Tom Franklin, Franklin Consulting
1 Introduction / motivation
Much has been written about mobile learning over the last few years, and its implications on the learning processes. Here I will look at what it might mean for a student in 2012 by exploring what they are doing and how they are doing it.
It is based on the assumption that computers and mobile phones will continue to become smaller and lighter and have improved battery life. I would expect students in 2012 to be expected to provide their own computing resources for everyday functions, with the institution providing some specialist equipment. Many students will have a fairly powerful desktop computer (costing perhaps £200), a smart phone / PDA (costing perhaps £100- £200). The smart phone would have a fold out or roll up screen somewhere between A4 and A5, would have all the functionality of a current laptop and would be able to connect to networks using wire, wireless (for instance in college) and using mobile phone technology (by then 4G or 5G probably offering around 5 Mbit/s). This would fit in their pocket and have a fold out keyboard as well as handwriting and voice recognition. It would also serve as a music and video player probably holding hundreds of hours of video, or thousands of hours of music.
Given the level of student fees by this stage it is possible that Universities will provide all students with this equipment so that they are all making use of the same equipment and are thus in a position to support each other.
To see what the impact of ubiquitous computing is we will take a look at a day in the life of a student in about 2012. This is a third year science student, so they are familiar with the set up and need little support.
2 A day in the life of a student in 2012
After breakfast John turns on his computer and logs in to the University portal to see what is new for the day. The computer reminds him that he has a piece of project work to write up by the end of the week, that an essay is due in in three weeks and he has not yet done any research for it yet. At this point it also tells him that three of the other people on the module are also online. He opens up a chat session (this might be text, voice or video) and asks them how they are getting on with their assignments. One of them recommends a particularly good reference to him, sending it as a text link directly to the article in the journal. John clicks on this, brings the article up and decides to download it onto his smartphone to read on the bus.
Now it is time to leave for his lecture, so he synchronises his smartphone with his desktop computer, picks up his bag and goes to the bus stop. As he is walking to the bus stop his smartphone beeps, with an urgent message to say that the lecture has been moved to a different room. On getting off the bus he walks past the library and his phone, knowing where he is, buzzes to remind him that there is a message from the library that the book he reserved is ready for collection. He decides that he has time, so he responds to the message and walks into the library, where in response to his message the robot has removed his book from the collection shelf, and as he walks passed the collection point it recognises his phone, checks his face against its image bank and gives him the book, and posts a message to his calendar with when it is due back.
On arriving at the lecture theatre he gets a cup of coffee, sits down and gets out his smartphone and keyboard. The Powerpoint presentation for the lecture is already loaded in, with an area for his notes next to each slide. The lecturer starts his discussion and after a few minutes asks for some feedback from the students, first a quick vote on how strongly they agree with some statements, and then short text answers. All the students use their smartphones to respond, first with a numeric vote and then with short text. In the middle of the lecture the lecturer brings up a spreadsheet and asks the students to do some work on this. After a few minutes he selects a couple of students and they project their work onto the screen for class discussion. The lecturer then continues with his talk, but one of the students thinks that what he is saying about a paper is wrong, so he emails the original author to ask what he meant, and gets a response 10 minutes later - which he forwards to the lecturer anonymously. The lecturer notices the comment and reads it out to finish his class.
After a cup of tea John goes into the laboratory to set up an experiment, and then goes home, re-synchronises his smartphone, thereby putting his notes onto his desktop machine. He has a videochat with a couple of his friends, and then his computer beeps to tell him that the first results from his experiment are available. He loads them up into a specialist web application and views them. From this he decides to make some changes to the experimental set up. He forwards these to his tutor (the machine the experiment is being done on cost £2,000,000 so the tutor likes to make sure that the students' proposed settings cannot cause any damage). These come up on the tutor's screen, and he decides to discuss them with John - so he starts a videochat with him. John records this so that he can go over it again afterwards if he wants to. They agree on new settings, and these are forwarded to the machine which makes the necessary adjustments and proceeds with the experiment.
John spends some time reading the book that he has just borrowed from the library, and decides to look up some of the references. He puts the reference page on his scanner, from the resulting image he clicks on the reference he wants to look up, the journal paper is fetched to his computer and the reference added to his database of consulted references.
He spends some time studying the paper, and making notes in the computer, and then from it calls up the original data on which the paper is based and puts the data into his analysis programme that he uses to try a different type of analysis. The computer warns him that the with a dataset that large the analysis will take several days, so he sets up a grid calculation on 600 of the University's computers and gets the results back 20 minutes later. He stores these in his electronic notebook, makes some notes on them and then forwards this to his tutor for comment, knowing that his tutor will have a look within 24 hours and either comment or tell him that he does not have the time to comment on this now.
3 Is this possible?
Is what has been described science fiction? No, it is not, almost everything that has been discussed above is already be done with current technology somewhere (the exception is the fold out screen). We already have all the other technologies, even if many of them are not being used in universities yet. What is different is that the technology is there, works and John does not have to think about it all the time, he just gets on with his studying, chatting to his friends and whatever else he needs to do.
4 What does it mean?
There have been suggestions over the last few years that many students are playing computer games, and come to university expecting learning to be like that. I have seen little evidence for this amongst the student population and do not believe that to be true for two reasons. Firstly I believe that university education is about analytic and synthetic thinking and computer games do not promote these in any sustained way and secondly it is not what students expect. They know that different things are appropriate to different contexts. The language of text messages (SMS) is different to spoken language or the more formal language of essays, dissertations or reports. They know that playing is different from working and do not expect them to be the same.
So, these technologies do not imply any form of "dumbing down", what they imply is a different approach to study, where people and information are more readily available. Almost any information the student needs will be instantly available online. They will be able to see which of their fellow students are online and engaged in related activities, and they will be able to communicate with them through video, voice and text. Sharing applications will be an easy and powerful way of getting help both from their peer group and from their teachers. It also means that it will be possible to look at the learning process as well as at the artefacts that it produces. This is worth exploring as it may have the greatest impact on learning (especially as assessment drives so much of the curriculum).
With few exceptions students are primarily assessed on the basis of the end result of their work - the essay, dissertation or project report, and not on the work that they did to get there. The notable exception is fine art where the studies and development undertaken on the way to the final artefact are an essential part of the assessment, and in some cases a student can do well even if the end result is a failure if the work along the way is interesting. We have not been in a position to see much of the work that students have done - we may see drafts of dissertations, but we don’t see anything that was a dead end and they haven’t included in the essay. Yet these are an important part of learning and helping the student to reflect on these would be very valuable. When learning is digitally supported it becomes possible for the student to share with their teacher part of the process they have gone through as well - all the references that they have looked at will be available whether used or not, and perhaps more important the ways in which they have searched for information can be shared, discussed and even assessed. The educational benefits are enormous, as it becomes possible to for teacher to understand students' learning processes and assess what they are doing rather than just the outcome.
However, because much that was implicit becomes explicit it also means that teaching staff will have to be clearer. In particular it will be necessary to be clearer about expectations; both what their expectations are and what the student can expect. for instance what support students can expect from them (when will they respond to email requests for help? instantly? once a day? twice a day?), what sort of feedback will be provided on the processes as well as the artefacts (if care is not taken then this can be a very time consuming process), what help can the students provide for each other. I have little doubt that the innovators will have to spend large amounts of time working these things through, and that it will be both manageable and exciting by 2012 when it is commonplace.