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Mobile Learning in Higher Education

Multiple connections in customized learning spaces

The term "Nomadic" has been used to describe the current college students' culture of wireless and mobile connectedness in the sense that they are not "rooted" but incredibility flexible and fluid when it comes to their social connections and their virtual life culture.  This refers not only to their uses of social networking tools but also to the reality that they are connected wirelessly in any situation and for any reason.  They are essentially nomads when it comes to their life "space."  

Bryan Alexander, in his article, Going Nomadic: Mobile Learning in Higher Education (2004) says, "More broadly, mobile and wireless computing has altered the rhythms of social time and has changed uses of social space." (p.28)  Within higher education, instructors are beginning to realize the impact of this both positively and negatively in creating communities of learners within their courses.  Students bring to the course an extensive network of information input, peer connections, and the potential of a wider scope of application than what has been the case until now.  The negative side of things is the challenge of "managing" not only the multitasking of the students but their insistence upon continual connectivity even when participating in a physical learning space with an instructor and other physical peers around them.  Some instructors have seen this as something to be controlled through disabling access for the duration of the class while others are trying to integrate this reality into the learning environments (Alexander, 2004).

Whether you choose as a professor to exclude the connectivity from your classroom or to include it, there exits the potential of creating learning communities with broader impact than ever before possible and this can bring wonderful enhancement to any course of study or academic field.

From Linear to Customized
Most of us as higher education faculty were taught to think in a linear flow and were taught thoroughly how to progress logically from one stage of the flow to the next.  In fact, much of our expertise was established when we had an exhaustive knowledge of what that flow entailed and how exactly it was organized.  Many of us were educated before the personal computer or individual access to the Internet and truly think and organize information accordingly even to this day.  The Internet brought with it the concept of the "web" and developed a generation of thinkers who organize information within a webbed environment.  In incorporating this flow, faculty have increased the use of problem solving approaches that provide opportunity for students to "web out" as they explore options towards solutions.  Increasingly, however, and beyond webbing comes the concept of mobile, multi-connections with little possibility to find a start and most often to always leave the solution open-ended for other contributions. For the purposes of this discussion I will refer to these as "multipoint mobile connections--MMCs".  The first wave of this came with blogs and wikis to which various authors could contribute and now we have twitter and live-feed connections which are on-going and multi-purposed. There are three main characteristics of the MMCs which must drive any planning around the use of these in instruction:
  • Multi-input connections
  • Open-ended output
  • Customized spaces of interaction
While these may seem contrary to the rigor of good education in any conventional framework of reference, they can, if integrated effectively heighten the engagement of the students and provide a richer learning experience for everyone.  The diagram below delineates how this might work as linear thinking faculty might see it.

Diagram A


Here there is a logical flow, although we may not have a good grasp on what each stage truly means we can grasp that it moves in a logical way.  The reality however is that if we explore the meaning of each "stage" we realize it cannot possibly flow in a linear form and that challenges the every essence of how we often have been trained to think.

We would be better helped to think of the flow as not a flow at all but an ongoing cycle of connections and interaction that can support, interact with, and ultimately reproduce any environment or context multiple times over.  Therefore, the process could look something like this:

Diagram B


Here there are no breaks in the connections and interactions with no start or end to the flow of information, communication, and distribution.  So the webbed-out flow now becomes totally integrated and what is often forgotten, customized to the user.  This totally challenges conventional instructional frameworks and design.

While Vygotsky's (1962) notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is somewhat similar to the idea here of "areas of interaction", mobile technology creates an environment where each of the aspects of connections illustrated here are interdependent and as much dependent on the user's style of their space as on any influence an instructor might have in the process. What is very similar to the notion of social constructivist learning theory is that social spaces are integrated into a successful learning process.  While that may have meant something different in the past, now it means actual and direct integration at any time and in any place.  The potential for learning then is maximized if accommodated in the planning and delivery of a course.

