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Editorial: m-Learning - the 'New Big Thing'

Graham Lewis, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

Handheld information and communication technologies are changing the way people both interact and access and work with information. These devices are becoming smaller, cheaper, better, and more connected.

Some restrict the term m-Learning to handheld devices but really this is a short term view as existing 'portable' devices shrink to handheld size and, almost as fast as new types of devices appear, they begin to borrow functionality from existing devices so that there are fewer sharp divisions between laptops, PDAs, mobile phones, mp3 players, digital Dictaphones and others.

The quality of live video connections between mobile phones is improving rapidly.  The next generation of Bluetooth technologies that allow wireless connection of peripheral such as mice and keyboards to PCs will allow devices to transfer data so efficiently that you may be carrying around a whole family of mobile devices all talking to each other and connected to the internet.

In the first decade of the 21st century, mobile information and communication technologies are the new 'Big Thing'.

As the functionality of devices blurs so it becomes easier to use the same learning resource in many ways with documents and media files being moved easily from one device to another and the division between e-Learning and m-Learning becomes less clear.

The technologies in this highly market-driven sector are racing ahead much faster than we can realise their full potential for learning.  Before we can 'internalise' the new developments we are swept away on a tide of something else.  Some individuals cling to specific developments an do well with them but most of us are swept along bouncing from one 'Big New Thing' to the next and never really getting  a firm grip on anything. As with e-Learning, we need to think carefully about how m-Learning a fits into the mix of approaches available to us.

One of the limitation of e-Learning is that it still is not actually 'anytime, anywhere'.  You need to be sitting at a computer and often have to have a good fast physical internet connection.  m-Learning, offering the chance of overcoming this barrier and so is a natural extension of e-Learning.

Memory, processing speed and storage are all improving but it is difficult to see how the limitation of small screen displays can be overcome.  For on-the-job and just-in-time training, Information for sales people etc, these devices have already proven themselves.  Where learning can be 'chunked' into conveniently sized learning objects, they clearly have a place but for the higher level learning we aspire to in higher education, we need more than electronic books.

It has to be said that in this m-Learning is little different from e-Learning; while e-Learning still offers opportunities to support higher level learning, largely through the C in ICT, to date the main application has been at the training level within higher education.

The potential for m-Learning to support inclusion and lifelong learning was also one of the rallying calls of e-Learning a few years ago.  It may be that m-Learning will be more effective in this regard - Like cars and televisions, regardless of income, the mobile phone at least, has become an indispensable item in the modern world reaching a much wider population than the personal computer.  Perhaps mobile phones are considered more personal technology, more an extension of ourselves than PCs.

However, it may be this very personal nature of mobile devices, the range of functionality and speed of change that makes it difficult for educators to adapt learning resources so that they can be used by all students.  A large percentage of students have mobile phones but they change them frequently.  Even if the University were to provide a standard device, it would be embarrassingly out of date in a very short time and so probably not used. 

Over the last decade, several educational institutions, particularly in the USA, have experimented with simply providing all incoming students with laptops or PDAs and there is some pressure here at Warwick to move in that direction.  The Medical school at South Dakota issues all new students with a Palm pilot preloaded with useful information and runs courses on its use. Interestingly, the success stories with this approach tend to centre around administration and personal management and some interesting projects in accessing library catalogues.  This could be put down to the limitations of early PDAs but to move from information retrieval and organising to effective learning requires a depth of thinking that is rare even in the wider community of e-Teaching.

Mobile devices can not only deliver learning resources and allow learners to communicate asynchronously and synchronously but can also be used by students to capture experiences in formats from text to video.  Such experiences can be posted immediately to a web site.  In this as in many other areas of learning technologies, it seems the schools are ahead of the universities and there are a number of published case studies of school children using PDAs in field trips.  Here at Warwick the use of mobile devices for use as data capture devices in research is being explored in Biological Sciences.

But how mobile is mobile?  If you are attending a lecture and using a wireless tablet PC to send a sketch to be displayed on the data projector or voting via SMS on your mobile phone, the results again to be displayed to the whole lecture theatre as a bar chart, are you engaging in m-Learning?  m-Learning like e-Learning is a temporary category which as it becomes more common place will be absorbed into the general category of learning.

Accompanying the new term m-Learning is the term m-Teaching.  Many lecturing staff now bring a laptop to a lecture or seminar instead of a case full of lecture notes, acetates and projector slides.  Video on DVD or CD or streamed from a server is replacing the video cassette.  m-Teaching might be defined as making use of m-Learning opportunities but also might describe the way teachers themselves work - marking an assessment via a laptop on a train then emailing the administration with the marks and the student with comments or videoconferencing with a class from a patio in France.

Educators and students need to be taking advantage of these emerging technologies to enhance learning but perhaps the mistake we make is to see all 'New Big Things' as revolutionary and transformative.  We are encouraged to think this way by those who wish to ride technological waves for career or commercial reasons and are regularly disappointed at how little impact there actually is.  Perhaps we should instead see the technologies as making things just that little bit easier - with a PC you can access al the lecture notes on your course, with a PDA, you can carry a few dozen text books in your pocket.

In this edition of Interactions, Daciana Iliescu and Evor Hines from the department of Engineering at Warwick writes about a Teaching Development Fund supported project to develop an SMS (texting) system that enables students to both  receive notifications and to 'vote' both within and outside lectures.

John Traxler from the University of Wolverhampton provides an excellent review of the state of m-Learning and points to a host of useful resources.  These and others can also be found in the resources section of this edition.

Finally Tom Franklin shows us a vision of the perhaps not so distant future of university life.


Graham Lewis
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7657 2737

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