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.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Not just a pretty face

A couple of years ago we were dazzled by the release of image recognition tools such as Google Goggles, which, for the first time, allowed regular users to perform instant image-based web searches by using the camera in their hand-held devices. The technology was touted as a Swiss Army knife of visual recognition (applicable to anything from bar codes to restaurant menus in foreign languages).

A bit of road testing soon made it clear that it wasn't great at distinguishing, say, a dalmatian from a poodle, or a Wedgewood plate from a Clarice Cliff. However, it was very good at doing one thing in particular -- identifying individual art works and providing their name and author.  This made it quite a useful app to have in those annoying situations when, flicking through a magazine, you come across a famous painting whose artist you can't quite remember. You simply point your camera at the picture, tap on the "Go" button, and hey presto: title, date and artist.

Museums like the New York Met and the Getty started a series of collaborations with Google, providing metadata for thousands of paintings. Although the app was certainly very handy (and a great talking point in the pub), its pedagogical value was still somewhat limited during those early stages of development -- the best one could hope for was a couple of basic facts about the painting and a list of Google search results (some more relevant than others).

Google Googles at work (Image © by Google).

However, that is changing fast. Educational researchers and IT developers are creating new ways of digging through the data, contextualising, meshing up, inter-linking and reshaping results. It is these developments that can turn visual search technology from a gimmicky app to a powerful educational / research tool.

The University of California Riverside, for example, is developing an ambitious facial recognition project designed to identity individual historical characters portrayed in paintings. The principle is similar to Facebook's infamous facial recognition / photo tagging technology (without the Big Brother implications).

Applied to historical portraits via the Google Goggles infrastructure, this UCR tool is expected to provide answers to questions such as: Who is this person? Where did s/he live? What stage of his/her life is s/he in in this portrait? What was happening in the world at that time? What is his/her facial expression? What other portraits exist of this individual? Who else is in the painting with him/her? What webs of relations can we tease out based on people's associations in different portraits?

UCR's project is still at a very early stage of development and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome before the tool is sufficiently stable and useful. However, it is an encouraging example of the kind of research that is helping us make the crucial transition from visual recognition to visual data mining (and ultimately visual data analysis) in mobile learning.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Mobile learning or drive-by learning?

According to Chinn and Fairlie, in 2001 there were 61 computers per hundred people in North America, but only 0.5 per 100 in South Asia. In response to this imbalance, the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project took as its mission “to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning”.

OLPC’s underlying premise is that the large scale distribution of Information and Communication Technology among the less privileged will tackle problems of accessibility to computers and simultaneously improve IT literacy rates. OLPC thus links access with use and practice, relying on models of self directed learning.

OLPC love. (Image: CC by laihiu.)

The project has been welcomed by various NGOs and HE institutions. However, it has also attracted its fair share of controversy. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the OLPC project, takes the principle of self-directed learning to its logical extreme. Much to the consternation of some teachers and educational researchers, he has boldly summed up the association between ICT access and use with the phrase “you can give kids XO laptops and just walk away”.

From Negroponte's point of view, the availability of ML resources alone is enough to encourage the development of valuable learning skills among children. These skills, in turn, will have a positive impact on interrelated socio-economic factors, reducing multiple forms of deprivation such as poverty, social exclusion and illiteracy, not just among the children but also within their broader community.

From the point of view of many teachers and educational researchers, Negroponte's model (which has been dubbed "drive-by learning") is deeply flawed. Efficient learning skills are unlikely to materialize out of thin air just because the right set of tools are placed in front of the student. A laptop is a great tool in the classroom, but a poor substitute for a teacher. Some OLPC insiders have recently joined the sceptics by putting a big question mark over the drive-by approach as a result of a damning assessment of failures in the project's implementation across Peru.

The OLPC project is an inspirational and ambitious attempt to reduce the global digital divide and bring socio-economic advantages to deprived communities. The world needs more projects like OLPC, but we also need to work harder to ensure that their underlying pedagogical principles are right.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Whitewashing the ML fence

One of the reasons behind some of the scepticism towards ML is the popular perception that this form of education leads to an over-reliance on the very resources that make it possible. Students, some argue, are reaching a stage where they aren't able to achieve anything for themselves without the use of their smartphone or tablet.

On one end of the spectrum, there are those who argue with horror that modern pupils do not bother to learn facts any more, because they can simply google anything up on the spot if and when they need the information. The implications are that ML students don't really know anything themselves -- they just know where to find someone (usually in the form of a digital resource) who does know.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who don't see a problem with the idea of not learning facts. We don't memorise all our friends' phone number or all the times and venues of the meetings we need to attend this month (we simply use a calendar or a diary to remind us), so why should education be any different?

Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence.

When the problem is approached from a pedagogical point of view, most people take a middle ground. In many ways, developments in ML do not challenge modern attitudes to teaching -- in fact, they complement approaches to pedagogy that were already well established way before tablets and mobile phones were around.

In the 1960s, there was a radical change in instruction strategy: a shift from test-driven transmission teaching (conceived as a top-down, mental transfusion from the teacher to the pupil) to exploratory, hands-on and problem-centred approaches. The maxim became: learning is not the same as memorising. Encouraging students to develop useful learning skills became more important than hammering raw data into their brains. Aspects like observation, critical thinking and communication started making their way to the top of the curriculum.

This led to decades of debate among educational researchers. People like Paolo Friere and John Dewey argued against rote learning and for an active, dialectical, student-centred approach, while E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argued against what he termed their naturalist perspectives and for the core root of facts necessary for domain specific knowledge. Today, most teachers see these apparently conflicting positions as two sides of the same coin -- complementary aspects of the learning process. Developing knowledge is still an important part of education, but learning to develop that knowledge and what to do with it (i.e. the 4 Cs -- critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating, and collaborating) is also crucial. This aspect of education is what educational researchers call 'learning skills'.

As well as providing access to online repositories full of facts, ML resources allow students to develop a broad range of transferable learning skills as they classify, analyse and evaluate content (assessing the reliability of particular online resources, collating useful data from a range of platforms and learning how to adequately reference online and offline materials); they participate in problem solving activities; imagine, design and create their own resources; and collaborate with groups of people, setting goals and exercising team building skills.

Although ML is a very young field in education, its underlying principles are  not a radical departure from the teaching methods that educational researchers have been developing since the 1960s. Contrary to popular perception, in many ways ML complements and extends a long established pedagogical tradition.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Galileo and ML

Galileo is a global positioning system that is currently being deployed by the European Space Agency. It's made up of a network of satellites which will complement and integrate with the functionality of existing international positioning systems. Despite a fair amount of funding headaches (and a little tantrum thrown in by the USA), the first Galileo satellite was successfully launched in 2005. The system is not expected to be fully operative until around about 2015.

Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni, 1624.

Compared to current global positioning systems, Galileo introduces a few snazzy features. However, the feature that really stands out (in terms of its implications for ML) is its level of precision. Galileo will be accurate down to the metre range. Current general-purpose GPS receivers have an accuracy range of about 10-20 metres (or even worse at high altitudes). This means that, in practice, they only work as navigation systems for large, open areas. For example, integrated with a ML smartphone app, these systems are able to tell us where the nearest open museum is, what building we are looking at, or what part of town we are in.

With Galileo, provided a clear satellite signal is available, mobile devices will be able to detect which display case museum visitors are standing by (and provide personalised content at point of consumption); generate diagrams showing how people move around the gallery on a metre-by-metre basis and how long they spend interacting with each individual display (facilitating user data analysis for curators and events organisers); they could allow participants in educational crowdsourcing projects to geotag locations / learning resources / interesting features in libraries, archaeological sites, art galleries, etc. with a high level of precision (making it easy for other users to go back to that precise spot, find the resource and benefit from it); they could provide a new set of tools for blind students to engage with educational resources spatially in a classroom or lecture hall.

By reducing the error margin of existing geolocation systems from 20 metres to <1 metre, Galileo could open a massive range of new options for teachers and students in mobile learning.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Mobiles in numbers

A few quick stats about the current state of the mobile industry:

-The global mobile phone user base is growing exponentially
There are approximately 6 billion mobile phone subscribers in the world. It took 20 years to reach the first billion mobile phone users, but only 15 months to reach the last billion users.

-Most mobile phone users do NOT speak English
Many ML resources are created with Western English speakers in mind, but these users account for less than 10% of the global user base. The fastest growing world regions in terms of mobile phone usage are China and India (which, together, make up 30% of the global user base).

-The amount of internet resources accessed through mobile devices is also growing exponentially.
70% of all phones sold in the USA are internet-enabled smartphones (this could reach 90% by X-Mas). Less than 50% of all mobile traffic is voice. 60% of all Twitter traffic and 70% of all Pandora traffic come from mobile phones.