Points of Input
Understanding that information is now readily available at anytime and anyplace and in any format is crucial to moving towards the notion of multi points of input  Borrowed from the language learning theory of Krashen (1985) when students receive language "input" in meaningful ways they are more likely to understand it.  

Similarly, when students receive course content in meaningful ways, they are also more likely to understand it.  When students are finding information "bites" and hyperlinked information everywhere, it is hard to understand why some faculty still try to "control" the information flow to students in pre-set blocks of lock-stepped content.  Rather, while the faculty expert must know how the information is relevant and how it should be worked and used, the students should be able to access the content in whatever form they find best for them  - customization.  This is an essential characteristic of an MMC.  Mobile technology users do not take well to hyper control of their usage and likewise, this generation of learners should not be subjected to control of input in a course of study.  Rather than see this as an unnecessary accommodation of the part of the faculty teacher, it is more to the point to realize how much further this takes the learning potential towards the realm of learner autonomy which has always been the goal of higher education.

Points of Output
Likewise MMC learning environments provide for multiple possible points of output.  That means that like the multifaceted technology in use, students should be able to maximize their connections with the teacher, others students in their class and other classes, and in the larger community.  Again, this has the potential of enhancing the learning environment to the level of maximum output which in turn will influence and increase the interaction and production of learning.

Areas or 'Spaces' of Interaction
Interaction should not be limited to the class meeting or pre-scheduled online times of interaction.  Students now with mobile connections are able to interact with the course content as they choose and/or need to enhance their learning.  Again customization of the learning space is a critical characteristic of this kind of learning environment.  Faculty should not dictate when or how interaction takes place but that it should.  Where faculty expertise supports the process is to guide the student to recognize relevant and helpful interactions as opposed to ineffective wastes of time.

Production
Most courses in higher education stagnate in the area of assessment.  Granted many courses of study are towards some form of certification that requires standardized testing but that should be the starting point, not the summation of the production of learning.  Students would have the opportunity to use multi forms to demonstrate or "produce" their knowledge and learning.  This will enhance the learning experience for the learner but also gratify the faculty teacher in recognizing what has been learned in a course of study.

Assessment of the Learning

Much time and effort has been spent in recent years as educators have explored the best uses of technology in instruction and how to choose the right technology to suit the learning outcomes.  In an MMC learning environments, students can create those customized learning space themselves and use various software and online tools they are familiar with to support their own learning.  This is learner autonomy at its best and it reinforces individualized learning style and preferences.  It should also influence how courses are assessed.  Most assessments in conventional courses assume that every student has accessed exactly the same amounts of information, processed them exactly the same way, and wants to produce evidence of learning in the same way. 

This has actually never been the case and while educators have worked hard to find ways to accommodate this level of diversity, mobile technology is now presenting g a level of customization that addresses those needs.  Therefore, the assessment method should reflect that diversity and not again try to contain the "evidence" into pre-set forms.

MMC learning environments, then, maximize the customization made possible through the multifaceted and flexible connections as well as the accommodations for learning preferences like never before.  This challenges the role of the instructor again.  We are just getting used to the idea of facilitator and coach, and I would suggest that now we should think about ourselves as a "connection" used in the process.  That, however, must remain an expert connection and one that is able to adjust approach and method to suit multiple learning spaces within one class of students.  Rather than trying to learn all sorts of new technology, the faculty teacher is now challenged to become obsessed with the process of learning and the authentic evidence or production of the learning that has taken place.  Additionally, learning spaces can be fully functioning social spaces where students are directly connected to various inputs and with the possibility of various outputs.  Social learning theory can now be integrated in a new and effective way.  Finally, MMCs promote the student as integral in every aspect of the process. Rather than thinking about student-centered only, I would suggest that the entire process is dependent upon immediate and ongoing student engagement, participation, and production.  That sounds like student-managed to me.

References
Alexander, B. (2004) Going Nomadic: Mobile Learning in Higher Education. Educause Review, vol. 39, no.5 (September/October 2004): 28--35.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London: Longman.

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and Language.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
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