Many people I’ve talked to at various conferences, online events, and around my own institute have expressed concerns about m-learning being a rather expensive thing for institutions and learners to participate in. The issues I’m most commonly asked about are generally associated with either the cost of hardware (e.g. mobile phone handset, or PDA) or the cost of connectivity (e.g. SMS messages, mobile web data costs, etc.).
People are inevitably surprised when I tell them that m-learning is actually cheap! It depends on the m-learning approach being used, of course… but there are a number of factors that make m-learning potentially quite affordable for both institutions and learners.
For example – if mobile phones are used as the platform for an activity, then it’s possible that the cost of hardware will be zero. Current Australian telecommunications industry statistics are that over 8 million mobile phone handsets were sold in Australia in 2005, 98% of Australia’s population has mobile phone coverage, and around 20 million Australians (95%) own a mobile phone, with penetration among young people even higher.
I also think that the convergence of tools in mobile digital devices is providing us with tools in our pockets that would previously have cost us quite a lot of money. The vast majority of mobile phones these days come with a built in camera, for example; how much did a stand-alone camera cost a decade ago, before the advent of m-learning? How about adding in the cost of a video camera as well?
And then there are the savings on consumables. When I was at school, I studied photography and was also required to take photographs for various class assignments and my visual arts journal. All of this was before digital photography, mind you – it was, and still is, quite expensive to have camera film processed – this current Australian price list quotes $21 for developing 36 colour exposures from 35mm film…. and the roll of film itself costs an additional $9 as well, a total of $30. Now, with digital photgraphy, not only does our hardware for photography and videography come in a handy format, integrated with our phones and PDAs, but can we create photographic and video visual records for free.
As a comparison, for half the price of buying and developing 36 colour prints, I can get a month’s access to a mobile phone, with $15 included calls, text messages and a built in digital camera, voice recorder, and mp3 player which I can use for listening to podcasts… oh, and I can take as many photos (and videos) as I want. What I’m getting at is that the cost of data and voice connectivity is significantly cheaper than the consumables we had to pay for a decade ago to support our learning. Even if a basic $30 pre-paid SIM card was charged to a student as a materials fee, it is a pittance compared with the cost of university course fees and textbooks.
As for more expensive hardware, which might require loaning out to students… when I studied photography at school, we were loaned an SLR camera for us to practice with, and I remember treating it with the utmost care – we felt responsible and didn’t want to get in trouble for losing or breaking the equipment. Similarly, in situations where higher-spec, higher-cost devices are loaned to students for more advanced m-learning activities, I see them (mostly!) being quite careful with them.
Another example – this time from here at CIT. A number of faculties have started using the internet-based messaging service, BulkSMS.com, to send messages out to students to advise them if classes are cancelled due to sick teachers etc. The whole process of SMS-messaging an entire class takes less than three minutes and each message costs just cents.
The “old” way of doing it was to individually call up each student; if they didn’t answer the phone, admin staff would have to try again later, and the multiple voice calls to mobile and fixed-line phones were quite expensive – not to mention the time it took to do all the calls each day.
In conclusion, if the right approaches are taken to m-learning and learner administration, m-learning might just turn out to be the cheap option!
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