-The mobile phone sector is highly volatile.
Around about a year ago, the word ‘iPhone’ was synonymous with smartphone. In fact, things were looking quite rosy for Apple – the iOS market share had grown by a whopping 115% in 2011. Today, Android has more than doubled the smartphone user base of iOS. Half a million Android handsets are activated every day. Blackberry, the brand that epitomised flashy corporate smartphones merely four years ago, is now looking at a global market share of potentially less than 5% next year.
Image: CC by Irargerich
 What does this tell us? 

  • Most internet resources / services that are not adequately accessible through mobile devices could risk disappearing in the medium / long term. 

  • The global mobile phone user base is enormous, but cultural and linguistic differences make it difficult to create resources that have a global appeal.

  • The demand for mobile resources, including ML, is likely to grow exponentially in the short and medium term.

  • The high level of volatility in the mobile industry means that platform-specific resources (e.g. apps) could have a relatively short shelf-life and limited scalability. Web-based mobile resources might be a more attractive prospect for long-term projects.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The battle of the ages

The Nintendo 3DS console was introduced to the Louvre last March with much fanfare. You might think that this games console is more likely to be associated with mustachioed Italian plumbers than the Venus of Milo. Well, on this occasion it is conceived as an audio guide on steroids. It provides museum visitors with interactive maps of the museum, suggests themed itineraries for different visitor profiles, complements the displays with hundreds of commentaries recorded in seven different languages, provides high resolution images of paintings that may be difficult to look at closely in the galleries (like the Mona Lisa) and even generates 3D reconstructions of statues. According to Agnes Alfandri, Louvre’s head of multimedia, less than 4% of visitors were using the old audio guide, so it was imperative to galvanise the system in order to keep up with the times.

Interestingly, user feedback suggests that the Nintendo 3DS guide may have received mixed reactions. In fact, it seems to have drawn a wedge between two group categories: the under-thirties (approximately 1/3 of all visitors), who have responded quite positively to the new system, and the over-thirties (approximately 2/3 of all visitors), who appear to be somewhat less enthralled by the entire thing. 

Image: Left CC by bixentro. Right CC by Matthew Miller (modified)

This battle of the ages is being fought on three fronts:

1. Games consoles in a museum
    • Under-thirties: many in this category see museums as intimidating, alien environments. Games consoles make museums appear less serious, more approachable and engaging.
    • Over-thirties: the idea of using games consoles in a museum is about as appropriate as bringing a vuvuzela to a funeral.
2. Ease of use
    • Under-thirties: The console and its interface are very intuitive and easy to use.
    • Over-thirties: The console and its interface are very alien and difficult to use.
3. Eye candy
    • Under-thirties: The 3D reconstructions of artefacts are cool.
    • Over-thirties: I’m standing in front of the actual statue. What is the point?
Of course, these are gross generalisations, concealing an even broader and more complex range of reactions to the system. However, the initial user feedback does highlight two important aspects about ML and some of the challenges faced in its implementation:

1. ML (and digital learning resources in general) have the capacity to reach a broad user base, but these users have very different needs, tastes and priorities.

2. The digital divide is not just about being able to access ICT, it’s also about developing the skills and knowledge required to use it efficiently.

Monday, 30 April 2012

ML in museums

Mobile Learning is an efficient way of introducing educational material to non-traditional learning environments (e.g. bus stops, lunch breaks and that unbearable speech that drags on for hours). However, some of the most exciting applications of ML (particularly in the Arts) are taking place in very traditional environments – museums. Why?

-Museums are highly mobile environments.
Unlike classrooms or conference rooms, most museum displays require people to spend a lot of time walking around.

-Museums are great for learning...
They contain a wealth of artefacts and information that are directly relevant to most academic disciplines.

-...but learning doesn’t happen by itself.
Visitors need to be engaged with these artefacts and information, which is one of the biggest challenges of museums. ML has the potential to add an interactive element to the museum visit, attracting people to displays, presenting information in a new light, providing new tools for the interpretation of material and contextualising data to encourage further exploration. This is the principle of engagement through interaction.

-ML could help solve an old problem in museums.
Traditional information panels struggle to please all types of museum visitors (divers, swimmers and skimmers). ML can provide contextualised and personalised information – content at the point of interest. In principle, visitors can consume as little or as much of this content as they wish. Since the material is accessed through their mobile device, it does not take up precious space in display cases or the walls and it is easier and faster for the museum to update or replace the data.

-Most museums are keen on new technologies
Curators are generally interested in attracting lots of visitors and shedding the image of museums as stuffy, snooty temples of crystallised knowledge. Thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns, mobile devices are seen as fun and edgy. They appeal to young people and help stimulate the public’s imagination.

