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).