One of the big trends over the past few years is mLearning: Mobile Learning. As a subset of eLearning, mLearning is defined by the utilization of mobile devices: laptops, tablets, smart phones, and smart watches. Isn’t this just the same thing we’ve been talking about? As is often the case, yes and no. The platform for eLearning is simply the vehicle for delivering content; the platform in that context is irrelevant. Though one could immediately rank the ease of use for accessing an Internet portal between, say, a desktop computer and a smart watch. The power behind mLearning is not the mobile platform per se; the power of the various platforms is associated with how each is integrated into our increasing mobile personal and professional lives.
BACKGROUND: THE MOBILIZATION OF MEDIUMS
For our film aficionados, many will recall the scene from Annie Hall where the characters played by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are waiting for movie tickets only to be verbally assaulted by a person loudly expounding to his date the ideas of media guru Marshall McLuhan. After a short vitriolic argument, Allen draws forth Marshall McLuhan from behind a cardboard sign with the latter pronouncing that the loud bombast knew nothing of his ideas. In addition to a lesson in personal civility and avoiding humiliation, this vignette prompts one to investigate McLuhan’s ideas.
McLuhan’s best-known work is the book The Medium is the Message. Many intuitively translate its meaning to the following interpretation of the title: a given medium, for example, television, is superficial, so therefore messages from that medium are superficial. On a crude level, such an interpretation is interesting, but is entirely separate from McLuhan’s main argument. He argued that the medium for transmitting information does not per se impact the interpretation of the information; rather, “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern it introduces into human affairs.” McLuhan employs the example of the railway to argue his point. The railway does not create “transportation,” though “it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” The same, for that matter, can be argued about the uniform standardization of time, which facilitated commerce.
THE IMPACT OF MOBILE TECHNOLOGY
- Oh how we love our technology! Let me (and us) count the ways!
- Remote Access
- Centralization and Integration of Tasks
- Expansion of Possibilities
- Technological Independence versus Interdependence
- Remote Monitoring and Supervision
- ???????? . . . ????????
- What are your ideas?
Instead of going into great detail about any of these issues, let’s just pause for a moment and think about a single change it has generated in our lives.
If you’re old enough, remember the time when children—or the vast majority of adults—did not have cell phones. When working as a contractor in the defense industry, a colleague shared with me his disgust of a very select number of individuals who used their bulky cell phones while waiting in rush hour traffic. At this time, virtually nobody had cell phones due to the cost or the perceived need. To mock those individuals, he tied a plastic child’s phone to his rear view mirror and used it when aside one of Washington’s movers and shakers in earnest conversation.
The introduction of mobile technology has vastly revolutionized our collective personal and professional lives (and psyches). Before one might have to track down a payphone to inform a colleague he or she was going to be late to a meeting due to traffic; now one simply calls using their cell phone—hands free, mind you! One could spend pages if not books discussing the implications of the transformations of our lives due to mobile technology.
Now, truly, it’s hard to imagine life without a smart phone no less a cell phone in general. If one does not have one, then the most common response is to reflexively judge that the non-use is either old or has something wrong with her or him. It’s not surprising with this overwhelming system of belief that a backlash has arisen sponsoring an array of products favoring “slow” living.
IMPACT ON EDUCATION: mLearning
O.K.! We’re back to mLearning!! So how has the advent of mobile technology changed the “scale or pace or pattern” of education? Like eLearning, the advent of mobile technology has further de-centered the classroom from a fixed site. Instead of coming to the “one-room classroom” governed in style and content by an instructor, mobile technology has added a variety of different sources for content and platforms for accessing it. Moreover, the variety of sources has empowered learners to question and challenge the value of received content from their instructors. In short, the ease of accessing information has impacted the student-teacher dynamic and has impacted, more importantly for our purposes, the style of learning, which is no longer classroom-centered.
To begin to appreciate the impact of mLearning, one only needs to recall the dynamics of the “Flipped Classroom.” Yet, mLearning has a number of facets not present in the “standard” flipped classroom.
A. The Daily Use of Mobile/Personal Technology
Given the omnipresence of personal technology, let’s enumerate the way it is used in our daily lives:
- Waking up in the morning
- Scheduling our days
- Reminding users of time-based tasks
- Capacity for constant communication
- Bio-metric monitoring
By definition, mobile technology is used when one is “on the move” and not tethered to a desk-based computer station. One can be driving in her or his car, one can be sitting in a bus or metro, one can be a lunch, one can be, one can be, one can be . . . In short, mobile technology has been completely integrated into virtually every single aspect of our waking life, which as noted, has become increasing mobile. So, what are the opportunities for eLearning in this context?
B. Opportunities for eLearning: mLearning
- Alternative Remote-Based Sites. Given the portability of laptops or even tablets, a learner can access a web-based portal to access information anywhere there is an Internet connection. In fact, a learner can almost always connect to the Internet using a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection from one’s smart phone. In this context, opportunities for sustained mLearning are created in areas other than the classroom or the home.
- Transient Access. Think about accessing audio and/or textual content while driving a vehicle or in transit sitting in public transportation. These are the obvious opportunities and can be engaged in a sustained fashion, albeit often for shorter periods of time than when at a fixed-based learning site. What are some others?
- When the learner is driving, a colleague or friend can serve as a veritable educational co-pilot, and even transforming transient access into an alternative remote-based site during longer trips
- mLearning can take place in transit when the content can be accessed using audio information. The value here is creating a backdrop of content that can engage the consciousness and cognitive functions through simple though repeated exposures
- Anecdotal Access. How many times during the day do we simply look at our mobile technology for reasons other than that associated with eLearning? Many, many, and, for some, too many! In short, most individuals are tethered to their devices; in fact, a colleague named Kori told me her cell phone is her life. (Don’t judge; it’s a generational thing LOL! If fact, I joked that I “saved her life” when I once found her cell phone.) Regardless, an opportunity exists for mLearning each of the times we access our mobile technology.
C. Styles of mLearning
- Standard Web-Based Portal Access. This is the conventional style, which by its nature does not require discussion.
- Micro-Learning. We already have discussed micro-learning in the past. However, with the advent and increasing impact of mobile technology, the task for eLearning administrators will be developing content packages that are appropriate for different lengths of time, et cetera.
- Audio Content. Audio content currently exists in the form of recorded lectures and podcasts. However, as the technology advances, text-to-speech converters will become commonplace and will be utilized to access traditional text during transient moments.
- Flash Cards. An old friend of mine, David Margulious, was co-founder of the Quizlet start-up, which uses the “flash card” concept in eLearning. Flash cards are great ideas! In fact, I recently used old-fashioned paper flash cards when learning menu descriptions at a restaurant (long story LOL!). Anyway, using flash cards in a site-based setting is great, and opportunities for personalizing and sharing information sets are huge.
Imagine this though: using the flash card concept through an app that pops up whenever you access your mobile technology, think accessing your smart phone or smart watch. In order to check your e-mail or to read your text, the user is prompted to answer a single, quick flash card query. In this context, mLearning is completely integrated into the uses of a variety of mobile technologies.
Next time we’ll discuss a variety of eLearning issues. Stay safe and warm!
Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist