The Undiscovered Country

30 11 2007

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” — Alan Kay

When Alan Kay conceived the Dynabook, more than 30 years ago, it inspired a wealth of innovations, and is still a worthy “holy grail” for developers of mobile learning platforms today. Uniquely, Kay coupled immense technical vision and skill with equally brilliant pedagogical and philosophical considerations – his vision for the Dynabook was as much art as it was science.

In the early 1970’s, Kay had no mobile computers to work with. The smallest computers he had ever seen – the very first generation of “microcomputers” invented – were low-powered, bulky desktop machines with textual, monochrome displays, like this Datapoint 2200. Yet he had the ability to invent – technically and pedagogically – a mobile learning concept we are still pursuing, more than a generation later.

I wonder: if Alan Kay started fresh again today, would he take a new look at emerging learning models, such as George Siemens‘ theory of Connectivism… and through it, imagine compelling ways of learning that would drive the next 40 years of technological research and invention? If so, then what will be this generation’s legacy to the future of learning?

This could be Alan Kay’s greatest implicit challenge to the educational technologists and researchers of today. The vast majority of educational technologists are preoccupied with the use of today’s tools: internet-based Learning Management Systems, social web services, virtual worlds, and even mobile devices. In the struggle to master the tools of today – are we losing the vision to invent the future? Is there anyone out there proposing a fundamentally new model for enabling learning, with the power to spark our collective imaginations, the pedagogical imperative to be desirable decades before it can be achieved, and the ability to drive independant technological advancement towards the eventual fulfillment of that goal?

Somehow, Alan Kay glimpsed such an undiscovered realm, and ensuing years have slowly unfurled the petals of technical advancement that have allowed his incredible, completely fictional Dynabook to edge ever closer to reality. What revolutions for education, for technology, and for humanity, lie beyond the bounds of the mental and technological shackles we wear today – if we only dare to dream?

As surely for us as for Alan Kay, today’s most compelling dreams will determine tomorrow’s most engaging realities. The future will be just as we invent it.

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A Brief History of Learning With Mobile Computers

30 11 2007

The idea of using computerised mobile devices to support learning was formally conceptualised a surprisingly long time ago. In his 2002 paper “Disruptive Devices: Mobile Technology for Conversational Learning,” Sharples identifies Alan Kay’s Dynabook, conceived in the early 1970s, as the first serious attempt to design a computer-mediated mobile learning platform. And what an attempt it was. Although the Dynabook was a concept, the ripples of the project – and Alan Kay’s (non-portable, “interim”) Dynabook prototypes – can still be felt today, and will probably be felt for decades to come. The incredible modern-day legacy of Kay’s work at Xerox Paolo-Alto Research Labs (PARC) includes:

  • the development of personal computers,
  • object-oriented languages and programming generally,
  • the development of graphical user interfaces
  • the object-oriented Smalltalk programming language (today the underlying programming language of countless applications, including current ground-breaking educational platforms such as Edusim, a virtual world application in Croquet [which was also co-founded by Kay]), and
  • the One Laptop Per Child initiative (with which Alan Kay was actively involved, and which utilises the Smalltalk language and many of Kay’s original ideas for computer-based learning).

Just as groundbreaking as the technology itself was Alan Kay’s vision for how the technology would be used to support learning. His vision for the Dynabook was based in the then-nascent philosophies of (Social) Constructivism: the theories and models of learning being developed by his contemporaries Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and Seymour Papert, (who had studied with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget ). Sharples (2002 p.3) distills the features of effective learning in constructivist terms via the essential elements of construction, conversation and control:

“Effective learning involves constructing an understanding, relating new experiences to existing knowledge . Central to this is conversation, with teachers, with other learners, with ourselves as we question our concepts, and with the world as we carry out experiments and explorations and interpret the results. And we become empowered as learners when we are in control of the process, actively pursuing knowledge rather than passively consuming it.” [Emphasis added]

Sharples’ mLearn 2007 presentation on the history of mobile learning summarises how the Dynabook concept would have accomplished these requirements, technically and pedagogically. It was to be an interactive machine that would be small and light enough to be carried everywhere by learners. It would have “book-like” qualities in terms of display, yet its interface would be dynamic, with the ability to create, edit and store visual, textual, and audio content. It would have high-bandwidth communication, both locally and globally, and it would cost under $500. It would be personal, interactive, and would support learning through play, collaborative learning, informal learning, dynamic simulations, and “anytime, anywhere” learning.

