Wednesday, 29 April 2009

LearnHigher M-posium

On Wednesday 22nd April I attended the 1st Learn Higher M-posium at Manchester Metropolitan University. The day was jam-packed with insightful speakers and lively discussions and was a great chance to speak to some of the best in the business with regards to m-learning.

Speakers for the day were as follows:
· Barriers to the adoption of mobile technologies -
Dr. Stephen Hagan
· Making the theory work! – managing and supporting a large scale mobile initiative -
Dr. David Whyley
· Leaner devices – mobile learning out of control -
John Traxler
· Past, present and future -
Jon Trinder
· Mobile learning – learner mobility the story thus far and some ideas of future challenges -
Andy Black
· Urban planning education in context with mobile phones -
Prof. John Cook

Dr. Stephen Hagan (University of Ulster) kicked off the day with an astute presentation which highlighted some of the key barriers to student adoption of mobile technologies and m-learning activities. The session covered four key themes including hardware, software, institutional and social issues, discussing both the barriers and solutions within each area. It was a very honest and open presentation in which Stephen made no steps to try and glorify m-learning or to imply that adopting m-learning cultures was easy. For me, Stephen’s ‘frank’ approach made m-learning seem all the more real and all the more attainable. It made me realise that there are many barriers within m-learning contexts that do not have ready-made solutions, yet these barriers are not impenetrable; with hard work, planning and the confidence to step into a world which at present is not the ‘norm’ in education new and innovative m-learning environments can be achieved…and when in life is anything straightforward and easy anyway? In order to achieve effective m-learning environments we need to be prepared to break through the pain barrier before we (and our students) can reap the benefits.

Dr. David Whyley (City of Wolverhampton) was in the hot-seat next to speak about his on-going efforts to support and maintain a large scale mobile learning initiative in Wolverhampton. David is a lead member of the Learning2Go initiative and has won numerous awards for his commitment and hard work. Like Stephen, he spoke honestly and openly about his experiences, encouraging attendees to take note and learn from his mistakes. Three pivotal points that David highlighted were:

· M-learning is not easy but it is worthwhile
· M-learning should be approached in a ‘step-by-step’ manner – don’t aim too high
· The biggest thing that needs to be changed within m-learning cultures is the people, not the technology

The key challenges that David has encountered over the last few years with regards to m-learning implementation are:

· Mobile device market volatility
· Connectivity costs
· Teacher’s reluctance to change
· Top-down pressures on teachers and schools

All these challenges readily translate to HE settings also. Interestingly, David pointed out that the first batch of students that were involved with the Learning2Go project are now approaching university age. In terms of my m-learning in HE research this throws up numerous questions… how will this generation of learners impact on HE? Will they feel disillusioned by current HE provisions of m-learning and technology-enhanced learning? Are they going to end up taking 2 steps back in their study habits due to the restraints of HE delivery?

Third on the bill was John Traxler (University of Wolverhampton). John called attention to the growing tension between education providers and education consumers as a result of the now ubiquitous learner access to powerful personal technologies whilst schools, colleges and universities continue to try and regiment technology provisions. This falls directly in-line with the research of Selwyn (2006) who speaks of a growing ‘digital disconnect’ between students and their schools and raises questions as to the relevancy of future education provisions for future learners. Furthermore, John denoted that we are now living in a society of changing social values (for example a mobile telephone now regularly takes precedence over a face-to-face conversation), children are growing up with new social values compared to those of their predecessors, how should this be addressed within educational settings?

Jon Trinder (University of Glasgow – PhD student) was the final presenter of the morning discussing the past, present and future of mobile technologies and their educational use for teaching and learning purposes. An interesting point that Jon made about mobile devices was that at times, single, purpose-built devices do a better job singularly than a combined device, such as a smartphone. In a time of growing debate about how many devices students are willing to carry this is a thought-provoking concept, surely in education we should be pushing to be using the best tools for the job not the most convenient…but if the convenient option is the student option is this not more important? How can we measure such issues to come up with relevant solutions for 21st century learners? Moreover Jon highlighted the importance of the word ‘personal’ with regards to the term ‘personal devices’ – the device that a learner uses is best for them (as an individual), in traditional education delivery educators are prescriptive about the tools and technologies to be used for specific tasks – how does this translate in m-learning contexts?

The fifth speaker of the day was Andy Black (BECTA) who gave a dynamically off-the-cuff presentation that almost evolved as the session did! Unfortunately for Andy his session came after four very thorough m-learning sessions which meant that over lunch Andy decided to change tact slightly, after a shortened lunch stop he returned to re-work his original presentation drawing on some rather interesting points and emerging technologies. The key points that I took from Andy’s session were:

· Mobile learning provides the opportunity for iteration and transformation (however, how should assessment practice evolve to cater for this process – assessment is a real issue within m-learning contexts)
· There is a mountain to climb with regards to workforce development in the field of m-learning (teachers are busy people!)
· Mobile learning allows us (as educators) to engage with students (some of which would never normally pass through the doors)

Andy also spoke about the emergence of QR tags (which I have touched upon in a previous blog posting) and stressed an interesting point in that there is no way of knowing what is behind the code. When your phone reads it and directs you to the website you could be sent anywhere – it appears that there could be serious virus problems within this area of m-learning. Fascinatingly also, Andy demonstrated a projector phone (similar to this one) and even demonstrated how PowerPoint presentations could be played through a large screen via an iPod touch – great stuff!!!

Prof. John Cook (London Metropolitan University) brought in the rear-end of the day with an insight into a context-sensitive and location-aware m-learning project he has been working on. Basically learners go out into an urban area of London equipped with a mobile device running Mscape player, as learners move through the physical world the GPS triggers contextual digital media via an invisible interactive map (e.g. audio, supplementary photos, QuickTime VR reconstructions of the insides of buildings). It appeared from feedback from the learners involved, a more active learning experience was facilitated by the technology and overall was a much appreciated learning experience.

The M-posium was an innovative and thought-provoking event that encouraged communication and collaboration between institutions and education sectors with regards to m-learning knowledge and practice. It was an invaluable day for anyone looking towards more mobile futures in education and one I was delighted to have attended.

With thanks to Michelle Verity (LearnHigher Manager), Sylvie Steward (LearnHigher M-Learning Co-ordinator), Bob Glass (MMU Library) and Mark Stubbs (Managed learning Environment Project Director) for their hard efforts in making the day so enjoyable and successful. My sincere apologies to anyone I have missed out…

SELWYN, N. (2006) Exploring the ‘digital disconnect’ between net-savvy students and their schools. Learning, Media and Technology, 31 (1), pp.5-17

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