-ML makes sense financially
Visitors bring their own mobile device to the display (which reduces the upfront cost for the museum). In addition, mobile phone operative systems provide a ready-to-use infrastructure for the sale of content (e.g. Google Play, iPhone App Store, etc.).

-ML can be implemented on various levels
ML solutions can range from merely printing a few QR codes (which are free to produce and can be ready to use within minutes) to more sophisticated solutions (such as augmented reality apps, involving a team of coders, digital artists and months of preparation).

Image: CC by Conxa Roda

Sunday, 22 April 2012

ML: More with Less

When designing ML (mobile learning) solutions, the temptation can be to cut corners by simply cramming an existing resource (e.g. a website) into a smaller screen.

This often turns out to be a poor solution (as highlighted by the W3C Device Independence report) for several reasons, including:

  1. It leads to a poor navigation experience (due to incompatibilities with screen size, interface design, etc.)
  2. perhaps more importantly – using resources on the go is not the same as sitting at one’s desk (the priorities, needs and circumstances can be very different, therefore calling for different solutions)

When planning out a process of content adaptation for mobile interfaces, it can pay off to think critically about which elements to keep and what to omit, shuffle the order of things (based on mobile user priorities) and consider potential restrictions (e.g. sun glare, screen size, availability of internet signal, etc.). With mobile learning, the rule of the thumb tends to be: less is more.

Mobile learning – doing more with less. (Image: CC by OakleyOriginals.)

An example of a great adaptation from desktop resource to ML tool is the Open University library mobile site, which was updated earlier this year.

Based on a user consultation, consumer feedback and studies of user behaviour through Google Analytics, the mobile version of the Library website was revamped. Content was stripped down to offer only the most used services on the home page. New context-specific tools were implemented (e.g. SMS reminders) and the navigation experience was simplified by developing a consolidated search to bring together results from various sources.

Tools like MoFuse or GetMo might do a decent job optimising design and layout for mobile interfaces. However, as well as layout, it is important to think about the priorities, needs and circumstances of ML users, which often means getting the hands dirty and redesigning resources.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

If the mountain will not come to Muhammad...

When we think of the term “mobile” (as in mobile phones and mobile learning) we tend to imagine gadgets that we carry around with us, allowing us to do things like get connected to the internet, talk to each other, move our data from one place to another, and so on. However, according to some techie gurus, the future of “mobile” could be very different. They believe that in a few years time we might live in what they call “the internet of things”.

The idea is that, as micro-technology becomes more efficient and processors become cheaper, all sorts of household objects will have embedded network-enabled processors, giving them the capacity to access the internet and process information on our behalf. This means that, eventually, the material world we live in will become one big, interconnected place, bridging the divide between the real and virtual realms and, potentially, making smartphones, laptops, tablets etc. redundant. There won’t be a need to carry internet-enabled gadgets with us – the internet will be quite literally all around us.

Is this ever going to happen? Well, we’ve already developed things like internet TV sets (which are becoming fairly commonplace) as well as some flashier concepts, like remote controlled smart homes (allowing us, for example, to switch the heating on or off from work) and internet fridges (capable of placing a supermarket order on our behalf if we’re running low on yoghurt). These ideas have been around for a while, but they’re not quite taking the market by storm – I wouldn’t ditch your tablet just yet.

A smart fridge? Image: CC by saeru

What is much more likely to become a reality in the near future is near field communication (NFC). Applied to mobile technology, NFC means that your mobile device will emit short-range radio frequency onto a nearby receiver (say, a tag with a small embedded circuit). When the waves bounce back from this object, they will carry information that can be read by your device, thus establishing a two-way communication system. The principle is similar to the technology used by contactless credit card payment systems and anti-theft electronic tags in shops. The key advantage of NFC is that, unlike talking fridges and super high-tech conservatories, NFC receivers are very cheap (a museum or classroom could easily afford to plaster the place with hundreds of NFC tags). The first NFC-ready phone was the Nokia 6131 (released in 2006), so NFC is not quite cutting edge as far as the mobile phone industry goes. However, the technology is now being backed by some big players, including Google Wallet (yes, that’s the same Google that owns and runs Android), so we can probably expect to see a lot of NFC coming our way soon.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Augmented reality

Internet use grew rapidly across the more industrialised areas of the world during the 1990s. As the technology found its way into people's homes and offices, some users expressed unease about perceived clashes between the “real” world and that new virtual universe that we were creating (Neuromancer and Blade Runner were probably still fresh in everyone's minds).

Today we know that the divide between the virtual and the real worlds is not so clear-cut after all, and that, in fact, the most efficient uses of ICT involve combining virtual and real elements. Augmented reality (AR) is a good example of this. The technology involves representing the world (as perceived by humans) and adding an extra layer of computer-generated sensory input (such as sound, video, text, graphics or GPS data). This leads to something that is, well, more than real.

More than real? (Image: CC by Allan Warren).

The idea behind AR has been around for some time (e.g. Virtual Reality goggles, special effects, jet fighter displays, etc.) but mobile technology (and in particular smartphones) has allowed it to really take off in the last couple of years. The combination of portability with webcams, relatively fast data connections, GPS, decent processing power and a user base of potentially billions of people is bringing AR out of the IT labs and into parks, streets and museums all over the world.

AR has a plethora of applications in mobile learning. The technology allows us to convey information in a more engaging manner, highlighting interrelations between different elements (e.g. physical, spatial, conceptual, textual...). In addition, AR appeals strongly to the principle of experiential learning. For example, The Open University has produced an augmented reality app that allows users to explore ancient theatres by superimposing CGI layers of reconstructed architectural features on the images captured by the smartphone in real time as the user walks down the street. Similarly, MoL's Londinium app transports users 2,000 years back into Roman London.

Augmented reality is not only capable of superimposing images; we can also combine different media to produce new, powerful resources, such as the Portable Sign Language Translator, which identifies sign language gestures through the device's integrated camera, processes the images and then translates them into audible speech, allowing real-time conversations between deaf and hearing people.

AR is moving in exciting new directions and is likely to have a big impact on mobile learning in the near future. With the availability of authoring tools like Wikitude, some of the old obstacles (e.g. price and technological skill) are  much easier to overcome. Anyone (teachers, students, self-help groups...) can generate and share their own AR resource with little / no investment or training.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Learning by tinkering

Raspberry is the latest fruit to hit the IT market, and initial sales figures suggest that it is going to cause quite a stir. This is great news for mobile learning. Raspberry has been conceived from the outset as an educational tool, which is a breath of fresh air in the current IT landscape.
(Image: CC by Fir0002).

Today, the most widely used operative systems (MS Windows and iOS) not only don’t encourage customers to look under the bonnet – they have welded the bonnet firmly shut (and include causes in their EULAs threatening users with legal action if they attempt to have a sneaky peek by reverse engineering). The most popular forms of software are not powerful, highly scalable tools in a versatile commandline environment, but off-the-shelf apps where “configuration” means the option to change the screen’s background colour. Ironically, the deeper technology sinks into everyday life, the more remote it can come to seem.

Yes, downloading an app is much more convenient than compiling source code, and yes, most end-users would rather not have to churn out a custom-made Java script every time they feel like increasing the font size. However, this wealth of off-the-shelf IT solutions leaves us asking ourselves an important question: where is the next generation of programmers and IT engineers coming from? Where is the equivalent of that generation who keyed in their own scripts into a BBC Micro or an Amstrad? In the words of Raspberry’s creator, a Cambridge-based engineer, applicants for degree course places “[didn’t] seem to know enough about what a computer really was or how it worked… I found it worrying”.

Raspberry is designed to tackle this issue. It is portable, dirt cheap, and addresses a key aspect of mobile education: learning by tinkering. As illustrated by Marian Petre, playing and learning have an an important feature in common – they are construction processes. Building things, tinkering and generally messing about with things are some of the most powerful forms of discovery. They promote self-improvement, lead to challenge-based accomplishments and encourage reward-driven exploration.

One of the most surprising aspects behind the principle of learning by tinkering is that it often does not feel like learning at all. These activities work best as informal learning. In fact, the less structured and more rebellious the activity, the better. Cracking game licences, circumventing a school’s firewall policy or hacking into the teacher’s computer are just perfect.

Raspberry was designed specifically to foster learning by tinkering in relation to IT engineering. But the same principle applies much more broadly in mobile learning. Mobile devices provide access to a vast range of environments that have great potential for informal learning in the sciences and arts – social networking, games, media repositories, etc. Allowing students to tinker with these resources as part of an enquiry-based learning strategy can lead to the development of experimental and analytical skills, delivering experiential learning more efficiently than some traditional pedagogical methods.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A post-PC era?

Around about two years ago, Apple, IBM and a few other computer giants boldly proclaimed that the post-PC era was nigh. The world was going to go mobile and there was no way back. so, what's the score today?

PC sales have undoubtedly taken a big knock (and are expected to continue to fall in the long run). Manufacturers are avidly pushing tablets and smartphones into people’s homes, spurred by astronomical profit margins (potentially as high as 55.1%, compared to the <5% profit margins of desktops).

Many of the consumers who used their desktop computers to check e-mails and play MP3s at home realise that a smartphone or tablet will do this just fine. In addition, aggressive marketing campaigns have made some mobile devices a must-have fashion accessory (for instance, according to Design Milk, their new iPhone case is just divine). So the sale of tablets and smartphones is soaring, in detriment of desktop sales.

However, does this really spell the end of the desktop computer? Anyone who has battled with a trackpad for more than half an hour, attempted to type more than a page of text on an iPad virtual keyboard, considered the possibility of a hardware upgrade in a mobile device (you'll be lucky if you get to the iPhone's battery!), or tried to play anything more sophisticated than Angry Birds on a smartphone knows that the desktop computer is unlikely to be wiped out by a mobile device any time soon. Our computational needs are far too complex and varied to be successfully covered by a single device.

This raises an important point about mobile learning. Mobile learning will not replace more traditional pedagogical methods and media (and was never really intended to do so in the first place). Mobile Virtual Learning Environments and educational smartphone apps will not substitute textbooks or the relationship face to face with tutors. Instead, the strength of mobile devices in education lies in their capacity to allow students and teachers to complement the learning process (conceived in a broad sense), by addressing niche areas, such as:

-Reward-based approaches
-Asynchronous interaction
-Sporadic use / use of dead time
-Collaborative and group-based learning
-Exploration-based / self-learning approaches

When researching mobile learning solutions (and ICT-enabled education in general), it is easy for us to get carried away and confuse the medium for the message. This would be wrong – the focus should remain on learners and the totality of the learning process. Mobile learning is just a small part of a broader and more complex learning process. It will never cover all the educational needs of teachers and students, just like tablets and smartphones will never cover all the computational needs of all users all the the time.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

MWC 2012

Barcelona was the place to be last week. The 2012 Mobile World Congress (MWC), which has just come to an end, showcased technological advances, brought together the big – and not so big – players of the mobile industry for a few days and gave us a glimpse of what is soon to come to our nearest mobile shops.

At first glance, it is clear from all the displays and presentations that Android-based platforms are taking the market by storm, leaving proprietary systems such as iOS and Windows behind (as they are struggling to compete with the open source, community-based development model). Surprisingly (for a sector that is driven by fierce innovation and characterised by a trigger-happy approach to copyright infringement lawsuits), handset and interface designs are looking more and more similar. MWC 2012 was a sea of slim, black phones with large touchscreens populated by rows of colourful square icons – it takes a keen eye to distinguish one handset from another.

Under the bonnet, however, there are exciting developments. Forget the cliché “a smartphone is like a hand-held computer” – most of the smartphones displayed in MWC 2012 have in fact more processing power than the computers I use at work. Quad core processors and high resolution screens allow these new handsets to run fairly resource-intensive software. In addition, a proof of concept demonstration of 4G data connectivity achieved speeds of 1.429 gigabits-per-second, which puts broadband speeds to shame.

All this extra umph is opening up new and exciting possibilities. My personal favourite is the mobile-desktop hybrid idea. Since some smartphones are now powerful enough to run a full-fledged OS, developers are making them do just that. There is no need to go through the hassle of syncing your phone or trusting all your personal files to a cloud server located on the other side of the world. Instead, we can now carry our entire OS with us in our handset. Simply dock the phone into a laptop, desktop or any other compatible device wherever you go and boot up. When you’re done using it, slide the phone out and off you go. This is potentially a revolutionary response to the portability-display compromise.

With regard to content, things are not quite as rosy. Although MWC had planned for a good range of content-based displays and presentations (e.g. the App Planet, developers conferences, and even dedicated mobile learning sections), the level of innovation shown by mobile content struggled to match the level of attention devoted to processors and connection speeds. Android devices might be based on community-driven development models, but it is clear that when it comes to spending money on innovation, corporate interests dictate the agenda in a fiercely competitive market.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Smart accessibility in smart phones?

The Italian National Research Council will be hosting an International Symposium on Mobile Learning for Visually Impaired People this May. The programme covers a range of issues relating to mobile education, including pedagogical theory, interface design, innovations, and, of course, accessibility.

When it comes to accessibility, mobile devices have been something of a mixed blessing for people with disabilities. Projects such as The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative and Access World have been tracing the advantages and disadvantages of mobile phones for people with visual, hearing, mental and / or physical impairments.

What is clear from these reports is that the design and functionality of mobile devices (and therefore the opportunities and challenges associated with them) have changed dramatically in the last decade. For example, a few years ago there were concerns about phones becoming smaller (which caused difficulties for people with mobility and visual impairments). This is now obsolete, as the design of smart phones incorporates increasingly large screens. Similarly, a significant amount of research was conducted around the usability of keypads (which have now disappeared in most handsets).

Phones are undoubtedly getting smarter, but do smarter phones mean smarter accessibility? On one hand, people with disabilities have a new range of functions at the tip of their fingers: voice recognition, text-to-speech engines, and a large number of specialised apps. However, there is also a new set of obstacles. For example, navigating through complex environments with a touchpad can be cumbersome for people with visual and mobility-related disabilities. Users with hearing aids experience disturbances due to electromagnetic interference (EMI). Mobile devices are also increasingly interactive (which is part of their appeal and potential as educational tools!). Contents are meshed up and interface designs are moving away from the principle of one activity per window, building instead complex information landscapes (with multiple crossovers between different applications).

This adds layers of complexity to accessibility solutions designed to run in parallel to pre-existing interfaces. Perhaps accessibility solutions have been too much of an afterthought (i.e. bits of technology patched up with various degrees of success). The conclusion we are drawn to is that, when designing new mobile-based teaching tools, it would probably save us, and our end users, lots of headaches in the future if accessibility was conceived from the outset as a feature, rather than an add-on.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Open platforms at the Open University?

The Open University has been glamming up and getting the fancy frocks out for the launch of Apple’s new I-Tunes U app, a platform designed to provide mobile access to a vast catalogue of digital educational materials. The OU is playing a prominent role in the deployment of this new resource, providing more than half of the content uploaded to the repository so far.

-This is undoubtedly good news because...
  • It increases the OU’s outreach potential and consolidates the University’s reputation as a front runner in e-learning (particularly mobile learning), alongside other established higher education institutions like Yale, Stanford, Duke and MIT
  • Although Kindle and Android-based platforms are rapidly taking over market share, Apple is still a strong and valuable partner to work with, helping the OU to promote and further our educational mission.


The new I-Tunes U app has been stirring up a fair amount of controversy among bloggers. The reason is, as usual, a restrictive EULA. There are concerns that the authors of content uploaded to I-Tunes U might be losing control over their own material, as the platform dictates where and how the resource can be distributed. This, in turn, has led to fears of vendor lock-in, with users potentially finding that they will not be able to access certain resources unless it is done through a particular hardware – software combination.

Image: CC walknboston

Many current users of OU content will already be familiar with some of these issues. For example, course materials often include links to podcasts hosted in the OU I-Tunes U repository. Anyone who does not have an I-Tunes client installed in their computer will have to log on to an alternative OU podcast site (rarely linked to the course materials) and spend some time looking for the equivalent resource (which can sometimes feel like being made to sneak into someone’s dinner party through their backyard).

At the moment this could be considered a minor nuisance. However, if bloggers are right and the restrictive EULA of the new I-Tunes U app leads to increased risk of vendor lock-ins, it might be fair to start questioning the accessibility and shelf-life of the educational resources that we upload to the repositories.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Education in the Wild

Back in November, Elizabeth Fitzgerald of the Institute of Educational Technology, gave a coffee-morning presentation on the subject of “Location-based Learning: Education in the Wild”. Using her experience from various Mobile Learning projects in which she’s been involved, she explored the possibilities of augmenting human activity in context and adding value to locations or places with appropriate tools and materials. Two of the case studies were:

1. Students on location

This project assessed a variety of digital resources for supporting student learning about geographical landforms in the field. The resources ranged from the basic (computer-generated acetate) to the sci-fi-esque (a virtual reality head-mounted device). All suffered to various degrees with functionality issues: the acetate helpfully traced out landscapes but blew about in the wind; students could access information from the web through hand-held devices like mobile phones and tablet PCs, but not without screen visibility problems, poor connectivity and failing batteries; the head-mounted display offered the greatest potential for augmentation, but was technically complex, heavy, and not particularly hardened to the elements. The central point to have come across was the need for flexible, lightweight technologies that were easy to use. Even tech-savvy students didn’t have time for complex mapping apps.

2. Hidden Histories Tour of Nottingham

Taking a specific case study—the 1831 Nottingham Reform Riot (content was created by a local history group)—this project aimed to investigate how smart audio could be used to provide opportunities for learning in a public context. It involved a comparison of user experiences, between those on a tour led by a guide and those using only technology. This latter group had access to pre-prepared audio clips of relevant information that would be triggered when the user entered a particular zone. The findings indicate that users preferred the ‘human’ experience of a tour. It was not only the case that the technology (again) suffered from functionality issues (trigger regions often require the user to ‘hit’ a precise spot to activate the device); using the technology fundamentally changed the group dynamic. The users found themselves listening to their own mobile device rather than interacting among themselves, as frequently happens with a human tour-guide.

(For more information about the broader local history project, see: For more information, see http://peopleshistreh.wordpress.com/)

In both cases, ML technology can’t replace ‘being there’. Therefore, we need to find ways of getting the technology to offer something different without making it an individual sterile experience. In what ways can ML technology be used to encourage interaction and teamwork?

Monday, 2 January 2012

Bells and whistles in Mobile Learning?

Amazon has recently announced that Kindle, its ebook reader, has been topping the sales charts in the run-up to X-Mas for three weeks in a row. The results are especially significant when compared to Apple iPad sale figures – Amazon Kindle is currently outselling Apple's star tablet by 1,000,000 to 964,000 units.

The appeal of Kindle devices could be summarised in three points:

  • Most models are extremely simple. Kindle uses a minimalist interface that requires little or no training from the end user.
  • Most of them are truly portable. Most Kindle devices have a battery life of weeks (thanks to their low energy use). In addition, the 'E Ink' anti-glare screen technology allows users to read text in a broad range of environments – be it tucked in bed just before going to sleep or lying on a beach towel just before going for a piña colada.
  • Perhaps most importantly, they are cheap. In fact, so cheap that Amazon allegedly makes a small loss every time they sell a unit. Some Kindle devices cost more to produce than the price they are sold for. The business strategy followed by Amazon here is to secure as much market share as possible through the sale of cheap devices in order to make profits later on through the sale of digital content (i.e. Amazon ebooks).

It's still early days; however, if this commercial trend continues, the repercussions for mobile learning could be very significant. As university departments become increasingly starry-eyed with the possibilities offered by internet-enabled devices equipped with webcams, GPS sensors, gyroscopes, touchscreens, liberal amounts of internal memory and high definition audio, it is becoming hard to ignore the sobering statistics. The most popular – and fastest selling – ebook reader among young students (from GCSE level to undergraduate level) is not a high-end, versatile tablet with all the bells and whistles, but rather a simple, cheap device that is designed to do one thing – display black and white text and images.

Image: CC Clive Darr (modified).

Large scale academic publishers, who have a well-earned reputation for being able to sniff out financial opportunities from quite a distance, have already started to react to this trend. The most popular ebook format for academic textbooks is currently Kindle's .mobi file. (This format was originally developed by a company called Mobipocket, who were bought by Amazon in 2005.)

Those who design and deliver digital learning services, like the Open University, face a tricky decision. Should we invest in innovative formats and platforms that push the boundaries of mobile learning, or should we go along with the prevailing current trend and prioritise plain text and simple image formats?

On the one hand, avoiding all the bells and whistles might:

  • Allow mobile learning providers to reach out to a broader audience by tapping into the largest market share
  • Seem a sounder investment strategy in the short term. (Why pay for the development of content and services that most of your potential clients are unable to use in their devices right now?)
  • Improve digital accessibility. Plain text and simple images with descriptive captions are relatively easy to adapt to existing digital accessibility solutions (e.g. text-to-speech engines and versatile font renderers), whereas complex interactive elements are extremely difficult to access and navigate by users with a visual and/or hearing impairment.)

On the other hand, avoiding the bells and whistles might:

  • Result in a poorer learning experience from those users who are able to access the services. (Interactive and multimedia-rich educational resources are more efficient than plain text and black & white images at conveying complex ideas and helping students to meet learning outcomes)
  • Lead to a vicious circle in which users purchase the device that will allow them to access the largest amount of resources and producers generate resources in the format that will allow them to reach out to the largest number of users (thus creating a situation that stifles competition, promotes vendor lock-ins, and incentivises lack of innovation)
  • Represent a risky long-term strategy if/when innovation does arrive. Mobile technology evolves at a very high speed. Is the digital learning provider willing to lose their competitive edge when the technological boundaries shift and the bells and whistles become available to large sectors of their user base?

Various providers have already started to test the waters with affordable tablets and / or ebook readers that incorporate elements such as touchscreens and colour displays (e.g. Kindle Fire). These low-cost devices seem to have their fair share of glitches and they still aren't quite attractive enough to take over tablet market. However, it's worth keeping a close eye on developments in this area. With lower prices and further innovation (fueled by fierce competition in mobile technology), today's bells and whistles might soon become tomorrow's standard issue in a mass market.