isn’t the piano”. A blog post summarising that talk concludes with Alan’s thoughts thus: “The important question surrounding the $100 laptop is ‘will it be more than a mere technological artifact?’ The answer depends on whether the content, and especially the mentoring, can be brought along with it to have real impact.”

I’m very much in agreement with this philosophy: overwhelmingly, I’ve seen and heard of examples of “mobile learning” programs that fail due to a lack of attention to the development of learning approaches that utilise mobile learning platforms for their strengths, rather than trying to go mobile for mobile’s sake. In this example, over A$1 million was spent on a program to disseminate 1,200 PDAs to every student at a public middle school in California, but the program was recently abandoned. According to the article:

Teachers said they encountered challenges in using the PDAs for basic tasks in the classroom and integrating the technology into the curriculum.

In the few weeks before keyboards were distributed for the handhelds, for example, students had to input data using the “graffiti” handwriting-recognition software. Students became increasingly frustrated with inputting simple data, such as homework assignments.

“After half an hour of struggling, students would ask, ‘Can’t we write this on paper?’” Lindquist recalled.

This example shows the significant problems of going “mobile for mobile’s sake” – using mobile devices for tasks that they aren’t optimally suited to. In contrast, some of the PDAs from the failed program were successfully redistributed to another program:

The Palm Pilots have also been redeployed to the adult education Seamless Transition Employment Program (STEP).

Charlene Hommerding, a teacher at STEP, has been able to use handhelds with her adult students. Though there is a “huge learning curve” in implementing handhelds into the classroom, she said both the staff and the students were eager to learn. …

However, unlike the middle school students, the STEP students use the devices as they are traditionally used – as organizational tools.

It seems that designing and deploying the technology is getting easier all the time; on the other hand designing the learning is going to be an ongoing challenge. Returning to Alan Kay’s thoughts on whether mobile devices in learning will be truly significant:

“…The answer depends on whether the content, and especially the mentoring, can be brought along with it to have real impact.”

Looking more closely at Alan’s paradigm, he stresses the value of mentoring as key content: that quality mobile learning depends on skilled facilitation and support. It’s a view I believe is supported by social and educational trends, moving away from knowledge adoption (instructivist/behaviorist/objectivist) “Sage on the Stage” models where knowledge is provided, and learners gather information, towards knowledge production (cognitivist/constructivist) “Guide on the Side” models, in which learning is facilitated, and learners generate and manage knowledge.

In a mobile learning context, this translates to a need for teachers to provide the structure and framework for learning to take place, with mobile devices used by learners to interact with each other and the world around them to collaboratively connect and navigate information. The best existing paradigms for this future trend I’m aware of are Social Constructivism and Connectivism, one of which emphasises the importance of the social context of learning (which we are also seeing flourish through the use of Social Web/Web 2.0 tools), and the other which emphasises the connectedness of knowledge, which is there to be recognised by learners – also paralleled in the Social/Semantic Web, in the form of folksonomies and tagging.

To meet the challenges of the oncoming mobile and social revolution, educators will need to develop appropriate learning approaches based on sound pedagogical/didactical principles: a foundation of mobile learning best practice. Without more attention to learning content, rather than learning delivery, I fear other “mobile learning” projects making the expensive mistake of believing (to use Alan Kay’s metaphor), that the music is the piano.

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5 07 2006
Mobile Learning » Mobile Learning 2.0?

[…] Bearing in mind my previous post – that Content is Key – we’ve yet to see the kinds of services now available on the web, on any mobile platform.  Web 2.0 is underpinned by a philosophy of a “read-write web”; but at the moment, interactivity between mobile devices and online services is relatively limited.  Interactive Web 2.0 sites, such as Wikipedia, are only provided in read-only form for mobile devices (Wapedia); other online collaborative Web 2.0 sites like Writely, and Social Web tools like MySpace, have yet to release mobile interfaces or even support for mobile devices through things like incorporated QR Codes. […]

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