Amazing thinking for 1972. Many of Kay’s original ideas for the Dynabook simply weren’t possible at the time he conceived them, but have recently come to fruition – such as the Squeak Smalltalk environment which enables children to create and learn using computers (implemented on the OLPC, but boasting cross-platform capabilities). Here’s a real example of Squeak being used as a learning tool.

Both technically and pedagogically, Kay’s Dynabook was decades ahead of its time, as evidenced by Sharples’ early attempts at developing a mobile learning platform in 2002. Sharples’ “HandLeR” device was, at least, genuinely portable: a compact 800×600 tablet computer with a 233MHz processor, a physically attached camera, a wireless networking card, and a mobile phone card boasting a data connection rate of 9.6kbps(!) – rather expensive components at the time! Bob Harrison’s recollection of the 2002 inaugural mLearn conference (where his presentation entitled “Learn to Go” was accompanied by 12 Toshiba laptops on a trolley!) reflects Sharples’ initial struggles with making technology-assisted learning truly mobile. It’s interesting to consider that an average mobile phone today could exceed most of the specifications of Sharples’ prototype, which was put together just 5 years ago – at a fraction of the cost, and in a vastly more compact physical form.

Although small, pocket-sized “electronic organisers” were available in the 1990s, these had, at best, a three line text-only display. Palm Pilot PDAs, introduced in 1996, were the first multi-purpose, customisable handhelds suitable for a range of creative learning activities; and in 2001, SRI International awarded over 100 “Palm Education Pioneer” grants to US teachers who had a vision of how Palm handhelds could be used to improve teaching and learning. Many of the findings of the PEP grants have been confirmed by later “handheld learning” studies. Examples of pertinent findings include the strengths and weaknesses of various models for allocating handheld computers to students, to the degree of success with which various learning activities (e.g. inquiry-based learning or extended writing) can be accomplished using handheld devices.

In the last two years, however, worldwide sales of PDAs have declined, partly as a result of the introduction of smartphones (which converge advanced application, information and media capabilities with mobile phone functionality) and mobile phones (which increasingly generally incorporate the most basic functions of a PDA, even in entry-level models). For educators, the booming popularity of mobile phones has introduced a new paradigm to consider. Due to the expense of mobile computing equipment, past models of mobile learning have almost always meant providing students with the hardware and/or software to accomplish learning activities. But the vast majority of students already own their own mobile phone. Many recent mobile learning approaches have attempted to embrace the use of students’ own devices, despite the inherent issues of attempting to design learning activities that are equally accessible on a multitude of different, non-standardised, makes and models of handset.

Today’s handheld mobile devices have specifications and capabilities that resemble those of desktop personal computers built just ten years ago . The current crop of PDAs and smartphones have high resolution displays, processor speeds in excess of 600MHz, and memory capabilities exceeding those of premium hard drives from the mid-1990s. Instead of requiring an add-on webcam, current mobile devices often have built-in cameras, as well as the ability to create and edit documents and media: they have become powerful tools for enabling learners to create, collect, and share content.

The other new market that has reduced the demand for PDAs is in ultra-mobile and ultra-portable computers: UMPCs, tablet PCs, and small form-factor laptops. Of particular note in terms of education are the One Laptop Per Child project and similar commercial models (such as the Intel Classmate and the Asus EEE) generated by the initial ovation that greeted Nicholas Negroponte’s vision for cheap, rugged laptops for learning.

The current generation of mobile devices have brought us closer to realising Alan Kay’s vision of cheap, integrated, connected, computers supporting constructivist learning activities. As I’ve previously blogged, they can provide a digital, connected learning environment, offering compactness and convenience of information, remote and instant access to a range of people and resources, and data capabilities that were never previously possible.

