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.

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.