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, 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.