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What killed the mobile learning dream? - Digifest speaker, John Traxler

John Traxler

Mobile learning has stalled, argues John Traxler, professor of digital learning at the University of Wolverhampton's Institute of Education. He challenges Digifest to examine what's happened and how can it get back on track.

Mobile learning was e-learning's dream come true. It offered the potential for completely personalised learning to be truly anytime, anywhere.

Instead, we've ended up with mobile access to virtual learning environments that are being used as repositories. So, in practice, students reading their notes on the bus.

To be sure, in a few pockets in a few well-resourced institutions there may be some subject-specific mobile enhancements but we've certainly not seen the fundamental transformation that was forecast.

So what happened?

Twenty years ago the technology was expensive and fragile, scarce and difficult and it was the prerogative of clever people in universities to see how it could be deployed in support of learning. They bought into a particular model of innovation, believing that their innovative work would eventually percolate downwards and outwards to the chalk face.

However, innovation conceived in that way needs money. And so it reached the chalk face and people found they couldn’t afford it or they couldn’t understand it or that it wasn’t actually improving their lives in the way that the innovators thought it might.

Small scale

One of the key mistakes we made was that most of those early projects were predicated on the researchers giving out devices to the students - because when we started the devices were expensive. So we ended up with relatively short term experiments with a relatively small number of students that may well have produced interesting results but only if we subsidised the provision of the equipment, which we couldn't do.

Small scale projects teach you little about how they'll work scaled up. Research projects that are only a year or two years do not teach you much about sustainability. They teach you about working with enthusiasts in the fixed term, but you rarely find out very much about the attitudes or abilities of rank and file teachers.

That model is not financially sustainable. The way in which institutions have traditionally provided desktops cannot simply be extended to laptops, mobiles and tablets. Even if the money was there, the variety and rapidity of churn of devices would be nightmarish. But, then, people noticed that, actually, the students have got the equipment already.

So that means that our small scale short term projects, based around giving students a particular device, has actually taught us nothing of any use in this new world in which the students bring their own devices.

Bring your own device

Bring your own device, enabling students to use their own equipment, introduces more questions: is there a specific range of technologies they can bring, what's the nature of the support offered, and have we got a network infrastructure that won’t fall over when 20,000 students turn up with gadgets? What kind of staff development is needed to handle the fact that not only will the students turn up with many different devices but tomorrow they’ll have changed to even more different devices?

I don’t think we’ve clearly thought through what exactly that might mean but, also, some of those concerns are proxies for a rather different question.  When students bring their own devices, they also bring their own services and connectivity, and whereas we used to make the rules by which they could use the desktops or by which they could access the network – because it was ours - in future it will be their network and their devices.

Who's in control?

That changes the nature of our control, especially as we’re not just talking about hardware, we’re talking about software. Suddenly, students are bringing all of their habits and expectations with them about who and how and what they learn – and that isn’t necessarily limited merely to accessing whatever stuff the lecturer puts on the VLE. That's quite challenging in terms of the lecturer identity.

What's the nature of your job, if you don’t understand the technology the students are using for learning and you don’t understand the complexity and the abundance of the resources they could be accessing on their devices?

If you can learn from podcasts and Facebook and Wikipedia then what’s the role of the university and what’s the role of the lecturer?

What’s the role of teachers and lecturers and educational designers when the world doesn’t need any more content, when the world doesn’t need any more apps?

And how do we define an appropriate digital literacy curriculum that will enable our students to survive and flourish in that kind of world and also to do so on a basis that’s sustainable and equitable?

Opening up, opening out

We ought to be challenging our students to find, or providing our students with, the best learning materials. We ought to be collecting and orchestrating what’s best out there already rather than providing another version of fundamentally the same thing.

We also want our students to learn by discussion and interaction. They can do that in an open world as well. Why do we want to get our students to get locked into our VLE to consume our closed content?

Mobile learning has stalled. It has spent quite some time barking up the wrong tree, looking backwards and inwards. I’d like to direct the community’s attention onward and outward instead.

This portrayal may seem overly pessimistic. It is not. It should be read in terms of cumulative experience and familiarity with the uses of mobile technology, both social and educational, at a time when their availability opens far greater possibilities and opportunities than we could conceive of at the start of the century.

Join John at Digifest 2016


This is the fifth and final piece from a series of features from our speakers for this year's Digifest. 

John is speaking on day two of Digifest, 9:00-10:00, during our plenary session about the power of digital for learning and teaching. See full programme.

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