Has mobile learning reached a tipping point?

Tony Karrer

Is this the year that mobile learning takes off? That’s the view of Tony Karrer, head of TechEmpower, a Los Angeles-based web development firm, and top e-learning technologist.
Mobile Oxford & MyMobile Bristol

Mobile technology has been used to enhance the student experience in Oxford and Bristol by developers who have created apps to provide students with useful location-specific information.

Mobile Oxford

Mobile Oxford promises to be a ‘central guide to help you do your day-to-day tasks’, from finding a library book and checking when the next bus back to the hall of residence leaves to locating a free computer terminal. As well as university-related information, the app also offers information on banks and post offices, leisure facilities, bike racks and bus stops, and of course, pubs. A web-enabled device is all that’s required – though a smartphone means users can take advantage of the cool GPS features.


Mobile Bristol

The JISC-funded project MyMobile Bristol is working with Bristol City Council to pilot a scheme that will benefit both the citizens in Bristol and the University campus community. Again, it’s a mobile website which will work on any device, from Blackberries to iPhones and iPads.

Although mobile learning has been talked up for nearly a decade now (and JISC has been investigating the potential for mobile technologies in teaching for a number of years), Karrera argues that, until now, it has been a case of niche growth with scattered disappointments. So what’s changed?

Simply, ubiquity. ‘When everyone has a mobile device with web access, clearly there are opportunities to provide content in new ways,’ says Karrer.

Smartphones, iPads, tablets, iPod Touch…Mobile technology can take many different forms but, regardless of the packaging, says the 2011 Horizon Report from Educause and the New Media Consortium, ‘mobiles are capable computing devices in their own right – and they are increasingly a user’s first choice for internet access.’

According to a recent report from mobile manufacturer Ericsson, by 2015, 80% of people accessing the internet will be doing so from mobile devices. In Japan, over 75% of internet users already use a mobile as their first choice for access. In the UK, 41% of the population own a smartphone, with that figure expected to rise above half the population next year – and to keep on growing.

Mobile internet access ubiquity has implications not only for where learning takes place but also how – as John Traxler, professor of mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton, points out in his report for the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Education.

‘By now almost everyone owns one and uses one, often more than one… They are both pervasive and ubiquitous, both conspicuous and unobtrusive, both noteworthy and taken-for-granted in the lives of most people. This explains in part why mobile learning is not just e-learning on mobile devices; it also hints that we might leverage learners’ own devices and in doing so take education into new modes, spaces and places.’

Keep in touch

For developers:

UKOLN and CETIS, the JISC Innovation Support Centres, have recently published briefing papers on use of mobile technologies. Mobile Web Apps: A CETIS Briefing Paper, written by Mark Power, CETIS, provides a useful overview of best practice in this area. A report on Augmented Reality for Smartphones provides more in-depth information on this more specialist area.

OSS Watch, a JISC advisory service, has set up Open Source Junction to bring together commercial and academic developers working on mobile technology to build partnerships based on lessons learned from open source development.

Case studies and further reading:

Making Mobile Learning Work: case studies of practice. Edited by Professor John Traxler and Dr Jocelyn Wishart.

The Educause Horizon Report 2011.

The Slow-Motion Mobile Campus. The Chronicle of Education, May 8 2011.

JISC mobile learning projects.

These spaces may be physical, such as fieldtrips where data can be processed in real time, or a language learnt while visiting a foreign country. The mode might be ‘authentic learning’ where mobile technology helps with ‘on the job’ learning, and allowing trainees to keep in touch with tutors and fellow students while on work placements. The places might be location specific, such as the apps some universities are creating to enhance their students’ experience (see Mobile Oxford and Mobile Bristol, below).

In addition to standard e-learning material such as courseware, Karrer points to the rise of mobile ‘performance support tools’, such as an app that helps speakers to prepare themselves before getting on stage to make a presentation.

Making mobile learning work

However, while there are a number of strong case studies of mobile learning in the UK (and Professor Traxler’s Making Mobile Learning Work report provides a good overview of these), a more mixed picture is emerging from the States, where a few universities have experimented with placing mobile learning right at the heart of some courses.

Tech-savvy Stanford University’s School of Medicine issued iPads to all new students last August but it has not resulted in the paperless revolution the institution had hoped for. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that ‘in most classes, half the students had stopped using their iPads only a few weeks into the term’ and Stanford had to continu e to offer printed course materials on request.

The speed of cultural change against technological change is certainly an issue, alongside questions of digital equity and exclusion (will some students be left behind if they cannot afford the latest smartphone?) but the greatest challenge encountered so far is bandwidth. On campuses and in classrooms, if the wireless network cannot sustain the load placed on it by widespread mobile internet traffic, the mobile learning revolution will falter.

For developers, there are also programming and platform issues to overcome. ‘Flash is a big gotcha,’ comments Karrer. ‘It is a technical challenge to deliver out on these devices…you have to make some choices and trade-offs’.

While it is clear that mobile learning is not without its hiccups in 2011, and there are still obstacles to be overcome, there can be no doubt that Karrer and his fellow seers have seen the future – and it’s mobile.

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