mLearn 2005 proved to be another milestone in the development of a worldwide network of academics, researchers, practitioners and industry supporting the development of mobile and portable learning (m-learning). The 4th mLearn conference in South Africa continued the tradition of exploring theoretical models, practical applications, and future pedagogical and technological developments that will impact on learning and teaching. 200 delegates from over 24 countries attended, and 60 papers and workshops were presented.
The “Godfather” of mlearning, Mike Sharples from the University of Nottingham, opened proceedings with a brief description of how the mLearn conference series began in 2002 with 68 delegates at the University of Birmingham. It is a testimony to the rapid growth of mobile and portable learning that m-learning is now being implemented in the United Kingdom and many other countries. Moreover, it is being explored as a mechanism for reaching groups who are often excluded from traditional models of learning.
The mLearn conference had a number of highlights, including a trip to Table Mountain that not only provided breathtaking views, but also a strong signal for delegates' 3G/GPRS cards. The predator tank at the Two Oceans Aquarium on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront was a paradoxical backcloth for the opening ceremony whilst keynotes from Desmond Keegan from Ireland and Stan Trollip from the United States led to much lively debate about the success of m-learning.
Presentations included those by John Traxler, Wolverhampton University, and Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, Open University, who are the authors of a recent JISC report on mobile learning (available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/eli_practice.html) and a book published by Routledge: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers. Peter Twining and his colleagues are part of a research team at the Open University who have produced a literature review and evaluation of the use of tablet PCs in schools. Further information is available at http://www.becta.org.uk/research/reports and: http://uk.computers.toshiba-europe.com/cgi-bin/ToshibaCSG/case_studies.jsp?service=UK&ID=0000001325&theme=none.
Other sessions included a report by Jocelyn Wisehart, University of Bristol, on her recent work on the use of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in Teacher Training. Dan Corlett and colleagues from the University of Birmingham reported on the continuation of the journey started by Mike Sharples using tablet PCs to “personalise” the student experience. Dan Sutch from NESTA futurelab was awarded “best paper” prize (a free handheld device) for his workshops on pioneering developments in PDA use at NESTA futurelab. The NESTA futurelab report 11: Literature review in Mobile Technologies and Learning, is available at: http://www.nestafuturelab.org/.
Further highlights included contributions from Mohamed Ally, Athabasca University, Canada and Clare Bradley, Learning Technology Research Institute, London Metropolitan University, who discussed their research into the user experience of adults with multimedia and PDAs. Pasi Mattila and Timo Fordell, Department of Education, Finland showed us how really young children can use mobile phones to analyse their surroundings and communicate with each other and the tutor. Laura Naismaith demonstrated the CAERUS project, a context-aware system which delivers location-based content to users of PDA devices with Global Positioning System (GPS) capability. The system takes visitors to tourist sites and educational centres location-based resources such as maps and multimedia tours directly to their PDA. Further information on the project is at: http://portal.cetadl.bham.ac.uk/caerus/default.aspx.
Finally, Geoff Stead from Cambridge Training and Development Ltd (CTAD)/Tribal demonstrated how we need to “Move mobile into mainstream” and discussed how mobile can engage learners excluded from mainstream learning provision.
Key themes which emerged from the conference included:
- the world is populated with an increasing number of “digital natives” and “homozapiens”;
- there is a need for an agreed definition of m-learning;
- it should be recognised that the learner that is mobile and that the device is secondary;
- there is an enormous potential to address the digital divide by using mobile devices;
- wireless technology is present and will be the future;
- there is enormous potential to use mobile and portable learning in developing countries;
- lessons learned by early adopters can benefit later adopters.
The way forward
There can be little doubt that the continuous advances in technology, the decreased costs and convergence of devices, improved digital content and increased demand for flexible learning opportunities mean that m-learning is an area, which needs further exploration. There are pockets of innovative and creative use of mobile and portable technologies in education, but there is little evidence of embedded practice of mobile and portable learning. There is an urgent need for more research and high quality evaluation, as well as a greater synergy between research, practice, pedagogy and technological developments. Also, there is a pressing need to develop more mobile capacity in teacher training institutes. Despite the declining costs, increased capacity and mass ownership there is still a perceived reluctance within education for these portable, powerful devices with immense potential to be acknowledged as effective tools for learning. Hopefully, the work of the mobile pioneers will change this.
All papers are available on the mLearn 2005 website: http://www.mlearn.org.za/ and mLearn 2006,”Across generations and cultures” will be held in October 2006 in Canada: http://www.mlearn2006.org.
Education Adviser to Toshiba Information Systems (UK) Ltd
Consultant with the National College for School Leadership and the Department for Education and Skills