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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7 responses

30 11 2007
» The Undiscovered Country Mobile Learning

[…] Alan Kay conceived the Dynabook, more than 30 years ago, it inspired a wealth of innovations, and is still a worthy “holy […]

30 11 2007
Mike Sharples

A good summary Leonard, and thanks for the generous quotes. I first read the Dynabook articles as a PhD student in the mid 1970s and was inspired both by the technology (which did seem to be just on the horizon) and by the vision of children using powrful personal tools to create shared simulations.

There were other handheld devices during the 1980s and 90s, including the Psion organiser (later versions were adopted in some UK schools), the Sinclair and the groundbreaking Poqet PC (http://www.bmason.com/PoqetPC/), but none were based on the educational vision of the Dynabook. It would be good to try and write a definitive history of mobile learning.

Incidentally – the HandLeR project started in 1998, not 2002, (as a student group project that I supervised to re-create the Dynabook).

6 12 2007
» Why Does Technology-Based Teaching Fail? Mobile Learning

[…] I’ve been sharing some of my investigations into the educational technology research of Alan Kay, who was able to effectively translate his […]

26 01 2008
Dolly Bhasin

The reason of the failure of Alan Kay’s Dynabook is not becuase of its inherent strengths,and too early in the market; but because of the artificial interface created for learning.
He probably, did a very good attempt and understands this, but people do not like to change. It is the fear of technology that keeps the user from using the same.
The best way to implement and multiply technology usage is to offer it on a system already available to the learners (or readily accessible) and provide support to it in terms of content and pedagogy through software and engaging platforms.
I am experimenting on the same, with use of OO technology and an elearning platform with a focus on a vertical industry driven approach. Where knowledge creation is linked to the knowledge delivery through the platform through engaging mechanism addressing a definite capacity development requirement.
Some of these thoughts were shared by me at an EU project brainstorming session at Edinburgh, Scottland in November and would be happy to share my ideas to anyone who is interested.

26 01 2008
Mike Sharples

The Dynabook project was not a failure, it was a great success. The team developed the Smalltalk object-oriented programming language, a fore-runner of Java, they implemented it on the new Xerox Alto computer (the world’s first desktop computer with a graphical user interface (GUI)), they developed visual simulation programs and tested them with children, and the results of the project informed the Xerox Star computer, the world’s first desktop GUI computer. The Start computer inspired the Apple Lisa and Macintosh computers, which in turn inspired Microsoft Windows. So the Dynabook project let directly to the computers used in most schools thorughout the world. However, the Dyanbook was never intended as a classroom computer but as a personal learning aid. It is only 30 years after the Dynabook that we now have handheld computers capable of running powerful networked simulations and communications, at a price children can afford. The One Laptop Per Child project is a realisation of the Dynabook, and Alan Kay is involved developing the software for that through his Viewpoints Research Institute.

20 07 2015
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17 08 2015
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