Welcome. We are Aarón Alzola Romero and Elton Barker, from the Open University's Department of Classical Studies. This blog is part of a broader research project exploring the uses (and abuses) of mobile learning in the Arts. Our aim is to examine mobile learning applications, assess their strengths and weaknesses (in terms of user interaction, contribution to learning outcomes, cost and popularity), identify areas of opportunity and challenges in their future implementation and assess the impact that mobile learning solutions have on the delivery of Arts courses.

Friday, 16 December 2011

It’s not just about apps...

This week’s post is in an interview with Rhodri Thomas, Senior Project Manager in the Learning Innovation Office. Rhodri, who is something of a mobile learning guru at the OU, keeps his own blog on Mobile Learning support, which we urge you to check out. (At the moment you can see him give a presentation on mobile connections across the OU.) What he doesn’t know about mobile learning activity at the OU, isn’t worth the mobile it’s texted on. Here are some key points that emerged from our discussion:

A whole range of stuff can be covered by the description Mobile Learning:

· There’s the technology itself.

· Then there’s the user end of things, which addresses the needs of the student who’s out and about, so that they can multi-task as they travel (e.g. on public transport) and have access to content online (such as OU course material).

· There are devices that know where you are and allow you to exploit that information (e.g. geolocation apps).

· And there are devices that are able to handle multi-media.

Some background to ML development:

· User testing (such as surveying students and taking feedback, which IEY carry out) is helping to identify what websites and technical devices people are using.

· Currently, the most common activities continue to be quite traditional—i.e. reading material, catching up with assignments, participating in forums.

· But times are changing: more people are using tablets (such as ipads) and broadband speeds are getting quicker.

· In the US Higher Education sector, the focus has been for some time on developing apps. UK universities are looking to expand into this market, but most apps simply present a campus user experience and services (e.g. maps).

· For the OU, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is important for building a continuous narrative from the production of course materials to their delivery for distance learners in an online environment.

7 key points:

· We shouldn’t be thinking about just ML apps, but more holistically in terms of the mobile web and services more generally.

· The question at all times should be: What tools are needed to do the job?

· Taking that one stage back, careful thought needs to be given to what it is you actually want to do. Apps work better with specific tasks in mind.

· In fact, ML should be seen as part of a bigger picture. For example, ML often works best when mediated through face-to-face engagement, such as when tying ML activities to tasks undertaken back at ‘base’.

· Flexibility is the thing. That is, the ability to switch from a ML web service (which you can use to work on a set of tasks wherever you are) to a desktop service (once you’re back in the office) to ML apps (if you have a specific task that needs being done).

· In short, mobile technology needs to be integrated into the learning outcomes from the beginning of the process.

· And for this, academics need training in and exposure to the range of ML possibilities that are available to them in their subject.

So, it seems that, as usual, some kind of training is needed. But, perhaps even more importantly, we ourselves need opportunities to play with the tools on offer. For, how can we come up with interesting uses for ML, if we haven't any experience of it

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Size matters in Mobile Arts

Arts digital learning materials tend to be more multi-media heavy than those of other discipline areas. This is because Arts subjects, by their very nature, lend themselves to the use of animations, recorded music, 3D scans, images of paintings and sculptures, interactive maps, video ethnographies, and so on. Often, these resources are not there to simply illustrate a concept, but rather as a core element of the syllabus in themselves.

·The Good
The creative use of multi-media elements in digital educational resources offers an excellent opportunity to make teaching materials attractive in an aesthetic sense (i.e. the eye-candy factor). The relation between aesthetics and cognition in digital interface design is discussed by Stephen Anderson here.)

·The bad
The problem is that most of the multi-media resources that work perfectly well in a desktop computer with a 22" monitor at home do not work very well at all in a 3" smartphone screen used in the middle of a busy street. When using a small screen, there is a compromise between details and overall perspective, the interface design is altered and the navigation experience is affected. The bottom line is: most large images do not display well in smartphones.

·The ugly
Tablets solve many of these problems. Their screen size is large enough to display most maps and paintings in sufficient detail and their hardware is generally perfectly capable of coping with video and audio. However, the use of tablets leads to another two problems:

  1. When used outdoors, most tablet screens have an ugly reflection (I know, it was a stretch to fit this under “ugly”!), which could, in many cases, defeat the purpose of truly mobile learning.
  2. The serendipity factor. We carry our phones in our pocket most of the time, but we don’t always carry our tablets with us, because they are not as portable. Many of the mobile learning apps and web resources that we download are a result of serendipity (e.g. bumping into an interactive display in a museum, walking past a poster in the departmental noticeboard, having a conversation with a friend...). If a user does not have the right device to access a mobile learning resource on the spot, it might be a wasted opportunity for the content distributor to get the message across to the right audience.

Image: CC Michael Reuter.

There is currently no perfect solution for the display-portability compromise in mobile devices. Arts mobile learning resources are especially vulnerable to this problem because of their heavy reliance on multi-media content. Therefore, it could pay off to consider from a very early stage not just what our Arts mobile learning resource will contain, but also which device it is most likely to be accessed through (and, by extension, when and where it is most likely to be accessed by the end user).

