Two Models for Hardware Platforms for M-Learning

12 12 2006

There are two dominant approaches that seem to be adopted by educators with regards to the issue of what hardware platform should be used for delivering m-learning.

One strand of thinking is to supply any required hardware as loaned or supplied, standard-issue equipment – such as a class set of PDAs, all of uniform specification. This helps to provide a reliable experience for learners, simplifies development and support, and to reduces such potential inhibitors to learner engagement as compatibility problems caused by disparate hardware platforms.

To remove such potential barriers to the use and sharing of learning materials is an attractive proposition for educators; but it comes at a cost. There is obviously the financial cost of acquiring a uniform set of mobile devices, but perhaps more problematically, there is a potential cost in the amount of usage the provided devices will get – generally limited to short periods when the devices are temporarily issued, or to short periods when the devices are carried by learners, which will be carried less preferentially than those mobile devices chosen by, and personalised by, the learners themselves. Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that the uniformity of equipment used within a small scope, such as a classroom, will extend further – to the scope of a whole institution, or multiple institutions – to enable sharing of mobile learning resources throughout an organisation or between organisations or jurisdictions.

Thus, resources created for use for a single hardware specification may, in the long term, inhibit the use and sharing of those resources more widely. The opposing philosophy is to develop learning opportunities that are intended to be used on equipment already used by learners – the mobile phones already in their pockets, or the portable media players they already have in their backpacks. While this requires development of mobile learning opportunities to consider a full range of potential learning delivery platforms, the benefits of such an approach include zero cost of hardware by both organisation and learner; the utilisation of devices for learning which learners are already used to operating and carrying with them, often ubiquitously; the removal of a need to possibly carry separate, duplicated, mobile devices to achieve hardware standardisation; and the ability of resources so developed to be inherently more shareable within an organisation as well as between them.

To properly address issues of cross-platform compatibility and ease-of-use that may be caused by disparities in capabilities and specifications between the digital devices used by learners, it’s vital to consider how resources may be developed to best support cross-platform use and sharing. This is where the documentation of standards, adopted across a number of organisations, may be a useful reference for developers of mobile learning content.

A range of suggested standards for M-Learning in Australia will be published here for public comment shortly. Having other educators and mobilists review the suggestions should help to refine those standards and ensure their utility.

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2 responses

19 12 2006
Sean FitzGerald

I have to say I fall in the latter camp, Leonard – mobile phones are the way to go.

Pretty much every student has one already, the students bear the responsibility and cost for their security, maintenance and upgrade, and they automatically get upgraded every 12 to 18 months anyway.

All of those PDAs in the photo on your next entry will end up in a box somewhere covering dust, probably within 12 months (I’ve seen it already). Considering the cost of buying and maintaining (and taking security precautions) these high end PDAs we are talking about a serious waste of public money.

I know educational resource creators love the hackability and programmability of PDAs, but I think their time has passed.

Aren’t we beyond those types of resources anyway? Aren’t we into the Web 2.0/Mobile 2.0 era of user/generated content? Mobile web browsers and widgets are getting so advanced that much learning content can be accessed online.

As far as standards go… if it’s accessible via a mobile web browser or widget then it’s a standard in my book.

I know the technology isn’t completely there yet, and is still out of the grasp of some, but it is moving very fast, and the prices are going to continue to come down.

It seems to me that a strategy based on this approach is a much better investment in the long term.

22 12 2006

Hi Sean

As the owner of all those devices in the picture you mention, I have to say that I don’t agree at all with the idea that all they will do is gather dust. In fact the reason we have just bought another 120 of the little buggers is that we lend them out, and have way more demand than we can possibly supply.

The reason is I guess partially that we mostly use them for short, sharp interventions (instead of mixing with existing provision). Also, they are phones as well as PDAs, so all sorts of web-based and camera+MMS based activities are possible.

That said, I totally agree with your other points about the emerging standards for mobile web, and the significance of an evolving protocol that means that I can see the same web page from just about any connected device. Fantastic.

I suppose our experience is that there is space for lots of different devices, because they are good at different things. Think of mp3 players. No connectivity there, but great for learning.

PDAs (and PDA-phones) score really well for multimedia, and touch-screen type activities.

You are quite right that if an institution is NOT already buying laptops, or other kit for their learners, the shift to buying PDAs is a heavy commitment. But in our experience there are many other, sometimes non-traditional learning places that are also quite willing to buy a PDA-esque device. Not thinking “classroom” here, but rather “workplace”, or “outreach program” or other similar places. We have found the larger touch-screen and rich-media aspects fantastic in helping bring reluctant learners on board, and it has also been a springboard to draw them into other less mobile IT.

But I guess that is the wonder of all that is mobile. It embraces so many different types of devices, as well as so many different approaches to using them for learning.

I will do a double check 6 months from now, but I am not expecting to see them collecting dust!

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