Here are 10 good reasons why handheld digital devices can provide the ultimate quality, flexibility, and convenience for delivering mobile learning:
1. Ownership. According to the latest available market statistics, there are almost 20 million mobile phone subscriptions in Australia – or one for every man, woman and child in the country, representing near-saturation of the consumer market.
- Since 2000, Australia has had more mobile phone services than standard fixed telephones
- 2006 figures indicate that about 60% of Australian 12-13 year olds own a mobile phone.
- Approximately 10 million mobile phones were sold in Australia last year (indicating more than 1 in 2 Australian adults gets a new phone each year), compared with just 1.5 million laptops.
- A$206.8m of portable digital media players were sold last year in
Australia, with penetration estimated to be better than 1 in 4 adults owning one (though I’d be more interested in knowing the states for the 15-25 age group, where I suspect it’s significantly higher).
2. Ubiquity. Mobile phones are taken almost everywhere by their owners. To demonstrate this, I do an exercise in every m-learning workshop and presentation I run, where I don’t ask people to bring their mobile phones to the event, but ask on the spot: “who has their mobile phone with them right now?” Almost everyone will have brought their phone, so I’ll have to change the question: “okay, who hasn’t got their mobile phone?” I’ll get maybe two or three people put up their hands in an audience of a hundred. It’s a good demonstration of how people treat their mobile phones – like a wallet or their keys, they rarely go out without it.
Digital media players aren’t quite as ubiquitous as mobile phones, but young people in particular (who often treat music is an expression of their personality), do tend to take digital media players with them everywhere, or will use the digital media capabilities of their mobile phone. Digital media players are also used in many contexts where other devices are not or cannot; for example, they are commonly used at the gym, or while jogging, contexts where accessing media from larger devices is clearly inappropriate.
3. Mobility of Use. Hand held devices support continuous mobile access – you can use them as you’re walking around, and you don’t require a surface to rest them on to use them. For a learning activity that’s not physically static, but may involve some moving around (e.g. a survey of tree types, a trip to a gallery or museum, or a seashore walk), handheld devices provide the ultimate in mobility, in accessing, capturing, and sharing information on the move. Where lugging a larger device around a location would be exhausting, and actually using it might require a learner to find a place to sit out of the way, handheld devices enable immediate, convenient interaction.
4. Always On, Always “Logged On”. Handheld devices have no boot-up time, and no “off” periods unless the user specifically requires it. You don’t have to wait until your laptop boots up and the learning opportunity may have passed – for example, recording a commercial, or photographing a wild animal. A mobile phone is the ultimate peer-to-peer communications and knowledge sharing device, which is always on, and always available. You don’t have to start up a computer, connect to a wireless network (which may or may not be available), and log onto an Instant Messaging application. If you have your phone with you, you’re effectively “logged on”.
5. Discreet and Unobtrusive. Handheld devices can be used in public and social settings where larger devices would be intrusive and seem out of place. Using a small device like an audio tour on an iPod or mobile phone web browser to supplement a visit to the art gallery is one thing; typing on a laptop computer, or even using a tablet PC in the same environment is quite another. Accessing learning in a socially acceptable (or even “cool”) way is particularly important for young people, who may place considerable importance on their public image.
Because handheld systems can be used almost anywhere, they’re perfect platforms for “situated” learning activities, where life – real life – is used to provide stimuli and interactivity for learning. Examples include: studying art from a real artwork instead of a photograph online or a text book. Smelling the scent of crushed leaves from a particular plant and describing it. Feeling the difference in surface texture between cast iron and rolled steel. Handheld devices can support these learning experiences anywhere, anytime.
6. Battery Life. Handheld devices are designed to enable long periods of continuous mobile usage. Mobile phones can be used for days without recharging, digital media players are designed to be used all day without requiring a charge or change of batteries, and PDA battery life is several times that of laptops. Even if additional usage time is required, batteries or charge packs for handheld devices weigh very little and take up little space compared with replacement battery packs for laptops, which weight about a kilo.
7. Features and Convergence. Many mobile devices provide a more immediate and useful range of learning tools than larger computing platforms. For example, the majority of mobile phones sold in Australia contain a camera, capable of recording images and video for activities such as moblogging, creating visual journals, recording assessments, or capturing processes for later review. Most mobiles and many media players can also record audio – allowing for capture of lectures or notes, or creative roleplays. Handheld devices put these knowledge capture and creation tools at a learner’s fingertips. Most laptops and tablet PCs don’t have a camera. Some handheld device functionality can be added to larger platforms, such as external webcams or Instant Messaging software, but these features are rarely easily accessible or well integrated.
Other potential learning tools, such as GPS, are readily available in handheld form, but far more clumsy and cumbersome in larger devices, where they may not even be integrated at all.
8. Cost. Most learners already own handheld learning devices (see Item #1). Utilising these already-owned devices costs nothing. But even for those learners who do not already own a handheld device, you can purchase a camera phone, digital media device, or PDA for under A$200. The cheapest, most basic laptops I’ve seen in Australia cost slightly over A$700 after cash-back.
Mobile devices can save their users hundreds of dollars a year in potential consumables. The cost of printing a roll of film is about $30 for 24 exposures. The cost of taking 24 digital photos with a mobile phone is nothing.
9. Industry Alignment. Many industries, such as medicine, hospitality, and even trades, have begun to utilise handheld devices as industry-standard best practice. In medical settings, PDAs provide better hygiene than laptops due to having fewer surfaces and crevices that can retain bacteria, while in other industries, the extreme mobility of handheld devices provides tools, decision support or services in more mobile, restrictive or hostile environments than would be possible with a laptop.
In these industries, any kind of training or education should align closely with the practices of those already working in the industries. Handheld devices have proven themselves to be useful or esential tools for case management, decision support, or critical information access, and training should incorporate this if it is to ensure its relevance.
10. Power. Current handheld devices are capable of the processing power, information storage, and data connection speeds exceeding that of a 10-year-old desktop PC – but unbound from power sockets or CAT-5 cables. They are capable of all of the same kinds of learning tasks: peer-to-peer sharing, ad-hoc networking, wireless internet access, discussion boards, chat, voice calling, video messaging, and resource creation and editing. They will run large databases and even web servers. They can support free and open source software, all the way from their Operating System, through to their applications, and even support and integrate with Web 2.0 tools.
In summary, handheld devices can be, and are, taken places that larger systems cannot, and do not, go. They can be used in situations where other systems cannot be easily or acceptably used. They can be used in these conditions for longer periods of time than larger, more power-hungry systems can sustain. And they can perform most, or all, of the learning support tasks which larger systems can accomplish.
There are certainly reasons for not using handheld devices in many learning contexts; but as this list shows, there are many good reasons to not overlook them as a platform for providing high-quality, convenient, engaging learning experiences.