Sunday, 27 November 2011

An interview with Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme

Agnes is one of the leading Mobile Learning exponents at the OU, with a particular interest in enquiry-based learning. (The IET wiki lists all the projects that IET have been engaged for more than 10 years.) She has been involved in a Landscape Study of mobile and wireless learning, which documents current practice within UK Further and Higher Educational Institutions of using mobile devices in teaching and learning. She has also worked on various European projects, such as: mobilearn, which experimented with providing visitors to art galleries with tablets to acquire additional information for themselves and share it with each other; motill, which has over 50 ‘reviews’ of various projects, focused on explaining them and making them accessible to others; and MASELTOV, which is exploring issues of social inclusion and empowerment of immigrants through use of mobile learning technologies and social network services.
Agnes identifies the cost of ML as the biggest obstacle to adoption. Within many institutions, including the OU, ML is still regarded as a non-essential additional activity that takes time and does not warrant the investment, particularly when many budgets are being squeezed. A further problem is that the people being asked to include ML in their teaching often have little experience of the technology themselves. Both points indicate the importance of embedding ML in learning processes, as well as outcomes, and in training.
One final point: current implementations of ML often rely on context aware environments. That is to say, places are set up specifically for promoting particular tasks. But the challenge is how do you get from there to a world in which you can interact with things on an everyday basis?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Learning to Mobile Learn

Hello, my name's Elton Barker and I'm Aaron's colleague not only on this project but also in the department of Classical Studies. In my day job I work on the literature and culture of ancient Greece - to be honest, at time of writing mobile learning really is all Greek to me. So, why am I interested in mobile learning and what do I hope we achieve?

I was keen to join Aaron on this project since, while I'm connected to the internet for the greater part of my working (and non-working) day, I haven't used mobile learning in any of my teaching. No doubt I could make the excuse that I've only recently come to the OU; beforehand I was teaching in Oxford, where mobile learning would be taking a walk with one's tutor around Christ Church meadows while discussing Plato's theory of forms. (BTW, this is a cheap joke at my former employers' expense: Oxford is at the forefront of much digital activity in the UK, not least in Classics: witness the recent 'DIY' papyrus reading tool, trailed no less on R4's Today programme: http://ancientlives.org/.)

So, my first interest is simply to find out what kind of ML activity is going on at the OU, which from its very beginning has been at the forefront of technological pedagogy. (Remember those mathematics programmes on BBC2 late at night in the 70s?) Digital-based research is being conducted across the university in different faculties, primarily in: KMi (the Knowledge Media Institute), semantic webby folk who are looking to develop killer apps; and IET (the Institute of Educational Technology - the OU does like its acronyms), a team of IT anthropologists who analyse the use of social media in academia over coffee.

However, I don't think that it's enough to find out what's going on around the university: we, in the Faculty of Arts, also need to consider what we can use, and how, and what consequences might follow both for delivering our teaching and generally for thinking about our subject. Here, I'll be on a steep learning curve, since I'm of the generation for whom word processed essays and email exchanges with lecturers were the new thing; ML has played no role in my own education. Hell, I don't even possess a smart phone! So, the key follow up question for me is a two-parter: (i) can I use the particular app in the first place (i.e. is it as intuitive as the ipad OS on which I'm writing this post); and (ii) can I see the value of it as a pedagogical tool (i.e. can I learn with it?).

Of course, that's only the beginning. Once I've had a play with the app myself and 'got it', a whole series of questions follow regarding its use in teaching. First, can I see the value of it in what I teach, and, if so, how can I embed it within the course? Second, can I communicate that value to my colleagues in Arts? Third, can we (Aaron and I) come up with a test case of a particular app that, having done our research, we can embed in a particular course?

We'll be using this blog to post the results of our enquiries and, hopefully, raise a whole bunch of issues that will be of interest to others. If you've had experience of using ML in teaching, or indeed of being taught with ML, we'd be delighted to hear from you!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

What makes a good Arts mobile learning app?

There are many factors involved in the success of an app. Some of them are project-specific, such as subject, target audience, budget, tone and style. However, there are also some general criteria that apply to most Arts mobile learning applications. Here are just a few of them, illustrated by the Chinese Characters – First steps app. This IPhone app was developed by The Open University in order to help students practise Chinese characters in an interactive and entertaining manner.

-It can be used in short intervals
The format appeals to the “commuter learner” – a person who is on the move, making use of dead time.

-It has a pedagogical component and a clear set of learning outcomes
The app is more than just a game. In this case, it is part of an Open University language module. It contributes to the module's learning outcomes and stimulates interest among potential future students.

-It makes efficient use of the platform
The design of the app aims to make the most of the smartphone's potential. It uses a combination of features such as audio, the touch screen, the phone’s memory, etc.

-It makes use of already-existing material in an innovative manner
Most education institutions have large amounts of underutilised teaching material. Mobile learning is a good oportunity to adapt this material and use it to reach out to a potentially large audience.

-It has an element of fun / novelty
Smartphone app repositories are highly competitive environments. In order to attract attention and retain a healthy user base, mobile learning apps must be useful and constructive, but also fun and engaging. In this case, the app approaches Chinese characters as a game, with interactive elements, puzzles and various levels of progress.

-It is financially viable
This app follows a “semi-commercial” model, which allows users to download a free basic version of the app and purchase add-ons if desired. This approach strikes a balance between the University’s need to make the project financially viable and the goal of reaching out to a large number of users.