Handheld learning ’09

I attended the final day of the Handheld Learning Conference on Wednesday. The event promoted some of the innovative applications of mobile devices in education but also highlighted research into the effectiveness of these applications and the impact of technology on both society and teaching and learning.

Firstly, stating the obvious, mobile devices give people access to a wide range of functions and communities from wherever they happen to be. Consequently the boundaries between work and leisure are blurring and our lives are more fluid. This presents the education sector with a number of challenges – there is a need to engage differently with students who are used to acquiring information from a wide range of sources at their fingertips and who behave in a very different way from the traditional model. Universities and colleges are, however, geared towards mass production which tends to push towards controlled environments. It was suggested that the trend is to still want devices tailored to specific requirements; this trend may prevent convergence in mobile devices with the result that universities won’t be able to buy a single device to meet all the possible uses of mobile technology. It will be interesting to see whether convergence happens as a result of competition in the market or whether the suppliers will seek to maintain niche positions.

A number of presentations highlighted that, in spite of the pervasiveness of mobile phones, technology still seems to be something of an inhibitor. This was evidenced by a number of case studies. In one, where a single PDA was being used for field work, the one person who was familiar with the technology took control of the device and as a result rather over influenced what was supposed to be group work. In another example, the learning curve for the devices being used on a field trip was so steep that the students reverted to using pen and paper to record data. The presentations offered little in the way of evidence of the beneficial use of mobile devices on field trips. Whilst this could be due to the difficulty of use, it could equally be due to technology leading to different social interactions between the users of devices in field work.

Away from field work, several presentations highlighted the benefits of mobile technology in education. At Abiline Christian University iPod Touches and iPhones were introduced to groups of students and faculty members. The result was that the faculty started experimenting with usage and developing applications. The students felt more engaged with their teaching and felt that group working improved as a result. They were also more likely to attend class. The improvement in student engagement was also highlighted by the faculty members. There remain sceptics though and what the Abiline presentation picked out was that there was need for greater research on the impact of use of mobile devices, measured against control groups to convince the doubters.

Use of mobile devices is not just restricted to learning; they can be deployed to support students. There was one company present at the conference that had developed a number of applications for the iPhone which could interact with institutional systems and GPS to provide information to the student. The Open University adopted a more blended approach, deploying SMS texting, social networks and audio depending on the use. It was interesting to note that the OU’s students took so readily to receiving information by text when some institutions have reported that their undergraduates see their mobile phone as personal space which they don’t want invaded by their institution. The OU had come up with some interesting solutions. They had used audio in a number of ways including a course welcome, FAQs and for pre-exam stress busting.

Overall , an interesting and varied day. The session closed with an awesome presentation from Ray Kurzweil – I won’t attempt to summarise what he had to say largely because my words probably wouldn’t do it justice!

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