Glass orb with reflection of the landscape in it

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?

6 thoughts on “What's in a name?

  1. I would say that the age of the linux based netbook is now over.

    The netbook as envisgaed by Asus and imitated by others, is now effectively dead. Most netbooks you buy now are effectively normal laptops, maybe a little smaller…

    So what does this mean for learners and learning?

    A fair few learners did buy netbooks, but many more bought traditional laptops, as they preferred the “better” user experience over the netbook. Netbooks for most users were as a second computer; learners were more likely to have a single computer and needed something more powerful. Netbooks often did not have the power to deal with media-rich learning content. However the death of the netbook means that there is not the choice that learners did have.

    I agree though that the use of smartphones and similar handheld devices have potential to enhance and enrich the learning experience. Apps on the iPhone and Android show how easy it can be to interact and communicate now through web sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Can we use similar functionality through institutional systems such as the VLE?


  2. I do know what you mean re. death of linux based netbooks – took me some time to track one down when I wanted one (and with a Flashdrive, not hard drive). I don’t use it that much – though when I do, I wonder why I don’t use it more often!
    Quite a lot of our students seem to have (at least for lectures!) small netbooks, though most, on asking are Windows, rather than Linux based.

  3. Perhaps we have been through another process of device convergence?

    Laptops were originally designed for office workers who began to need access to a PC whilst out of the office on business or for visiting clients, etc. They then needed access back to the office network in order to send and receive emails or access files – which is where remote access came in (dial-up) Now, you can simply connect up a 3G dongle or connect via a guest WiFi connection. The physical laptop has remained much the same shape & size – though much lighter and more powerful.

    Mobile phones developed on similar lines – the need for freedom of movement. Over time, mobiles became smaller, though with the rise of extra features and media-rich content, mobiles began to increase in size once more – largely due to screen requirements.

    In the meantime – we have web/net books. What are they? Well, are they a small laptop? Are they a new breed of computer? I think, as James has pointed out – they were initially intended to be a cheap WiFi enabled Internet device. However, manufacturers determined that people actually wanted a smaller laptop, rather than a net book – so manufacturers created a smaller version of a laptop – small form factor, increased power. Net books grew, both in terms of sales and physical size (people began to want a larger, more practical screen).

    Now – what do we have? Manufacturers developing a web book/laptop/mobile hybrid.
    It’s simply a logical convergence of technology – blending together a physical device which is small enough to be mobile, but large enough to be practical.

    Oh yes. I don’t really care what the device is called – so long as it does the job and it does it well. Just don’t get me waffling on about Operating Systems… 😉


  4. I will be interested to see how this develops; in schools, it’s an area we’re also beginning to look into (though the school is keener than the IT section). So many of the pupils have such sophisticated devices now we should be tapping in to the potential.

  5. Oohh… good to see you, Elspeth! When I see you soon, I can talk gadgets with you! (And I’m sure Janine & Charlotte will join in!)
    By the way, if I change one of my units as I’m thinking (see previous post), I might be calling on you for some ideas. 🙂

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