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.

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.