A Question of Definition…

Posted: November 4, 2007 in georgesiemens, markprensky, mobilelearning
Tags: , ,

What the heck is mobile learning anyway? In order to get frame the conversation in this blog, I think that it is important that we first develop a mental framework for what it is that we are talking about in the first place. First of all, we need to clarify terms. Mobile learning is sometimes referred to mLearning or m-Learning or Mobile eLearning. Personally, I want to stay away from these terms because I think we have enough acronyms in education and adding another will just continue this legacy of needless jargon and unnecessary confusion. By their very nature, professional acronyms excludes wider a understanding and conversation as only a select group of individuals are privy to their meaning. I’ve overheard a number of parent/teacher conversations iover the years where the teacher is regurgitating a number of acronyms and the parent nods with apparent comprehension but ultimately has no clue as to what the teacher is saying. This, however, is for another time…

So I’m going to call it what it is – Mobile Learning. So what does Mobile Learning mean? I don’t know whether we can quantify a specific definition that is all encompassing but I think we should stick with the idea that mobile learning is about using digital devices as tools to learn interactively wherever one finds themselves and whenever one wants to learn. Sure, mobile learning is about convenience – kids can review notes while their parents drive them to after school activities or while on the bus. However, in defining mobile learning, the focus cannot be on convenience but upon effectiveness. These tools must be effective if they are worth incorporating them into student learning environments. Let’s look at it more as an assistive technology for everyone.

Where is the place of mobile learning in the classroom? While this is quite a large question that I will probably deal with in a later post, let me mention here that the dream of having one computer per child in classrooms is dead. What killed it? Economic realities. Please feel free to disagree with me but with the advent of Web 2.0 tools and the Wi-Fi enabled iPod Touch with a full-featured web browser, who needs a $1200-$1800 laptop when the same needs (namely, a device that allows for two-way, multimedia communication) can be met with a $300-$400 iPod? With computers, the initial costs are high, maintenance costs are high and the machines become obsolete quickly. Handheld devices, however, are much more portable, much less expensive, and most importantly, students already posses them! As a result, school costs can come down dramatically if we tap into valuable assistive technologies that students already bring to the classroom everyday.

While Mark Presnky may be falling more and more out of favour these days , as can be seen in this article challenge to Prensky’s natives/immigrants idea by George Siemens, I nevertheless want to point you to a keynote speech that he made at Handheld Learning 2007 as a segment into Mobile Learning and why it is important.

You can find it here.

  1. Leonard Low says:

    Hi Rob, and welcome to the world of mobile learning. 🙂 I think your definition of mobile learning sits quite comfortably with those previously offered by Professor Mike Sharples and the UK’s Futurelab, who tend to favour definitions of mobile learning in terms of the mobility of learning, rather than the mobility of technology – a “learner-centric” definition, and paradigm.

    However, I don’t think that the “dream” of one computer per child is dead – yet. Laptops fulfil a slightly different purpose to mobile/handheld devices in terms of their role in learning; and they’re nowhere near as different in price to mobile devices as you’ve described. The newly-released Asus EEE laptop, for example, sells for US$300-$500, while it’s common to find brand-name laptops here in Australia for A$600-$700 now (about US$550-$600).

    Apart from the price, laptops provide a significantly differnt way to interact with information. Whereas on a mobile device I can only see and do one thing at a time due to the size of the screen, a laptop enables me to have multiple tasks running at once – for example, I currently have a music player running in the top right of my screen, while I’m typing this comment in your blog, while I’m watching Twitter and my Google Reader in the window to the left of this one. 🙂 Furthermore, I can customise a laptop with the software I need to accomplish various tasks; not so with many mobile devices (though this is changing), and especially not with the example you provided, the iPhone, which is opening up to 3rd party apps, but still to be regulated and controlled by the money-making engine that is Apple Inc. I wasn’t happy about the iPhone (or Touch) when they were released (http://mlearning.edublogs.org/2007/09/06/dont-be-dazzled/), and I’m still hoping they evolve to become more open – as the Google Phone OS, Android, promises to be.

    So I see a place for computers (and, in particular, laptops) in education for at least the next ten years; though I do agree with you that mobile, handheld devices will have an increasingly important role to play.

    There are already terrific case studies of the use of handheld devices for situated learning; learning in informal learning settings such as museums and galleries; and the use of mobile devices for assessment… and there are more approaches being tried and documented all the time.

    There are challenges, too… but we educators are fast figuring which ones can be worked around and which ones can be overcome, to provide more engaging and effective learning opportunities.

    It’s a terrific frontier of educational technology, and I look forward to investigating the many issues with you in the future.

    Kind regards,
    Leonard Low
    (The Mobile Learning Blog, http://mlearning.edublogs.org)

  2. Rob De Lorenzo says:

    Hi Leonard,

    Thank-you for your warm welcome. I too look forward to investigating the uses of handheld technology in education with you and with others.

    Your point about laptops is well taken. In addition to Asus EEE, I’ve been reading about Wal-Mart’s $200 USD laptop that is running a Linux-based operating system called gOS. With the value of the US dollar falling at such a rapid pace, $200 USD is even cheaper than it would have been even a year or two ago. Nevertheless, while I do not argue with you over the usefulness of having one laptop per child, I challenge you to show me even one example, despite a decade worth of political rhetoric (at least in North America), of where there is even one school district that has one laptop per student. I don’t believe that the “failure” of this project is the result of a lack of desire, just one of expense. Mobile devices, I’m sure you will agree, offer a much cheaper, but not necessarily a less effective, alternative.

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