Despite these advances, I don’t believe we’ve yet created Alan Kay’s visionary Dynabook. I am certain, however, that we are getting closer every day…

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Defining Mobile Learning

30 11 2007

Some of the best research into defining the meaning and purpose of mobile learning has come from Prof. Mike Sharples (University of Nottingham), who has collaborated with a number of other distinguished academics and organisations to research the definition, pedagogy, and practice of mobile learning. Sharples’ numerous publications and collaborations, the majority of which deal with the use of mobile technologies in education, span more than half a decade of experience and research (detailed in full here). Recommended background reading includes the following:

  • Sharples, M., Taylor, J., & Vavoula, G. (2005a) Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning. In H. van der Merwe & T. Brown, Mobile Technology: The Future of Learning in Your Hands, mLearn 2005 Book of Abstracts, 4th World Conference on mLearning, Cape Town, 25-28 October 2005. Cape Town: mLearn 2005, p. 58. Available from Mlearn 2005 as a PDF file.
  • Naismith, L., Lonsdale, P., Vavoula, G. & Sharples, M. (2005b) Literature Review in Mobile Technologies and Learning. A Report for NESTA Futurelab. Available from NESTA FutureLab.
  • Sharples, M. (Ed.) (2006) Big Issues in Mobile Learning: Report of a workshop by the Kaleidoscope Network of Excellence Mobile Learning Initiative . LSRI, University of Nottingham. Available as 725K pdf file.
  • Sharples, M., Taylor, J., Vavoula, G. (2007) A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (eds.) The Sage Handbook of E-learning Research. London: Sage, pp. 221-47. Preprint available as 256Kb pdf file.

The work of Sharples and others has seen a gradual refinement of the way we think about mobile learning. Something of a watershed occurred in January 2005, when core members of the multi-million-euro, 30-month-long MOBIlearn project reflected (at the project’s conclusion) on how mobile learning is differentiated from other forms of learning mediation and support (Sharples 2005a p.4). Among the outcomes was a learner-centric view of mobile learning:

it is the learner that is mobile, rather than the technology … with learners opportunistically appropriating whatever technology is ready to hand as they move between settings, including mobile and fixed phones, their own and other people’s computers, as well as books and notepads.”

Liberating the definition of mobile learning from a device-oriented one revolving around mobile phones or PDAs allows mobile technology to be viewed as a means of supporting learning mobility, rather than defining it. An extreme interpretation of this principle would mean that many kinds of learning, pre-dating handheld computerised devices, could be considered as mobile learning. For example, learners have listened to audio books on cassettes and portable CD players anytime and anywhere since the 1980’s – well before the iPod was even imagined. Getting away from devices altogether, a book or a pad of paper could easily be used as mobile, learning tools, while school “field trips,” to museums, galleries or places of interest have been an effective learning strategy for decades.

In reality, completely disassociating the term “mobile learning” from the use of digital devices in education in that way feels artificial. There are the obvious semantic and developmental links with computer-based e-learning, but apart from that, digital devices are (variously) very good at helping us to create, store and use information, and at connecting us with peers, mentors, and remote information tools and resources – to the extent that (in the case of mobile phones in particular), we take them everywhere. It’s been well documented that these inherent properties of mobile, digital devices make them capable companions for supporting and enhancing all kinds of learning activities, both in and out of the classroom.

For me, the great utility of the learner-centric paradigm derived by MOBIlearn is that it helps to maintain a pedagogical focus in the field, and provides a constant reminder of the underlying need for mobile learning approaches to be underscored by effective learning design and support.

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Gizmodo and Laptop compare the XO to the EEE

28 11 2007

According to Gizmodo, “people” are comparing the US$400 Asus EEE with the sub-$200 XO OLPC:

OLPC’s XO Laptop and Asus’s Eee PC have been bloody rivals in people’s minds, whether or not the totally comparison’s fair… Laptop Mag aims to settle a running thread in our own comments: Which super cheap laptop reigns supreme?… In their conclusion, Laptop kicks XO … and hard: … So if you’re buying for yourself, Eee’s the best bet by a good stretch.

Oh dear. The thing is, the XO was never meant to be bought “for oneself” – from its inception, it was intended to be bought in lots of several thousand, for children in developing countries only. The fact that it’s been made available in the US for a limited period of time is merely to advance this eventual goal.

So this really is a short-sighted comparision, rather like comparing a screwdriver with a hammer. These two machines are aimed at completely different markets, and the XO has many practical aspects for reaching its intended market that were completely missed by the Laptop review.

