There was an announcement from my employer and Sprint this week. This post is not about that. If you want to know more about the Mobile Learn offering go to the Blackboard Mobile website. I’m trying to keep this blog focused on my personal views and ideas. I want to explore some larger concepts here rather than focusing on specific product offerings.
Me and Mobile Learning: A Personal History
My introduction to mobile learning goes back to the 1980s, when my high school had purchased a number of Tandy Model 100 laptops. Under circumstances which are now lost to me I was able to snag one of these machines and take it around with me for a while. Personally the Model 100 is still one of my favorite laptops. It ran pretty much forever on a set of d-batteries and had a really nice keyboard.
The Model 100’s in my school were under-utilized. I recall discovering a cache them in a supply closet and asking questions from various shrug shouldered folks until I was allowed to take one out. I took notes and wrote little programs with it. I recall using it in Lincoln Douglas Debates note taking and organizing my research information. I recall there being some issue where I had to stop using it during actual debates as it was deemed anti-competitive. I was also asked to stop using it in and in as I was trying to take notes.
I think back though at what might have been had Tandy had the foresight to do continue developing the Model 100 technology. All the elements of the PDA were there (calendar, address book, network access via modem, battery life, durability). Despite the innovative nature of the technology; there were also significant barriers to widespread adoption. The user experience was too difficult, the cultural understanding and place of computers and gadgets was still too awkward, content was lacking and finally the limited network / cpu power meant that the types of activities were not broad enough to allow for broad adoption. I’m sure that other folks out there can talk about a mobile learning technology initiative that suffered a similar fate. The history of technology is full of players who had the right ideas, but were a generation ahead or behind the exact moment that the elements came together. 20 years have gone by, so are we finally at the right moment for mobile learning platforms and technology? I think we can assess readiness of the moment by looking at several factors:
Laptops, Mobile smartphone, eReaders and other gadgets are now commonplace. People think nothing of a person standing by the elevator with their Blackberry or iPhone. These gadgets have also moved from the work place to the home. When I travel through airports I see almost every kid with some kind of Nintendo DS, iPod and every adult with a smart phone or laptop. We no longer think of the presence of a gadget as out of place and we have a familiar set of expectations about the basic capabilities of the handheld device (media, email, web, applications/games).
The iPhone was the breakthrough moment. Before many phones were just scaled down desktop operating system like interfaces. My spouse suffered with a windows mobile 6 based phone that tried to put the start button of the windows UI into a tiny LCD screen. The phone had apps, but it was impossible to use. Even my Blackberry Curve was great for email, but it never engaged me the way the iPhone did. The immersive touch based interface that Apple create with multi-touch and gestures really changed the way we interact with systems.
Distribution and Networks
The Kindle and iPhone built the network into their plan. There was never a concept of users feeling like they had to limit their network features. Apple does this with an unlimited data plan and Kindle does this by factoring the price of the book into your download charges. The network remains the big uncertainty in my mind. Well publicized issues with devices and networks remain a barrier. I’ve had a chance to play with some 4G stuff, and I think that the boost in speed coming as telcos move to this technology will really make a tremendous difference in the next 18-24 months. Thinking back to the 300 baud modem in the old Tandy 100 and the trend-line since then, I note that with each generation of network bandwidth we saw an exponential rise in users.
Device Processing Power and Featureset
I see a base set of features around the touch screen UI, integrated sensors that track motion, GPS and the orientation of the device, cameras and recording features. The processing capabilities combined with features has now been used to create new concepts like augmented reality where you can overlay information on your camera viewfinder. These resulting capabilities emerge from the base feature set and enable new kinds of experiences.
The widespread availability of music, video content, other media along with applications is also very important. Last year many analysts were amazed to discover that 35% of Amazon’s book sales were going though Kindle. Apple recently reported that it had sold 10 billion songs through iTunes.
Mobile Learning Applications the Time is Now
When we examine these four factors processor, network, cultural readiness and user interface we can see that there is now an established base for mobile learning applications to emerge. The large volume of reading materials sold through eReaders and the widespread usage of games for learning has demonstrated that there is a clear demand from the end user for materials to be delivered in this context.
One trend to watch will be how HTML evolves in this world. The original iPhone SDK was web based. You can still create iPhone web applications. These apps can have an icon on the desktop and do not require going through the app store. Yet ultimately Apple had to release a full SDK. The capabilities available through the SDK were so far ahead of what was possible with just Safari alone that developers switched. I hope HTML5 will evolve to take the place of native apps, but we arn’t there yet. In the short term there will be a competition among Google, Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, etc to get users and developers to build unique features for their products. I’m a believer that to really build great mobile apps one must go native in the short term and look to support a narrower set of devices with a deeper experience.
Mobile Learning Use Cases
Thinking about Mobile Learning there are many use cases which are already seeing adoption. The biggest two right now are probably eBooks and Podcasts. I know from personal experience that downloading a book to my iPhone (Kindle App), or getting a podcast from iTunesU is a great way to catchup on things while on planes. In fact I recently installed an iPod dock in my car so I could listen to podcasts while I commute to work in the morning.
Beyond the eBook and Podcasts, I see interactive mobile games as playing an important part in learning. My own children occupy themselves with memory flip games, flashcards, puzzles and other games on my iPhone. The fact that a 2 year old can occupy herself with this device for an hour is really something amazing and says something about the user interface.
Beyond games, eBooks, Podcasts, I think we will see widespread usage of devices for expeditionary and exploratory learning. The ability to send anthropology students out into the field and have them record personal histories on a mobile device and submit them back to a blog for reflection and discussion would be quite compelling, as would augmented reality apps for geology, astronomy, archeology and other fields. Entire methods of teaching will need to be rethought to consider how students will acquire knowledge and skills in a world where the network is always in your hands and the world is constructed with additional layers of sensory input.
Mobile technology will have a major impact on teaching and learning. The possibilities of new models for expeditionary and exploratory learning are very exciting. The next few years will be marked by lots of experimentation as we see what experiences stick. The key will be to devise applications that exploit the capabilities of the devices (probably with native apps) and develop new experiences only possible with these new gadgets.