On-Campus Wireless Internet

15 06 2009

The topic of easy-to-use, reliable wireless access to the internet came to the fore today, so I thought I should write about it.  I heard from a number of people on our Yammer social network that they believed that our institution’s wireless service was difficult to connect to and only available in scattered areas around the campus.  That this appeared to be the opinion of the majority (with some exceptions) caused me considerable concern, as in my opinion, student wireless access should be considered priority infrastructure for any self-respecting further/higher education organisation.

From a teaching and learning point of view, campus-wide internet access – or even access that targets social and learning spaces such as refectories, libraries, lecture rooms and labs – is what truly blends together online and face-to-face learning.  It means that while they’re on campus, a student can access their online learning just by turning on their netbook or iPhone.  They can contribute to class online discussions while eating lunch or access their readings before class, using the technology they already have with them: their laptop, netbook, or other wi-fi capable mobile device.

Some of you may be thinking “can’t students just go use a computer lab?”  To some extent, they can.  However, most students don’t choose a library or computer lab as their preferred environment for group projects or study groups unless they’re forced to.  In most of those locations, there are restrictions on noise levels, food, drink, physical access, and software installation/configuration.  If students can get together at a campus cafe or in a refectory to work together, they will.  By way of example: every day the refectory at my university is full of students working together, because that is their preferred space to do so.

But they can’t get internet access there – not without an apparent struggle.  I work in an office just above the refectory, and one of my colleagues (in the same office) reports that there’s no signal.  Even if they can get a signal, the process of actually logging in and getting network access is difficult or impossible for the apparent majority.

Then, of course, there are all the affordances of the internet that could be brought into learning situations.  Students can look up definitions or supporting materials in lectures, using a wiki to collaboratively create lecture notes, or blogging an experiment or other learning experience, live from a student lab.

For mobile learning – and even for flexible learning – at any educational institution, equipping formal and informal learning spaces (such as social spaces) with fundamental enabling technologies like wireless internet access has to be at the top of the priority list.  It even makes sense from a budget point of view, as every laptop a student brings in and uses takes pressure off the student labs.  This, in turn, reduces the amount that has to be spent on standard-image, admin-locked, physical lab computers… and frees students to use their own computers which can be configured to best support their particular program of study.  That’s what I call win-win!

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Apple Mobile Learning Roadshow

2 06 2009

I attended the Apple Mobile Learning Roadshow last week, held at Sydney’s Maritime Museum; and I know other M-Learning bloggers will be interested to hear about this event.  It was attended by well over 150 people, and a glance over the name badges indicated that most attendees were from the higher education sector.  All attendees were loaned an iPod Touch 16GB to use during the seminar:

The device was pre-loaded with a number of “apps” (applications/software) that supported learning, most of which were “connected” (i.e. they used or required an internet connection) rather than standalone, and it was a good chance to play with a few new ones (such as this Molecular Modelling app) that I haven’t seen before.

As a designer myself, I happen to love love Apple products – but I am no “fanboy”.  I love the quality, ease-of-use, flair for innovation, and sophisticated, minimalist industrial design that Apple have built their reputation on.  However, in my original evaluation of the iPod Touch (written a full year before the Apps store was released), I was dissatisfied with the device’s lack of certain content creation tools (camera or audio recorder, for example) and its closed proprietary architecture.

Over the past couple of years, Apple have done a great deal to redress these initial shortcomings.  The launch of the Apps Store late last year meant that developers all over the world could finally create ways to use the iPod Touch and iPhone that (I’m sure) nobody at Apple could have envisioned, and opened up these devices for customisation to the needs of users – and learners.  Some of the new apps have helped overcome the shortcomings of the original devices, such as adding advanced recording (and uploading) capabilities to the iPod Touch, and improving the capability of these mobile devices to support constructivist pedagogies.

Much of the Mobile Learning Roadshow explored the various apps that have been created for the iPhone and iPod Touch (including the two linked above).  It turns out that some universities (such as Stanford and Duke universities) have gone so far as to create customised iPhone apps for accessing various aspects of student life, including courses, campus maps (working with the iPhone’s own GPS) and university information. I can see these working well to engage students and provide them with support at (quite literally) their fingertips.

In my opinion, the Apps Store made the iPod Touch and the iPhone significantly more viable as an m-learning device: I could even go so far as to say that the ability to customise and add functionality should be a central tenet of practically all digital devices aiming for lifestyle ubiquity and flexibility.  Since m-learning ties in heavily with concepts of ubiquitous learning, convenience, flexibility and personalisation, I’m sure you’ll understand my initial concerns with the iPod Touch and the iPhone, prior to the opening of the Apps Store.

Some of the Apps that are currently available for supporting learning are really good.  The capacitive multi-touch screen of the iPod Touch and the iPhone are perfectly suited for interacting with 3D models and detailed diagrams, and one developer has managed to fit *all* of Wikipedia into an App that can be used offline on an iPod Touch or iPhone.  Such applications can be particularly valuable for reference, revision, learning from instruction, or for learning activities based on exploration and investigation of existing resources.

The major gripe I have with these learning resources, of course, is not with the resources themselves (which, as I said, are terrific), but with the equity and interoperability issues that accompany most advanced personal learning tools on expensive proprietary platforms.  In a mixed educational environment, there will always be students who cannot afford an iPod Touch or iPhone, making it unethical to mandate the use of these Apps for learning in situations where the same application cannot be used via some other platform to provide equal opportunity and equal access.  Unlike personal computers (which can be made available via “student labs”), it’s not *usually* possible to have “public access” iPods to correct these equity issues; and mandating that *all* students purchase an iPod Touch (for example) will never be met with enthusiasm by those students who can least afford to meet that particular institutional requirement; with even less enthusiasm when some students discover they only have one class each semester that actually *uses* the things; and with dismay when they realise that they bought an iPod Touch this year, but are required to upgrade to the latest version of the device next year to keep up with the latest Apps and/or university standards.

The other gripe I have with the Apps model is that Apple gets to be judge, jury, and executor of all applications that want to be on iPod Touch and iPhone devices.  As Cory Doctorow correctly states in this blog post, that means that it can impose its view on what should or should not be available as an App, and represents a restriction to the freedom of software and, potentially, of thought.

Personal gripes aside, things have certainly progressed a long way for the iPod Touch and iPhone.  While the presenters wouldn’t comment on the issue, I’m personally very optimistic that the next generation of iPhones and iPod Touch devices will come complete with the core functionalities lacking in the current and previous iterations of the hardware (e.g. video recording and MMS), which will make them so much more useful for all kinds of constructivist learning activities centring around learner created content and the sharing of content.

Moving right along, the presentation also looked at iTunes U, a content distribution model for iTunes targetting the higher education sector.  iTunes U allows podcast content to be distributed to university staff and students allong organisational lines – for example, restricted to a class, a department, a faculty, to anyone in the university, or to the world at large.  Stanford University recently made big news all over the world by making its content on developing apps for the iPhone public via its iTunes U presence.  The course received well over a million hits and generated considerable publicity for the university (and for Apple!).  It’s a good example of what can be done in higher education to show off great ideas and opportunities and attract students and industry attention alike.