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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 09, 2006

Some thoughts on mobile learning, posted to an EdNA forum.

From my perspective, different types of mobile learning vary a lot depending on the type of access provided.

My first experiences with mobile learning were with wireless access services provided at a NAWeb conference five or six years ago.

The major difference for me was that I was more likely to be in the conference session - I have always found in-person sessions to be very low bandwidth, and have tended to skip conference sessions (and classes) because they are not good uses of my time. Wireless access allowed me to, if you will, fill in the gaps typical of an in-person presentation.

Mobile computing with a PDA, on the other hand, is very different. My own experiences with PDAs were not positive, partially because of the technology (Compaq iPaq) and mostly because of the inconvenience.

I work visually, but I have poor eyes, so I need a large screen. In a similar manner, I am a clumsy typist (even laptops are too small for me, and you can always see an uptick in the number of typos in my newsletter when I use a laptop). So I found the PDA simply too clumsy for me.

Today's PDAs, of course, are much more flexible, capable of displaying perfect (albeit tiny) copies of web sites, playing video, audio, and more. My iRiver receives constant use (though not often for learning, as I am not really an audio learner).

I think the most impressive use of PDAs I've seen was last week at the Bogota airport. The check-in clerks for Continental Airlines each had a PDA strapped to their wrist, allowing them instant and convenient access to the computer system. They used them too!

But it seems to me that only in the latter case will a PDA be much of an improvement over a wireless laptop (or tablet), and it's not clear to me that anything like traditio0nal learning will be of a lot of use in a volatile and past-paced learning environment. Can you imagine the clerk at Continental going through a multiple choice test while finding out how to handle the customer's baggage?

The third major type of mobile computing is via the cellular or mobile telephone. I count this as a separate sort of type because so many people have mobile phones, and because the devices have very different displays and connectivity.

I found internet access via mobile to be slow and expensive. I also found it even more difficult to type (though I did learn to adapt to thumbing, over time) and to read. The main advantage of a mobile phone (or hybrid, such as a Blackberry) seems to me to be internet access where none is normally available.

As for learning, it seems to me that while mobile phones offer a lot in terms of mobility, they are more restricted in content. The phone, it seems to me, are useful for short messages, as in SMS, and hence are great communications tools, but any use requiring more than that will tend to require a more robust platform.

All bets are off, though, once we get virtual hardware.

It seems clear that we can put the computer processing power needed into a very small device, but that our main limitation (especially for clumsy people like me) is input and output. However, with virtual screens (either in the form of goggles or (better) HUD type eye-glasses displays) and virtual controllers (for example, sensors placed on the fingertips that allow us to type 'in the air') size will no longer be a limiting factor.

At this point, though (and this is well worth noting) the major distinctions between mobile devices and desktop devices will be minimized. The user experience will be very similar. What will change is the mobility of the experience, the fact that a person can access a full-featured internet from anywhere at all.

This, to me, is the most interesting, and why I have for the most part focused on what can be done with mobile computing in general, rather than on the limitations of mobile devices. When a person can read and write to the internet from any place at all, what does learning look like?

It seems to me clear, this: very much not like a classroom. Because there's no real upside to creating an artificial environment when we could leverage the properties of existing real environments. Instead of requiring a forestry student to attend a class, we would require a forestry student to login from a forest. "Call us when we can see some pine trees, Peter."

And because of this, the distinction between virtual and real becomes very tenuous indeed. The student will be expected to input text, audio and video from the environment, and will project such content onto the virtual environment. Peter looks at a leaf and the HUD displays its name and characteristics (or perhaps it prompts him with a question about the leaf, which he answers to test himself, or perhaps it asks for the name of the leaf in Spanish).

So where do today's mobile applications fit into this picture? I would say that they are transition phenomena. This is less so the case with SMS (which may become as common as the paper note) than with moblogging. The blog is a particular type of content that typifies a certain state of online technology, but even as we begin to use blogs in learning the nature of that technology is changing.

We are seeing people create more (and better) multimedia. It is easier to create a short audio or video message than it is to type a message, and once storage and delivery cease to be problems (as we are seeing today) there is less of an incentive to create text. True, there will always be a need for text, especially among academics, but much (if not most) popular communication will be audio and video.

The challenge will be to effect a transition between the textual world and the multimedia, to communicate complex ideas in a manner accessible to people using audio and video. Neither medium favours the abstract (and neither do their consumers today) and each medium imposes channel limitations (you can't skim an audio or video file).

It will be necessary, in my view, to evolve a form of language that combines audio, video and text, to in other words combine the subtlety and expressiveness of text with the emotion and immediacy of audio and video.

And so when we are thinking about mobile applications, probably the primary challenge will be to enable people not only to receive relevant content in this multimedia language, but to compose, on the fly, with no more real difficulty than (say) speaking, multimedia messages, that can be beamed to colleagues or broadcast to the world.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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