The Genie in the Bottle: Unleashing the hidden power of personal mobile devices for learning (November 2009)

11 11 2009

Leonard Low
University of Canberra, November 2009

ABSTRACT: Since July 2007 there have been more mobile phones in operation in Australia than there are people; and when you add in the other mobile, digital devices that ordinary Australians own – such as media players, digital cameras, and portable computing devices – it is apparent that there are tremendous tools for personal and lifelong learning in the pockets of our students.  Unfortunately, there is an equally enormous mental rift between the way these devices are perceived by most users (who usually view these devices as being for entertainment or personal communications only), and the way they need to be perceived if they are to be used to their ultimate potential: as digital “pocket knives” of tools for creation and learning.  This paper draws a comparison with personal computer users who view computers as primarily an entertainment or communications device; discusses user resistance to the intrusion of “work” into their “personal” spaces; and makes the case that changing user attitudes is just as important as training user skills, if we want to unleash the hidden power of ubiquitous mobile devices for personal and lifelong learning.

Author’s Notes

Educators have contemplated the possible benefits of using mobile technologies for learning for decades, and hundreds of scholarly articles have been published in recent years on the potential affordances of mobile devices for facilitating, supporting, and enhancing learning. With so much interest, speculation and research into the use of mobile devices for learning, and with such broad availability and affordability of mobile devices, why hasn’t there been a corresponding surge in the use of these devices in educational contexts?  Why aren’t students already using their mobile devices for personal and lifelong learning?

Two dominant strategies have emerged in relation to ownership of digital devices for mobile learning: one in which a uniform set of devices is provided to all learners to overcome barriers of platform diversity and device access, on a temporary or permanent basis; and an alternative strategy which leverages the mobile devices already owned by students (regardless of interoperability) for learning activities.  I believe there are problems with both strategies – problems which currently present psychological barriers to the adoption of mobile devices as learning tools, despite their many affordances.

In the first instance, a school or institution may provide, sell, or direct students to purchase a particular mobile device, for example, an Apple iPhone, for the purpose of study.  In cases where devices are loaned to students on a temporary basis, students generally have very little time to develop proficiency or fluency in the use of the device.  Better outcomes are evident in cases where students are allowed to retain devices for longer periods of time to develop proficiency and personalise devices to suit individual usage preferences, but the expense of buying these “standard” devices (either for the organisation, or for the student) can make this strategy difficult to implement.

In the second scenario, an educator may draw on the mobile tools that students already own.  One major difficulty with this approach is the wide range of mobile devices owned by students, which are as divergent in capabilities for communications and networking, media playback and capture, and application customisation as you can imagine.  However the perceived advantage with this approach is that it allows students to use the tools they are already most familiar with for the purpose of learning.

This paper looks at this particular issue – the use of personal mobile devices for learning – and posits that the “personal” nature of these devices is a double-edged sword: it improves flexibility and reduces cost of participation, but at the risk of students feeling like learning is imposing on their “personal spaces”.





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