Why mobile won’t matter

Note: This is a cross-post from a guest blog post I authored for Next Gen Learning Challenges.

Mobile devices, like cell phones, smart phones, and tablet computers, stand to make significant changes in the ways in which teaching and learning can happen.  But there are some significant obstacles that have the potential to make mobile learning’s impact nearly nil.  Here’s five reasons that mobile won’t matter.

1.The “Off” button.

Cell phones have become ubiquitous. Tomi Ahonen’s keynote at mLearn Con documents just how much this is true.  The most startling viral message from this presentation: Worldwide, more people have mobile plans than toothbrushes. In the US, 75% of American teens have cell phones and almost 30% have smart phones with Internet capabilities.  In college, the numbers appear to be much higher (e.g., cell phones, smart phones). Plus, we’ve recently heard that the iPad’s adoption rate is faster than even that of DVD.

Unfortunately, in schools the most common response to cell phones is to turn them off.  One of the most pervasive and persistent barriers to meaningful technology integration with learning has continued to be a lack of access to technology.  However, with cell phones and smart phones, educational institutions finally may not have to foot the bill for a one-to-one technology initiative.  In fact, there is growing evidence that data use, such as access to the Internet and text messaging, is becoming as important or more important than voice capabilities.  Also, a substantial number of white and minority students use smart phones as their only home access to the Internet. If our singular response to these devices is to require they remain off, we have missed a substantial opportunity.

2. Assessment tunnel-vision.

Remaining solely focused on objective assessments limits the possibilities for teaching and learning. Sticking with multiple choice test questions on mobile devices, that is strictly using the device as a delivery mechanism for assessment questions, promotes the devices as one-dimensional. Using the multimedia capabilities of mobile devices, such as photo and video capture, offers learners the opportunities to represent their knowledge in multiple appropriate ways.

Moreover, this moves us away from a one-directional vision of teaching, where the teacher pushes instructional content out to the student, the student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response. Instead, we are moving toward a project-based learning approach, where students are able to create artifacts to demonstrate their learning.  Using mobile computing devices as creation tools can open the possibilities for representing students’ learning.

3. Drill and practice persists.

Using mobile devices for drill and practice, pejoratively referred to as drill and kill software, is limiting as well.  Much of the technology integration research from the 1990s and the first decade of this century has reported that drill and practice software is prevalent in classrooms today. While drill and practice software applications offers learners to memorize factual knowledge, reducing cognitive load and response rates, simply using apps to practice is insufficient.

One of the significant advantages that one-to-one initiatives offers is the ability to adapt instruction for individual learners.  Similar to the selective release options available in course management systems, providing specific students with remedial content and practice or advanced students with additional learning opportunities is possible by delivering the learning content directly to the individual’s device.  MOBL 21 is one of the first applications of this I’ve seen, as you publish content specific to individual learners.  However, as more CMSs become mobile-ized (for example, Blackboard Mobile Learn), the selective release features of these systems will also be able to be leveraged.

4. Believing it’s only for instruction.

While potentially powerful, believing that mobile computing devices are strictly delivery mechanisms to access learners outside of class time will also make mobile learning less meaningful.  Mobile technologies and the apps that are available on them have the potential to significantly change the way people work — beyond communication.

These devices and apps are mobile electronic performance support systems. Moving aside from the uber-obvious world of corporate business, mobile computing offers frontline vocational and trades workers access to significant support.  These apps provide just in time scaffolding to help individuals perform at higher levels and more efficiently. For example, ICD-9 On the Go offers quick access to medical billing codes and a number of other features, and Builder Pro provides over 400 formulas used by contractors and access to building codes as well.

5. Textbooks = mobile content.

In the early days of the web and the early days of elearning, many believed we could publish existing legacy documents.  In elearning, we referred to these as “shovelware,” because all folks did was use a big shovel to to pick up as much content as possible and shove it onto the Internet.  However, we have learned that learning content must be designed and segmented appropriately.  We’ve learned that content should take advantage of the medium.  I hope we’ve learned from these mistakes.  We cannot simply take our textbook content and port it to mobile devices.

In a recent post, I questioned the current definitions of mobile learning.  A comment from Dr. Chuck Hodges, a colleague at Georgia Southern University, suggested, “Mobile learning requires certain design elements and certain context of use elements.”  Inkling (iTunes app page) is one of the first examples that has taken this to heart. Taking advantage of the iPad, Inkling provides both content and embedded media along with navigation and annotations. Moreover, textbooks and instructional content should be available in a variety of formats available for reuse across multiple mediums and devices.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive.  What other elements must change for mobile computing devices to matter?  What have I not considered?  Please contribute to the discussion in the comments below.

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