Stuart Smith, a member of the MIMAS team at the University of Manchester, recently attended the 2006 Handheld Learning Conference and presented on creating learning objects for mobile phones and other handheld devices. This well-attended event attracted educators, hardware and software developers. Case studies covered many topics but Stuart focussed on the practical development of actual learning objects themselves.
Although mobile phones can be a controversial part of the educational landscape, teachers and lecturers are becoming aware of their learning potential. The computing power of mobile devices is rapidly escalating, often nearing or exceeding lower end desktop computers whilst the hardware can be cheaper and more portable in comparison. This means that mobile phones are easily available on activities such as field trips and for collaborative learning. Funding bodies, such as the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), are already financing studies and reports into the use and impact of these devices within education.
Stuart’s presentation investigated the methods by which a practitioner, with limited technical knowledge and time, might produce learning objects for mobile phones by adapting existing materials. He used the MIMAS hosted Hairdressing Training service (http://hairdressing.mimas.ac.uk) as the source of these materials. The service offers guides on various hairstyles and aspects of the hairdressing industry for students. One guide was chosen as the object to be modified – The Classic Bob Cut. The guide consisted of 17 web pages of information and illustrations.
The investigation considered the different methods a practitioner might adopt to create an object for a mobile environment and Stuart selected three:
1. a mobile version of eXtensible HyperText Mark-up Language (XHTML-MP combined with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which are used to code web pages (see Figure 1);
2. a Java and eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML) based content creation tool called Maxdox(http://www.maxdox.com), which is freely available for educational use (see Figure 2);
3. a mobile movie format called Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) (see Figure 3).
Figure 1: XHTML-MP version of Classic Bob Cut Learning Object
Figure 2: Maxdox version of Classic Bob Cut Learning Object
Figure 3: Mobile video version of Classic Bob Cut Learning Object
Additionally an Ipod movie version was also created. Stuart created versions of the Classic Bob Cut learning object in all of these formats and from a practical viewpoint assessed the difficulties and opportunities they offered an educator trying to exploit them.
The challenges faced included the difficulty of testing since each mobile phone will vary between models and mobile service providers may also adapt each model for their market. In addition, the cost of downloading materials needs to be considered. However, the availability of Bluetooth (a wireless connectivity technology) may help educators overcome this problem. It would be feasible, for example, to set-up a computer in a lecture theatre and have it transmit mobile compatible learning materials during a presentation to students with the appropriate devices.
Transmission of materials via Bluetooth could also be complemented by using Wifi to broaden the range of devices able to receive materials. These materials would, naturally, have to be operable on each device. Of course, this would also raise the issue of allowing students to leave these devices switched on and to interact with them during a lecture; this would require a cultural change in how some educators operate and perceive mobile phones and portable computers.
Accessibility of the methods was also considered in relation to UK disability legislation. Assistive technologies for mobile phones are available and in use. However, mobile phones because of their size, cost and portability offer accessibility advantages in themselves for some users. For example, those who might not be able to cope with a bulky laptop may find the size of mobile phones easier to manage physically.
As expected, each method offered advantages and disadvantages such as:
XHTML-MP and CSS offered the greatest flexibility. If carefully created using templates, the resulting objects will be available on any device with a compatible web browser, including desktop computers. However, this does require that the content producer is comfortable with coding the mark-up and style sheets, since “What You See Is What You Get” web editors will not be sufficient.
Maxdox allows rapid content creation with little coding knowledge, as Wizards and existing templates can be used. Additionally the entire object can be easily downloaded to a compatible phone, which means a constant network is not required. However, if the supplied templates are not sufficient then a content creator will have to come to grips with XML coding and a deeper understanding of the tool and its use of Java. It can also be difficult to test a range of devices for compatibility but this only needs to be undertaken once for each template
Mobile video allows rapid content creation if adapting existing content. The creation tools are widely available and supplied as standard with most modern computers. Another advantage is that, once created, the raw files can be exported into various versions, such as for the Ipod or desktop computer. However, playback on a mobile phone can be problematic since it is a very linear experience and options such as fast-forward and rewind are not easily available.
Some of these barriers can be overcome by sharing of materials and templates (produced by technical specialists) amongst the education community through repositories such as Jorum. Additionally, students for their own content creation could also use tools such as Maxdox.
The example objects produced by Stuart Smith can be downloaded using a web-enabled phone.
The full notes from the presentation (including links to helpful websites) are available from Handheld Learning (http://www.handheldlearning.co.uk/) including presentations from other speakers at the Conference.
Information Technology Officer
University of Manchester
Handheld Learning Conference: http://www.handheldlearning.co.uk
MIMAS Hairdressing Training service: http://hairdressing.mimas.ac.uk