Mobile Learning | Viewpoint

Understanding Mobility and its Impact on Learning

Online learning has been around long enough now for educators to understand its benefits and challenges in relation to traditional course delivery. For several years there has been a growing academic discourse and professional culture around online learning as educators have become more aware of that form of instruction. Currently, however, there seems to be a change in how students perceive these delivery options and, by default, how instructors are developing as general practitioners, or teachers who can teach in any mode of delivery. That is, there is a fading of the lines between face-to-face and online as technology becomes more ubiquitous and the true effect of mobility is observed and experienced. Students' world of interaction, communication, and exploration is increasingly mobile and as that begins to pervade education, so the expectations of students are changing regarding their learning.

What is Mobile Technology and What Does it Do?
To answer these questions, Business Link suggests that, "Mobile technology is exactly what the name implies--technology that is portable." Examples of mobile devices include laptop computers, personal digital assistants, tablets, mobile phones and smartphones, global positioning system (GPS) devices, and wireless debit and credit card payment terminals.

Otherwise known as "m-education" or "m-learning," mobile technology is having an effect on instruction. More recently, colleges have realized the great benefit of mobile marketing. In a 2011 article on Marketing with New Technology, the authors suggest that most campuses are now using mobile technology to connect with prospective and existing students, sharing information, and supporting overall administration.

While the immediacy of the technology is understood and embraced for various administrative and communicative purposes, instructors still struggle with the actual benefit to instruction. Certainly, the direct connectivity means that students can respond to questions instantly and teachers can immediately gauge where their whole class is in terms of their response to questions. Additionally, however, change must occur in how instructors integrate the use of the technology in their models of instruction. We cannot prefer models from the past that no longer fit today's movement and flow. In making these kinds of changes, however, teachers should be encouraged to develop different mindsets of understanding of the technology and how it changes things for instruction. The following are some ways in which teachers can be helped to embrace mobile technology:

Step 1--Capture
Understanding the importance of capturing learning moments, instructional supports, and interactive exchanges is the first step in moving more traditionally minded teachers towards mobility. That is, realizing that digital capture is something that can truly help teachers store helpful moments for additional use outside the classroom. Whereas in face to face classrooms, these kinds of exchanges happen but are not reusable, when captured, they can be used repeatedly with the immediate students and future students.

Step 2--Distribution
Once exchanges have been captured, these can be distributed using the Internet or other mobile devices. The important step in understanding the impact of mobile technology is the moving of resources or interactive exchanges beyond the classroom and into the hands of the students.

Step 3--Interaction
While most instructors understand interaction, the notion with mobile technology is that interactions do not have to only happen within a classroom or online session environment. Now interactions can happen at any time and in any place with other students, with the teacher, with the course materials, and with outside resources and experts. All of these can become important to the progress of the course and can be instantly shared, modified, and shared again.

Step 4--Collaboration
Now with mobile technology, collaboration can be based on actual ideas, not just information, and can move students thinking forward in a collective and inclusive effort.

Step 5--Integration
Additionally, now all work can become part of the course content in the sense that it contributes to the course progress and outcomes. The most effective ideas can become central to the work of the group and can motivate future ideas and applications of those ideas. Now teachers do not need to initiate all ideas and thought processes but simply make resources available to the students and encourage students to use Social Networking and mobile tools to exchange, build, and apply their ideas throughout a course of study.

Content is Clearly Second to Process
A 2008 report from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), Learning 2.0: The Impact of Web 2.0 Innovation on Education and Training in Europe cites, among others, the following as future characteristics of education as a result of these tools:

  • It will be "triggered by learners" in that "major changes will originate from the changed living, learning, and communication patterns of the younger generation and that therefore the young learners are in the most favourable position to shape and lead the process;"
  • It will be Web-based, noting that "it is preferable to take learning opportunities to where the audience is already, underlining the fact that the learners and their needs are the starting point for all learning;" and
  • It will be mobile and embedded in the environment. While these technologies are still emerging and evolving, "experts expect mobile devices to become the most commonly-used learning technology in the near future" and "envisaged information being distributed in the environment and mobile technology to be the interface to tacit knowledge and organizational expertise."

What is clear from this 2008 report and others is that both new learners and the technology they use will drive the process rather than teachers and content. Content is currently what drives the process and what is valued and assessed throughout. Learning processes and learner innovation and preferences are not valued and, more often than not, are silenced in the learning process. Recently a colleague of mine suggested that students do not care to use new technology tools for instruction as learning is "boring" while their social use of the tools is not. Currently, these two worlds remain separate for our students. Futuristic analysis, however, would suggest that progressive education will integrate both the learner and their tools more effectively.

Self-Direction as a Central Learning Skill
In line with this thinking is the notion of self-directed learning, not so much as a distance education characteristic, but as a learning skill required for all delivery modes. Students who understand their own learning style and who have innovative skills to explore helpful ways to apply that learning will be most successful. While the reality will always be that not all students demonstrate the same level of skill development, there will be some skills that will be necessary in instruction using new technology. Many less applied students currently demonstrate great self-directed skills in gaming and social networking but because their instructional environment is linear, content-driven, and teacher-led, they do not succeed to the same extent.

Assessment Must Reflect the Whole Process
As I have discussed in previous Campus Technology articles, holistic assessment is essential in capturing the learning process. The 2008 JRC report suggests that, "The future of learning will be shaped by new ways of recording and visualizing the outcomes of the learning process." While we do not have a tool or effective measures to accurately evaluate the learning processes that have taken place or that new knowledge has been developed, we actually need, "tools that are able to represent dynamic processes of learning over time," according to the report. These will emerge as we become more informed in our use of these tools in instruction.

Instructional Planning is Dynamic Rather than Static
Therefore, instructional planning is no longer linear and preset but dynamic and flexible, moving as students respond and grow with their ideas. Each course will capture the differences of the students within the course and will expand the outcomes of the course beyond limited course expectations to the level of application and change.

While mobile technology is still emerging and we become more familiar over time with the possible devices and applications, we can begin to adjust our mindsets and those of our colleagues by exploring the realities of capture and distribution, student driven processes, and changed outcomes. Of course, assessments will have to change and we will have to be aware that we are looking at new processes and should be evaluating new things. For a while the standards we have set will be the starting, not the ending point, and the As will be given to those who have moved significantly beyond the standards. Eventually, there will be no set standards and we will truly appreciate and value the process of learning itself.

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