One important aspect that was missed is durability. I’ve seen demonstrations of the XO dropped repeatedly from a height and running without problems. What a student would do with half a dozen small, shiny bits of EEE if they accidentally or intentionally attempted the same thing with it, I’m not sure.

Then there’s the battery life and lifecycle. The XO can carefully conserve its battery using its black-and-white “reflective” mode, and last a full day of school. It can be charged using solar or manual power, and you can buy extra (or replacement) batteries for $10. The EEE can’t do any of those things.

These are practical – if not vital – considerations for developing countries without flourishing tech-support departments or reliable electricity supplies. The XO elegantly screws itself into a niche in this respect. The EEE bangs its way in like a hammer: with more power, to be sure, but with rather less finesse.

I’m not saying the XO is perfect… but I just don’t think the comparison by Gizmodo and Laptop is at all fair!

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Some M-Learning Finds from the 2007 Edublog Awards

28 11 2007

One of the best things about the annual Edublog Awards is that they provide a terrific collection of new educationally-oriented blogs- many of which I’ve never seen before. Browsing through the various categories is an opportunity to discover valuable new resources and networks. While I’m already a big fan of many well-established nominees (particularly my competitors in the Best Individual Blog section!), here are some of my latest “finds” – newly-discovered blogs who’ve posted on mobile learning:

  • In the LeaderTalk blog (nominated for Best Group Blog), Sean Martinson contributes his well-considered thoughts – and supporting materials – on whether mobile phones should be banned in schools, and Tim Laeur provides his thoughts on the role of Amazon’s new Kindle e-book reader in modern educational settings.
  • The TechLearning blog (also nominated for Best Group Blog) provides some nice commentary on the 2007 Horizon Report, including a quote on mobile phones in educational settings: “There is a time these will be as much a part of education as a bookbag”. Amen…
  • On dy/dan (nominated for Best New Blog) there’s a really interesting conversation in the post and comments on the pros and cons of podcasting. It challenges a lot of my own assumptions about the utility of podcasts, but it’s terrific to see various points of view!
  • Sheesh. The Butterfly Effect (also nominated for Best New Blog) documents a viral mobile game titled “The Coolest Girl in School” which purportedly encourages girls to take drugs and fall pregnant to improve their game statistics. There’s obviously a cautionary tale here, as well as a challenge – can we develop alternative viral games which provide positive and affirming simulations?
  • Rather a lot of m-learning articles on the blog, (nominated for Best Resource Sharing Blog)… covering things like RFID tags in uniforms, the (not) OLPC, and “the obligatory iPhone in education post“. Noice! 🙂

More finds as I trawl through the rest of the nominees!

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Free: SnagIt Screen Capture

26 11 2007

TechSmith, who are still giving out copies of Camtasia Studio for free, are now also giving away another of their premium products, SnagIt.

Like Camtasia, SnagIt allows you to capture anything you see on your screen and save it and edit it for creating small instructional resources. However, SnagIt can be configured for “one-clicK” access on your computer, and allows you to capture high-quality still images as well as video. You can add effects and instructional text and graphics, and even make your tutorial interactive with clickable areas and text.

Click here to download SnagIt 7.2.5 (English)
Click here to download SnagIt 7.2.5 (German)
Click here to download SnagIt 7.2.5 (French)

Click here for a key to register SnagIt 7.2.5 demo as a fully licensed version.

Because SnagIt outputs interactive Flash files as well as images and video files, it can be used in a number of ways to create mobile learning content for PDAs, mobile phones and media players. It could also be used by learners to document their mastery of a computer-based process or to create content for sharing with other learners.

(via Freebies Blog)

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Voting Now Open for Edublog Awards!

26 11 2007

I’m very honoured to have learned that the Mobile Learning Blog is a finalist for the 2007 Edublog Awards. 🙂  If you’d like to show your support for the Mobile Learning Blog, come and vote for it here:

Best individual blog
Congratulations to my fellow nominees!  In particular, I’d like to mention some outstanding Australian finalists such as Sue Waters (multiple nominations incl. Best New Blog, yaay!), Graham Wegner (Best Teacher Blog), Judy O’Connell (Best Library/Librarian Blog), and Jo Kay (Best Educational use of a Virtual World).

It’s an honour to be in such inspiring company, and I’m looking forward to continuing the terrific conversations and reflections we’ve exchanged on these terrific blogs!

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