What's in a name?

I’ve recently been involved with an email based discussion with other colleagues about aspects of “mobile” learning. There are various things we’ll be looking at, such as capabilities devices that students actually have, technical developments etc., and, the aspect I personally feel is crucial

…the pedagogical issues involved when delivering learning material on small form-factor devices

At the same time as answering the various messages that were flying around I read the 2010 Horizon report(pdf) – which has as “One year or less”, Mobile Computing. I then read a little further and noted that part of mobile computing is the area we’re interested in (small form factor), but it also encompasses wireless access in general.

The available choices for staying connected while on the go are many — smart phones, netbooks, laptops, and a wide range of other devices access the Internet using cellular-based portable hotspots and mobile broadband cards, in addition to wi-fi that is increasingly available wherever people congregate.

I therefore wondered if “Mobile” was the correct word for the group, and asked around. One suggestion was that “personalised” would be better, though my own view on that is that a student could have a “personalised” learning experience on the latest gaming machine with 2 24″ monitors – or her new android powered phone (clearly a rich student!); so it’s even more generic (though something, alongside aspects such as encouraging staff / students to make best use of OERs that should be being done anyway. )

My preference had been for “handheld”, so I asked on Twitter. Initially the answers had pointed towards “handheld” – possibly due to the leading nature of my posts! Simon Brookes included the point I’d forgotten – though would have known had I thought about it – about the frequent lack of keyboard. However, later in the evening, Jon Trinder and James Clay joined in, and the discussion swung back towards “mobile” (or learning mobility – which was Andy Black’s suggestion) – with the additional point that in that case a “mobile device” could be the coffee shop!.

In the case of UoP, I feel that we’ve already addressed many aspects of “mobile learning”. The wireless network is pretty ubiquitous (from talking to people at other Universities, it’s one of the most extensive), all our coffee shops (and, whether by accident or design, several local non-University ones) have it; we have both an encrypted and (more recently) non-encrypted option (I can now get the OLPC on it :)). We also have it in most teaching areas. So far, I’ve not heard that any academic staff have prevented students using laptops in lectures. There’s also a pool of loan laptops in the library. So, we’ve got good support and understanding, I think, for wifi access from laptops that are running reasonably recent versions of Windows (2000/XP/Vista/7), Mac OSx+. There are probably a few linux users – but the chances are they’re relatively geeky and installed it themselves. (The main drawback that I see to this is the lack of powersockets where you happen want them!)

The new group, however, is looking at netbook & smaller devices so:

  • huge range of OSes (and is more likely to include novice computer users with linux based netbooks);
  • small screen
  • limited input options
  • access via wifi or 3G

That’s why I feel that the word “handheld” is, in this case more appropriate – and could guide us when considering “the pedagogical issues involved when delivering learning material on small form-factor devices.” (by default, I’m assuming we’re thinking about using them to get students involved via discussion etc., as on paper, “delivering” could be seen as one way). There’s also raising staff awareness; most are, as I’ve already said, tolerant of laptops on desks. Most assume that phones on desks = (non-academic related) texting!
Any other comments?

Laptops vs. Computer labs

Several in the blogosphere have pointed to the Ars Technica report this week about the decision of the University of Virginia to re-think computer labs, after only 4 new students arrived sans computer (didn’t state if they were laptops or desktops).

Naturally, the reaction was mixed – mostly anti the decision; based on aspects such as weight, printing, specialist software etc. Views I generally agree with.

However, there have also been increasing numbers of reports of individuals/ departments banning the use of laptops in class. (None that I’ve seen so far from Virginia). So we have an interesting dilemma; some would prefer students to have laptops on campus, but not everyone wants them to use them.

As far as I know, no UK universities have yet thought of removing open access computer space, nor have I heard of any banning students from using laptops – though mobile phones tend to be frowned on – presumably because most assume students are texting social messages, ignoring  the fact they can be used for internet access; for translation tools [international students]. I tend to restrict myself to a glare when the things actually ring. (The student is generally to busy turning it off in an embarassed manner to notice!)