Is there a role for m-Learning?

Mobile learning is often heralded as an answer to several problems in higher education. Students can access material anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Lecturers can provide lots of detail and supplementary material knowing that students can access it on the bus to college, while jogging in the gym or even in the library! I wonder about the reality of any of these claims, even allowing for hyperbole. In this post I aim to look at m-learning is, and potential “real” uses in practice.

A 2007 Educause article on mobile learning provides an overview of the potential of m-learning (Corbell and Valdes-Corbell, 2007). Unfortunately, among lots of quite useful information on the pros and cons of various mobile devices for learning, the article places the material in the context of Prensky’s “digital natives”, which when you actually teach so-called digital natives, you realise is a complete misnomer.  In addition, this article makes a statement, common in a lot of literature on mobile learning, that “e-learners will no longer be chained to their computers and network connections, they will be learning while hiking in the mountains, strolling on the beach, or jogging along the city street.” The quote is attributed to Schroeder (2005 – the link referenced in the Educause paper does not work any more). I have to question the concept of “learning on the go” – certainly the literature on podcasting indicates that even though it is mobile, learners still set aside a particular study time to access podcasts, usually in a fixed space such as at a study desk. [See my article on podcasting]

OK, it's gone red, now what do I do? Is there a role for "just-in-time" learning in chemistry?

So even allowing for hyperbole, is m-learning a potentially useful tool? Molenet, a large UK project for mobile learning in further education funded by the Learning and Skills Council defines m-learning as “The exploitation of ubiquitous handheld hardware, wireless networking and mobile telephony to facilitate, support enhance and extend the reach of teaching and learning” (Molenet, 2010). It adopts a somewhat more realistic attitude to modern learners, dispelling the myth that young people do not need training in new technologies.

This definition and approach seems to me to be a pragmatic as it encompasses what I see as two key issues. The first is that the mobile technology should be kept as simple as necessary. In the case of podcasts, it is easy to get an mp3 file onto some form of player, or listen to in on a portable (or even fixed!) PC. The second is back to Gilly Salmon’s mantra – what is the pedagogic rationale for using the technology? As the Educause article rightly points out, simply recording lecture material is not an effective use of the technology. In a mobile situation, students are unlikely to be taking notes or able to comprehend something we would normally use diagrams to explain. Therefore placing ourselves in the position of students, what would be a useful mobile learning tool? I think snapshots of material – reviewing one key concept that students find difficult, or introducing a term or idea before a lecture that students may find difficult to process within a lecture hour (aiding cognitive processing) or posing problems or thoughts on a topic would be useful resources. Even better would be if they were integrated into other resources, so that they fitted into a larger resource where the students could use the information to try out something and get feedback. Corbell et. al mentions the idea of “just-in-time” podcasts, lasting about 3 – 5 minutes. These kind of time-frames will very much dictate the nature and content of these resources, which I would see as being very much supporting other learning rather than the main “content provider”.

Content other than podcasts, on a mobile basis, become very much more laborious as a practitioner to develop. One colleague has developed a series of mobile-friendly videos on practical techniques, that students can play while on task – a fabulous idea but one which took a huge amount of development time. One would wonder, as the photo alludes to above, whether this would be good or safe practice in a chemistry laboratory environment. The potential game-changer over the next few years – iPad/e-book type devices may have a more limited impact than would be expected – issues about cost, proprietary formats, etc may limit their use. I don’t think, for example, that all my students would have a notebook or a laptop. And before I ask them to get one, I would want a much firmer footing than I currently have for knowing it was going to improve their learning.

Corbell, J. and Valder-Corbell, M. E. (2007) Are you ready for mobile learning?, Educause Quarterly, 2, 51 – 58.

Molenet (2010) www.molenet.org.uk (Accessed May 2010)

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