Considering and responding to the culture of an organisation is key in any change management initiative. As countless Jisc reports testify, the culture of an organisation can be an enabler or a barrier for projects aiming to improve or modify the working/learning environments for staff and students at an educational institution.
One of the biggest advantages as well as one of the biggest drawbacks for a mobile learning initiative is it can often serve as a stimulus for wider, sometimes unanticipated, changes within an institution. Once staff, for example, reflect upon their assessment practices as a result of a mobile learning initiatives, it may lead to wider curriculum design implications.
The initial stimulus for staff and students getting involved in mobile learning is likely to vary from context to context and, indeed, upon individual preferences and interests. As Julie Laxton, part of the University of Leeds’ ALPS team points out (see video) it is a case of understanding the benefits of mobile learning and ‘selling a story’ of positive impact upon practice. In this way both technology and pedagogy work together.
"It’s really understanding how it can impact practice and selling that story of how it can impact positively on practice."
Julie Laxton, University of Leeds
Mobile learning is content-agnostic and, as such, can often help break down existing barriers for wider institutional gains. Julie Usher, a learning technologist at the University of Northampton found that being ambitious and seeking input from across teams in the university can be “a challenge” but lead to “some great unexpected outcomes”. The mobile learning project at Northampton was “a catalyst, breaking down silos and raising questions about the availability of information”. It also, importantly, she points out, led to questions about how such information could “be improved in order to enhance the student experience.”
"There were two main drivers for mobile developments at the University. One was pedagogic and came from the learning technology team, who recognised the potential of mobile technology to provide opportunities for more flexible, situated and personalised learning. The other driver came from our Marketing team, who saw mobile development as a way to raise the profile of the institution, and make information more readily available to prospective students, parents and visitors."
Julie Usher, University of Northampton
Another benefit of mobile learning is that it allows institutions and staff to re-evaluate their roles in a changing landscape, ensuring that what they provide remains relevant and learner-focused. To ensure that such reflection takes place it’s important for those leading mobile learning projects to engage with various stakeholders across the institution and, as Jackie Carter of Mimas points out, to work in partnership. “I think it’s taking from the learning to the technology, not the other way around”, drawing on her experience of Mimas’ award-winning mobile learning projects.
As long ago as 2004 Futurelab saw mobile learning as heralding a new dawn for learning experiences. Quoting Soloway et al. (2001) the mobile technologies and learning report states that
“to make any difference in the classroom at all, computers must be mobile and within ‘arm’s reach’.”
In addition, mobile technologies should not “be viewed as simply providing more portable versions of the learning activities that are currently supported on more static machines” as the mobility of the device and the learner “adds a new dimension to the activities that can be supported.” Mobile learning initiatives provide an opportunity for staff to reflect upon their practices and (re-)ask the question How can technology best enable this particular learning outcome?
Some mobile learning initiatives are student-centred but with an indirect link to learning and teaching. An example of this would be library reminder services via SMS text messages for borrowing deadlines. As explained in the quick wins section these types of mobile learning initiatives are likely to be quicker and cheaper to implement than others and (to paraphrase Prof. John Traxler) can serve as “the low-hanging fruit” that doesn’t “frighten the horses”.
Once senior members of staff are used to checking their email and accessing information on a mobile device, once academic staff are convinced of the benefits of assessment in practice situations, and when learning technologists and IT staff have been reassured as to impacts on their workload, further development can take place. Cultural change can often be a slow and, at times, frustrating process.
"The culture change is huge and I don’t think we should underestimate that."
Chris Dearnley, University of Bradford
Although the temptation for those in charge of mobile learning is to start with the early adopters of technology, this is not always the best idea. Kyle Bowen of Purdue University, USA, for example, who led the team who developed the innovative ‘Hotseat’ and ‘Mixable’ technologies actively avoids early adopters. Not only do early adopters tend to carry less influence than other members of staff, he claims, but aiming for those “with a healthy level of scepticism” can mean that you can genuinely tell if an intervention or initiative is working.
There are many questions to consider when implementing a mobile learning initiative. Some of these will be specifically context-dependent whereas others, such as those given below, can be stated more widely:
- Does the mobile learning initiative alter the meaning of ‘contact time’ for staff or students in a significant way?
- Is this an example of substitution is this transformational for students?
- Has the mobile learning initiative achieved high level buy-in?
- Who benefits from this mobile learning initiative? Who (or what) is marginalised?
- What are the positive, demonstrable, benefits of going with mobile learning in your institution?
"Most institutions, especially larger institutions, tend to turn like cruise ships… [W]e have to [remain] agile, which means we have to kind of stay out of that standard mainstream culture of the institution and we have to hit right at the pain points by going directly there and offer solutions. That way, by the time the ship turns all the way around… we’ve already figured out what some of the issues are."
Kyle Brown, Purdue University, USA
One of the biggest effects mobile learning is likely to have is to blend and blur the traditional boundaries between informal and formal learning. This is due to the personal nature of the technology and the cultural expectations as to how such technologies are used. However, as Vavoula and Sharples (2008) point out, such blurring of boundaries is not necessarily a bad thing.
Seeing informal and formal learning as completely separate leads to the advocates in each camp only to see the weaknesses in the other. Instead, it makes more sense to explore the elements of formality and informality present in all learning situations. Citing Colley, et al. (2003) they advocate four groups of attributes to consider:
- Learning process
- Location and setting
- Learning purposes
- Learning content
Conceptualising mobile learning as comprising of the interrelationship of these four elements is more productive, they claim, than applying a binary distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning.
A final thing to consider relating to culture is the various backgrounds from which both staff and students ‘come to the table’ and interact with one another. Cultural expectations, norms and barriers vary from country to country and between subgroups. It is imperative, therefore, that focus groups and consultations capture feedback from a cross-section of the institution’s community.